Regular folk drive up America's Pikes Peak in about 45 minutes. In winning The Race to the Clouds, the hill climb up the mountain, French rally legend Sebastien Loeb cut 80 percent off the time.
Every year in late June, Eric, his wife, Mary, and her mother, Mary-Jo, leave their home in Kansas and cross the state line for an American road trip. This year, Mary-Jo wanted to see Colorado, first the small city of Pueblo, then Colorado Springs and then on to the highpoint - an assault on 'America's Mountain': Pikes Peak.
It was on this mountain 120 years ago, on July 22, 1893, that the lyrics to the immortal anthem America the Beautiful came to songwriter Katharine Lee Bates, "and I probably won't be around for the130th anniversary," says the elderly Mary-Jo in the backseat of the Volvo, her white ringlets bobbing in the rear-view mirror.
The road winds around the famous mountain, a beloved American holiday destination. One curve follows another with no end in sight, each of them steeper and narrower than anything the three road trippers were familiar with in their native Kansas. Mary grips the ceiling handle nervously, but Eric has everything under control. There are hardly any guide rails on the side of the mountain road and Eric has to resist the urge to peer over the edge. Tyre marks scar the narrow curves - so narrow that Eric has to come to a halt to see around each bend.
Soon, the family becomes aware of a number of tyre marks leading straight out, over the edge of the abyss. Mary gasps for breath in the passenger seat. In the back, Mary-Jo grins in apparent delight. "Altitude euphoria," mutters Eric as he navigates the next serpentine turn. "What have they got me into?"
An icy wind is blowing when they reach the summit of Pikes Peak; the 12.4-mile ascent has taken them 45 minutes. The three Kansans turn their gaze east, to the Great Plains from where they have come -hundreds of miles laid out before them like a vast, crumpled map.
In the souvenir shop they buy an ashtray, a sweatshirt and a few fridge magnets. Then it's time to start their descent. Some 1,440mbelow, skillful mechanics are putting the finishing touches to a small fleet of high performance cars and motorbikes. The following day, these vehicles will tackle 20 of the most legendary kilometres in American road racing, when they take part in the 91st running of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The Unsers, the Andrettis, the Millens, all of them have proved their mettle here - in the infamous mountain race to the summit.
In the late 1980s, the Europeans left their mark on this race for the first time, pulverising the course record with a succession of rally cars. With four-wheel drive and upwards of 500hp, they tore through the 11-minute barrier on the gravel road to the summit.
The famous road was laid with asphalt in 2012. At this point an ambitious local could manage it in 11 minutes, but that was too slow to break any records. By the end of 2012, the 9 Minute Club - comprising those daring drivers who'd made the summit in less than 10 minutes - was five-strong. New Zealander Rhys Millen held the record with a time of 9:46.164, with French driver Romain Dumas 0.017 seconds behind in second. Making up the five was Japan's Nobuhiro Tajima and the two motorbike riders, Carlin Dunne of the USA and his compatriot, Greg Tracy.
The latter pair didn't use petrol or diesel on their way up to the summit in 2013; instead they trusted their fortunes to electric energy. Indeed, this was in many ways a race made for the electric engine: conventional petrol-burning motors have to cope with performance loss at high altitudes. Despite large turbochargers and advanced electronics, there simply isn't enough oxygen to burn. Anyone who makes it to these heights having surrendered a quarter of the horsepower they had in the valley has really done their homework.
Electric cars don't have this problem, of course, but their batteries - even in a relatively short race like this - are heavier than fuel engine units. And even if big name car manufacturers like Mitsubishi are now putting their name to some of the electro projects, this still remains pioneering work: little more than glorified tinkering.
Of course, there won't be a whisper of this when it comes to the overall victory. Not when the challenger is celebrated French rally driver Sebastien Loeb. The main topic of conversation here on the mountain is not whether Loeb can crack the record in his specially developed Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak, but by how much. In training, his car - 875hp strong, 875kg light- burned a few seconds per kilometre from the competition, including the two current record-holders Millen and Dumas. America loves winners and there are huge expectations of Loeb. The 39-year-old is feeling the pressure.
A break between two training runs, and the nine-time rally world champion has retreated to his trailer. His blue eyes blaze, thrown into even sharper relief by stubble now turned pepper-and-salt. He sprawls on a bench, relaxed. Although of slender build, his powerful upper arms are testament to the work he has already done, taming both mountain and car.
"First I had to establish trust in the Peugeot," he says. "I had to find out how nervous the car was and what I could do with it. During a test in France we sorted out the major problems - transmission too long; suspension too hard; steering too direct - and on the first run in America the car did everything I wanted it to. I don't know what the old rally cars felt like on Pikes Peak, but this one's insanely fast."
Nevertheless, can he really go at 100 percent speed here - on these miserly roads clinging desperately to the flanks of the infamous mountain?
Loeb hesitates: "Let's say 99 per cent."
There's another major drawback: unlike the World Rally Championship (WRC) there is no co-driver to dictate the curves to him during the journey. How well does he know the route?
"Even before I came here, I had memorised the sequence of curves," says Loeb. "I studied on-board videos at home, then I came here with my codriver, Daniel Elena. We drove the route and put together a pacenotes book, just as I would in a normal rally special stage.
