Cloud-Busting –

Reflections From The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

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With his head in the clouds and his heart in his mouth, Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh reflects on an experience of a lifetime, as Bentley sent their Bentayga SUV skyward for a record-breaking run at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

I’ve had time to digest what I saw in Colorado a week or so ago. And by that I should say that I can only ‘try’ to digest what I experienced because, quite frankly, I’m still overwhelmed by the whole thing.

I suspect that for most of you, like me, a ‘Hill Climb’ suggests a minute or 90-second blast up a narrow track, often purpose-built many years ago for that specific purpose. Or, for those who have seen the European versions, we’re talking about a longer, faster run up what is essentially a closed public road.

That’s not Pikes Peak. To merely get to the start line and pits area at Pikes Peak, you have to climb three thousand feet, across 7 miles from the highway exit. The start is at nine thousand feet… but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Arriving in Colorado Springs – six thousand feet above sea level after a very picturesque drive from Denver – the mountain range dominates the horizon. On the outskirts of town, you drive by the U.S. Airforce Academy and the USA Olympic Team training facility. If you are an athlete, training at altitude is your friend. In the thinner air that contains a reduced amount of oxygen, you burn more fat and therefore increase endurance. This also has an effect on motorsport, which I’ll come back to later.

The city of Denver actively embraces all activities within its environs, and so it’s no real surprise that on the Friday before PPHIC, there’s a ‘Fan Fest’ on the downtown streets.

What is a surprise, however, is that this free event includes almost every one of the near 100 cars and bikes that will be on the mountain on Sunday… and that all the big names are there too.

Bentley Pikes Peak Bentayga, June 2018Photo: James Lipman / jameslipman.com

There are two Mobil 1 areas a couple of city blocks apart. The Porsche Cayman GT4 competitors are at one, which includes a driving simulator and a NASCAR tyre change rig – I’m not too bad on that at just under 10 seconds – and I’ve already had a quick chat with former MLB pitcher turned racer CJ Wilson, extreme sports superstar Travis Pastrana and IndyCar driver JR Hilderbrand, all of whom, by the way, are happily signing autographs and chatting to the fans. There are no barriers here – it’s full access. Other events, take note.

By the time I reach the Bentley Bentayga, resplendent with its satin ‘Radium’ finish and ‘mountain’ graphics, driver Rhys Millen has already endeared himself a line of 50 people waiting for an autograph. Not wanting to interrupt, I ask Bentley engineer David Argent about the car. David is usually found at racing circuits with the Continental GT3 team, so this is a bit of a departure for him, but nonetheless one he is enjoying.

“In my professional career, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he explains. “The whole experience has been great. The city is right behind the event and the fans are very knowledgeable. We are getting some very technical questions about the Bentayga.”

The fact that the imposing Bentley SUV is showroom-stock – apart from the mandatory addition of a safety roll cage and fire suppression system, and the mandatory removal of the carpets and standard seats – seems to take most people by surprise.

The ‘Production’ nature of the effort is underlined as I ask David where they parked the transporter to get the car back to their base. Argent points to the licence plate on the rear of the car, and reaches into his pocket to produces a standard Bentley proximity key.

“I’m driving it back after this. We’ve been driving it up and back to all the practice sessions too. It drives perfectly on the road, just like a Bentayga should.”

Those practice sessions are from 05:30 to 08:30 as, other than on Sundays, the mountain is open to the public in daylight hours. So there have been a lot of early mornings.

Despite that, while the fans are waiting, patiently and in an orderly fashion for an autographed poster, the Bentley Motorsport team, including the mechanics, are answering questions, chatting about the event and handing out somewhere over 300 Bentley hats. Brilliant.

As the tour of the car continues, David opens the rear doors – not welded up – and I notice that, although the carpets and the back seats are gone, the centre console and the trademark Bentley eyeball vents, remain.

By now, the line waiting for Rhys Millen is around 100 people, so I pop over and eavesdrop on the conversation between Rhys – who has more than a few words for everyone – and local resident Carsten, who has her son with her.

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She is delighted to see Rhys and the Bentley.

“I’ve been aware of this race all of my life. People were worried that when the mountain was paved it would take away from the authenticity of the event. It hasn’t, and it’s nice to see Bentley here. That’s huge.”

Rhys Millen is a double overall winner on the mountain and recognises the unique nature of the event, including the importance of the Fan Fest.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to be one-on-one with the fans, to have the car open so they can check it out. That’s very rare in motorsport.”

I take my leave as the signing session continues to almost 10pm. And by the time the Fan Fest is declared closed, the Colorado Springs streets will have played host to over 30,000 fans.

As I make my way back to the car, I pass food outlets and bars packed with fans comparing the swag that they have collected – apparently the Bentley hats were much prized as they are certainly NOT being traded!

With the practice over on the Friday and the race set for Sunday, Saturday is termed a set-up day. Various areas of Pikes Peak National Park are being transformed into trailer parking, pits and paddock areas. It’s an opportunity to get some time with the principals and executives that have supported the Bentley challenge.

Dr. Werner Tietz is Member of the Board of Engineering at Bentley Motors: “It’s an enormous challenge, to take a production car, an SUV, and compete here,” he tells me.

