King of the Peak

posted Jul 2, 2013, 12:36 PM by Thor Fornica   [ updated Jul 2, 2013, 1:01 PM ]
Many expected something special from nine-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb as he took part in the 91st running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb yesterday (30 June), but not many predicted him to completely obliterate the record.
The Frenchman clocked an incredible time of 8m13.878s, becoming the first driver ever to do a sub nine-minute time and beating the previous Pikes Peak record by over a minute and a half.
When the race cars and motorcycles leave the starting line for Sunday’s 91st Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, it will mark only the second time in the race’s history that the entire 12.42-mile, 156-turn course will be fully paved. And although by all accounts this will be an epic year (with more cars expected to break the 10-minute barrier), there are many traditionalists who wish the course were still all dirt.
The “dirt” that the cars used to race on was a decomposed granite surface that suited the hang-it-out style of driving favored by American dirt-track legends like the Unsers and later by rally stars such as Ari Vatanen, Walter Rörhl and Rod Millen.
Do today’s drivers wish the course were still gravel? While we suspect nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb, fast qualifier on Thursday, would dominate on any surface (and express no particular preference for one over the other), we had a chance to speak with four Pikes Peak veterans who had lots to say on the subject.

Rod Millen (Pikes Peak legend, competing in Electric class)
“I’ve raced on both, but I love the dirt. That was classic Pikes Peak. I think of the cool cars that ran up here back then, listening to them trying to get traction. Sometimes you could see the dust trail before you actually saw the car. That was spectacular!
“While I respect the discipline needed to race on pavement, I really enjoy the amount of effort that had to be put into driving in the dirt. There’s an extra level of driver effort and commitment in the dirt. There’s also a commitment to run on the pavement, no two ways about it. But it’s a different commitment.

Paul Dallenbach
(three-time overall winner, competing in Time Attack)

“I’m a road racer, but I prefer the dirt because it was unique and fun. Almost like a road race in the rain. You had a softer car. I was always a good road racer in the rain, and that’s maybe why I took to Pikes Peak so well. Everybody seems to like the dirt better if we had a choice. But that’s out of our control.
“When the course was all dirt, they treated the road properly [with a dust suppressant] that almost made it like concrete. A blue groove [racing line] formed and it was fun to drive. But when they paved the course, they didn’t do it continuously from one section. They paved the bottom, then they paved a part in the middle. Then they paved at the top. So there was a year in which the course went pavement, dirt, pavement, dirt, pavement. And they stopped treating the dirt parts of it, which got so loose and slippery that a groove never formed. You could never find a tire that worked everywhere. I was one of the first drivers who went to a road racing rain tire, which worked pretty well.
“Now that they’ve paved it all, manufacturers are interested in Pikes Peak, which will bring in more money and attention than the race has ever had. But it’s also a more dangerous course. Cars are going off now pretty regularly in practice. Your speeds are a lot faster, and the road is not as wide because they didn’t pave the road from edge to edge.”

Rhys Millen (Former record holder, competing in Unlimited)
“I don’t like it as much now. The thrill of driving the road is there, but the thrill of the car control and driving the car on the road is different, gone. You used to be able to hook a wheel on the inside edge of a turn, or have a wheel drop off the cliff edge. It required more commitment at greater slip angles to carry speed on that road. You really needed to know the road to carry all that speed.

“Now that the road is all paved, you can be 6 or 8 or 10 feet off line but still be running the efficiency of the grip of an all-paved road. I personally witnessed that when we had a small mechanical failure in practice and I sat out my run. I watched Sébastien Loeb come up the road. Although he’s exercising the maximum amount of braking and acceleration possible, if he had more time on the road, he would go even faster [knowing] where he could carry more speed with tracking out or tracking in.”

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Watch the award winning short film "Climb Dance" documenting Ari Vatanen's record-breaking run at the 1988 annual Pike's Peak Hill Climb Event in Colorado. The film was created by Jean Louis Mourey and captures Vatanen climbing Pike's Peak in a four wheel drive, four wheel steering Peugeot 405 T16.