It's 3 am and my alarm is droning so loud that I can't help but startle myself awake and turn it off. Normally, I'd be fast asleep or going to bed if it were a weekend night; instead I'm waking up to catch my 4 am ride to the now infamous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. You may be wondering why on Earth would we have to arrive at such an early time to watch the climb? After all, it won't be light out for another couple hours.
I asked that same question. Pikes Peak is a National Park in Colorado Springs, Colorado, open to the public, and it isn't too keen on closing its road down to the many visitors each day. The actual hill climb takes place on a Sunday, the only day that the park actually closes the road. Unfortunately, that would leave no time to practice. So a compromise has been made and the teams are able to run first thing at the crack of dawn before the park opens. Once there's enough natural light on the road (about 6 am) the teams can run until the park opens at 8 am.
This race is unlike any other in the country and is probably one of the most technical and demanding events. It's a 12.42-mile course with 156 corners, a lot of which are blind, and the surface changes from asphalt to gravel, providing yet another degree of difficulty.
The real kicker is the altitude. Starting at 9,390 feet and ending at just over 14,100 feet, the rapid decrease in oxygen in the air not only strains the drivers but also takes a toll on their machines. As the cars go up the mountain, the engine response begins to slow and power starts dropping significantly. Proper engine tuning plays a key role in winning this event. It's very easy to run lean up at the top and grenade a motor if there's no engine management installed that can compensate for the change in air density. Some of the older cars that are running carbureted setups had a dial knob which drivers could adjust to richen or lean out the air/fuel ratio as they ascended up the mountain.
The team I was watching would have some other problems, like an improperly sized turbocharger. But with legendary rally car drivers Marcus Grönholm and Andreas Eriksson piloting a pair of Swedish-built, 800hp, four-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta rally cross machines, the small shortcomings the team would encounter would be made up by the ungodly skills of the talented drivers. And thanks to Ford, I had an all-access pass to follow, watch and explore the inner workings of the Olsberg MotorSport Evolution team from practice all the way to race day on Sunday.
As you can imagine, Pikes Peak isn't an easy course to master or memorize, especially when you've never driven it before. Grönholm says, "The course feels long and much different than any rally stages because of the altitude and hill climb." However, it doesn't look like it affects him at all as he blasts up the hill with great precision and skill. Eriksson doesn't fare so well and ends up rolling the car into a ditch (and not off one of the many steep cliffs higher up the mountain). He's OK, but the car is down for the remainder of the practice days.
After coming back down the mountain, Grönholm tells me that making the right tire choice is very difficult because of the varied tarmac and gravel surfaces. He insists that they will have the best setup possible by race day. He is, however, more worried about all the lost time on the switchbacks at the top of the peak. "I have to slow down so much for the tight corners that the turbo takes forever to spool back up coming out of the corner. I wait and wait and then the power hits, but a lot of time is lost in that section." This problem proves to hold Grönholm back from breaking into the 10-minute barrier, which the team hoped to do in this outing.
When race day arrives, only one car ends up crossing the finish line under 11 minutes and it's the '09 Suzuki SX4 powered by Nobuhiro Tajima. Granted, this machine has been purpose built for just this event and it cracks off a time of 10 minutes, 15 seconds, the fastest up the mountain. Only a minute behind, the Grönholm's Fiesta limps to the peak with a time of 11:28.96. Considering the blown turbocharger at mile three of the race and a small fire at the top, it's remarkable that Grönholm was able to achieve that time and hand him second overall in the Unlimited class. Eriksson suffers the same fate as he did in practice when a tire de-beads and he goes off into the bushes early into his run.
Although the team and the Ford Fiestas didn't quite have the results they wanted, it was their first time out to such a unique event and as Eriksson says, "These cars were not built to run an event like this. With more time and some development, we are confident we can setup these cars for the hill climb and run much quicker than we did." That rings very true, and I can only hope that they come back next year to run the hill one more time because I don't doubt that the Fiesta's are capable of running in the low-10-minute marker. Who knows, they could surprise us and even run into the 9s, a feat that has yet to be achieved.
As for the conclusion to my visit, I too had a crack at Pikes Peak. It wasn't exactly an 800hp Fiesta but a 95hp Euro-spec production version, and with the assistance of the parking brake I managed to kick up some gravel and tear up some pavement. I'm sure Marcus Grönholm would have been proud-the Fiestas came and conquered.