"In the WRC we only get to inspect the course twice: the first time you put together the notes and the second time you're checking them. Here, the third run onwards was all new for me. I was able to tell Daniel100m before the next curve what was coming, and he checked it. I would say"120 left" and he would correct me, like"120 left plus". We drove it together nine times, and the last three times I didn't make a single mistake."
Perfection is what's required here and Loeb wouldn't have it any other way. "I approached Pikes Peak like I do all of my projects: professionally, with a good team and to the very highest standards. I know there is no room for even the smallest error. But I have no interest in just coming here and driving with the pack. I want the record."
There are parts of the course where the road drops 500m into nothingness, with no guide rail. At many of these curves, such as the forebodingly named Devil's Playground at 4,000m, the cars in the fastest class reach speeds of well over 200kph.
"With a car as powerful as the Peugeot, if you steer just a fraction wide, you're history," says Loeb. "You have to be precise. It was actually easier before on gravel; you can work much more with the car."
Meanwhile, clouds roll in and the weather service forecasts a 30 per cent chance of rain.
The following day, as early as 3am, a good two-and-a-half hours before sunrise, a1km-long colonnade is working its way up the mountain, past the herd of campervans, which were already in place the day before. Admittedly, the ban on open fires makes hearty weekend fun difficult. Colorado is suffering from severe forest fires and hoping for rain.
Up at the summit, it's bitterly cold. Along the road, yesterday's melt water from late season snow is still frozen. First up are the motorbikes, the riders exposing themselves to the dangers of the mountain without roll cages or any of the protection afforded to their four-wheeled rivals. Supermotos and vintage racing bikes follow, all conquering the mountain to a great show of reverence from the fans.
A few dauntless individuals serve to remind us that sidecars still exist, with hearts bigger than anything humanoid. Johnny Wood almost dislodges his passenger, Giorgina Gottlieb, in the penultimate curve; at the finish line she clings to him, sobbing. In the heat of the battle, Bruno Marlin's passenger, his son Jeremy, leans so far out that the young Frenchman scrapes his helmet visor on the asphalt. American Wade Boyd wins ahead of Japan's Masahito Watanabe. Rivals on the track, they all embrace once they get to the summit. They're not racing against each other, but against the mountain and the clock.
That goes double for Sebastien Loeb, the first starter among the cars. If all goes to plan, he will win, that much is certain. What's interesting is the time he does it in.
Long before you see him, you hear him. Every change of gear is an explosion amplified by the Rocky Mountain cliffs: a staccato of explosions coming nearer and nearer. Between Devil's Playground and the summit, the road keeps disappearing and the eyes strain to focus. The silhouette of the Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak should be appearing down there, but it's already ahead, at a crag further on.
The ear has tricked the eye. Later the telemetry will show a peak speed of more than 240kph, the wild beast with the huge spoiler zooms, roaring, from one corner to the next, disappears, reappears, tears past at easily 170kph on a double 60-degreecurve, at the end of which yawns a 300mabyss. At the exit, the inside front wheel is exactly on the white line marking the edge of the asphalt. It is an exact, clinical procedure: one of those moments which very few men on this planet can pull off in a car.
The clock at the finish line shows an unbelievable 8:13.878, one-and-a-half minutes under the existing record. Membership of the 9 Minute Club is a bit less special today. In second place is last year's victor Rhys Millen, with a respectable9:02, which might be an eternity better than his old record, but is still in a completely different league.
At 4,300m above sea level, Loeb seems happy and relieved: "I felt good in the car and I decided on all-out attack," he says. "Pikes Peak was my season highlight, and this record means a lot to me." He will drive his last WRC event in his native France this autumn, and in 2014 he'll enter the touring car world championship(WTCC) in a Citroen, which will manage a mere third of the performance of the Pikes Peak Peugeot. The nine-time rally world champion has enjoyed his mad week in this unbelievably powerful, radical car, built just for him.
In the meantime, the mountain has reminded everyone why they call this event the Race to the Clouds. It draws together a mighty contingent in white and grey and gives it a vigorous shake: rain, hail, snow, fog, wind - it takes the whole afternoon to get the last 24 cars up the hill. There's no hope of a record or even a respectable time now, and how could there be: now it's the turn of the soapbox cars, the home-built, rebuilt, the jerrybuilt, the family teams; the products of long winter nights' tinkering. The spectators greet every last one of them with great respect and genuine enthusiasm, and rightly so.
Sebastien Loeb is still up there on the summit, in the middle of a sleet shower and pea-soup fog. Everyone drives down together, whether hobby warrior or record holder. Everyone is equal before the mountain.
In the Best Western Hotel in Manitou Springs, where Eric, Mary and Mary-Jo are recovering from their previous day's exertions, there's a dozy calm. Mary-Jo snores lightly on the veranda, Mary browses the latest edition of the National Enquirer. With earphones in his iPad, Eric is watching the race online. Bit of a hotshot, this Loeb. Next year, Eric decides, he'll send the two girls up to the summit on the cog railway. He'll master the route to the top alone and won't slow for any curve. How hard can it be?
Source: Red Bulletin