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“You only get one shot”

Volkswagen race car driver Romain Dumas talks about the challenge of racing Pikes Pike.

Romain Dumas

Le Mans winner Romain Dumas will compete in the Pikes Peak race in 2018 behind the wheel of a purely electrically powered racing vehicle from Volkswagen. We talked to the Frenchman about what makes the most famous uphill race in the world so fascinating, his favorite sport at 4,000 meters and Volkswagen’s chances of winning on June 24, 2018.

What makes the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb so fascinating?

The race is like no other in the world. First of all, the landscape is breathtaking. Then there is the fact that you start at an altitude of almost 2,900 meters, and finish 20 kilometers later at 4,300 meters. Nowhere else can you reach such heights with a racing car. In the past, the race has sometimes been cut short because there was snow on the summit. Part of the fascination has to be that you only get one shot. If you run into problems, you have to wait a whole year for another chance.

What attributes do you need as a race car driver to succeed at Pikes Peak?

The racecourse is similar to the Nordschleife (“northern loop”) of the Nürburgring. Lots of fast corners and hardly any straights for a moment’s respite. Except Pikes Peak is even more dangerous than the Nordschleife because in many places there are no crash barriers. You can never push yourself 100% to the limit. I would say that, as a driver, you have to have the precision of a circuit driver combined with the fearlessness and improvisational talent of a rally driver.

Which section of the course is the key to success?

The racecourse consists of three sections, each completely different from the other. At the beginning, there are still trees along the side of the road. In this section, there are corners that are taken at a medium speed of around 150 or 160 km/h. The middle section consists almost completely of hairpin turns, where the speed is relatively slow. The final section looks like the surface of the moon. Only rocks, no trees. Because of that, you have no reference points for where you are on the course, and many of the turns are not visible in advance. Nevertheless, it’s a high-speed section of the race. This section is the most difficult and where drivers win the most respect. To win, you need a car that performs well in all three sections.

How do you prepare for the altitude of more than 4,000 meters as a driver?

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is usually one or two weeks after the 24-hour race at Le Mans. That leaves me with no time for things like sleeping in a hypoxic training tent, as I did when I was preparing for the Dakar Rally. The problem with Pikes Peak is not so much the altitude, either. The physical strain is caused more by driving from 2,900 to 4,300 meters in less than ten minutes. My remedy is oxygen, which I take in the car with me.

Route

Distance: 19.9 km
Road surface: 100% asphalt
Number of bends: 156
Elevation at start: 2,862 m
Elevation at finish: 4,302 m
Average gradient: 7%

»Volkswagen has a highly professional team working for it. They will do just fine, even in a completely different environment like the USA.«

Romain Dumas

You have many years of experience driving hybrid race cars. How different is it driving the purely electrically powered race car from Volkswagen?

I have to adapt my driving style. In a hybrid race car, like the one I drove in Le Mans, I had to ration the electric power. That is not necessary with the electrically powered car from Volkswagen.

How should the Volkswagen Motorsport team prepare for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb?

Volkswagen has a highly professional team working for it. They will do just fine, even in a completely different environment like the USA. Team members should know that the best time to drive to the racecourse is at four or five in the morning. After that, you get stuck in spectator traffic. There are also permanent pit lanes at Pikes Peak. It can get terribly cold in the driver’s paddock at 2,900 meters up. So, even for the technicians, the race is very physically demanding.

What do you expect from racing for the first time in a purely electrically powered racing vehicle from Volkswagen?
That is hard to predict. It’s about more than just developing a fast vehicle. There is no doubt about that for a team like Volkswagen Motorsport. But the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is similar to the 24-hour race at Le Mans: You only have one shot. It’s not like the World Rally Championship or Formula 1, where if you screw up during a race, you just focus on the next one. At Pikes Peak, you cannot afford to have any problems. That is why our primary goal is to win in the electric prototype vehicle category. That would be a very good result for a first attempt. Whether we will manage to set a new best time in that category depends on the weather.