The record for Production SUV has stood for 5 years and Dr. Tietz explains that setting a new best time is only one objective. Indeed, there’s an engineering dividend as well.

“This is a series production car and everything. All the data we have collected so far has been  sent back to Crewe (Bentley Motors HQ) for analysis by our production engineers.”

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Every component will be stressed to the maximum at this event, including those supplied by technical partners.

“Mobil 1 has been a long-lasting partner for Bentley, and they also support our GT3 racing programme.”

Surely, though, when the specifications of ‘first fill’ for the Bentayga were set, it didn’t include thrashing the car up to 14,000 feet?

Dr. Tietz is keen to point out that there’s no special formula being used in the W12 engine.

“We chose Mobil 1. No special mixture. This is the normal [first fill] Mobil 1 oil. It is capable enough to do this job.”

To underline that, as we are talking, the crew are checking and topping up the Bentayga with essential fluids – including Mobil 1 – that has just been bought, off the shelf, from an Auto-Parts store in Colorado Springs.

Rhys Millen, the driver of the number 8 Bentley, knows that the parts you can’t see are crucial to an effort like this.

“Technical partners are very important. That’s what you have from the OEM side. That’s what gives them the confidence to approach this event, knowing all of the factors that are so stressful on a vehicle. That’s what gives them the confidence to race a production car, not just take a gentle 30 or 40 minute drive up on a Sunday. Technical partners add to the performance of the vehicle.”

After the talking, I decide that I’m going to the summit. I’d been up to Glen Cove – a mere 11,000 feet above sea level – already, during practice, but Rhys told me that the final 6-mile section was something different.

Full disclosure here: I’m not good with heights, but this drive was terrifying. Above 12,000 feet, there are no trees. They can’t survive up there, so the ‘views’ are unrestricted. I tilted all the mirrors on the car so that I couldn’t see behind me. The speed limit up there is 20 mph which, frankly, would be an insane speed! I drove up at walking pace.

Another hairpin turn leads to a straight with no guard rails. I look to my right, making sure I look up at the mountain as to my left is Colorado Springs, looking very, very tiny and a very long way below. I can see a sheer rock wall, which is comforting, until I notice a bright blue speck, maybe 200-250 feet above.

It’s a car – all the way up there. Then the horrifying realisation dawns. That’s where I’m going. Oh.

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Now, let’s get back to the altitude. The oxygen levels at this height are significantly lower than even at the start line. This has a serious effect on engine performance and, crucially, on driver performance. Some competitors have pure oxygen piped into their helmets to offset the debilitating effect. It’s very sensible, given the levels of exertion and concentration required by the drivers during the race. Even at walking pace, I’m getting light-headed and beginning to sweat.

My focus is on the double yellow lines in the middle of the road – it’s two way traffic today of course, so I’m confronted by oncoming cars, SUVs, motorbikes and, incredibly, motor-homes. What are these people thinking?!

I try not to get too close to the unguarded edge, and then I remember that Rhys in the Bentayga will have to average over 60 mph for the whole of his run to break the record. Almost immediately, I banish that thought and concentrate on the yellow lines again.

Long story short, I got to the top, drank a full bottle of water – altitude dehydrates you too – and drove back down, very slowly, to the brake check area at Glen Cove. This is where the Park Rangers check your disc temperatures with a laser pyrometer. Below 300 degrees Celsius and you can continue. It’s only when I have a chat with the Ranger that I realise I didn’t even get out of the Jeep Cherokee hire car at the top. Didn’t even take a picture. Brain fade. I wonder how drivers still function at the ultra-high levels of performance required, given the extreme external factors here. I know racing drivers are wired differently and that their brains run at a different speed than us mere mortals but, even so… Extraordinary.

Leaving the hotel at half past midnight to get in and parked for race day wasn’t that difficult, as I was genuinely excited to see what the competition would bring. I wasn’t disappointed. I was on the start line to see Roman Dumas in the incredible VW electric challenger, whoosh off up the opening  few corners. Amazing. You could hear the air being moved by the extreme aero on the car. Seven minutes and fifty-seven seconds later, the Frenchman was at the top of the mountain.

It was an incredible feat of bravery from the driver, not to mention ground-breaking technical excellence and engineering from VW. The project had been given the green light – under lobbying form Dumas, who has now won the PPHIC the last three years running – barely 7 months ago.

Dumas’ display was a perfect blend of committed driving and cutting edge technology. According to one of the VW team I spoke to, the team’s ‘charge up the mountain’ needed to generate 20% of the energy required for the 12.42 miles from regeneration under braking.

The exact time; 7m57.148s. That’s an AVERAGE of over 93 mph for the 12.42 miles and 156 corners. That’s an average of nearly 151 kmh or, put another way, it’s nearly 42 meters covered every second of his run. Nope, I still can’t process it either. And I was there to see it!

As for Bentley, despite delays and snow flurries rolling in at the summit, Rhys Millen expertly burst through the clouds to stop the clock at 10m49.9s, slicing almost two minutes off the previous best time for a Production SUV.

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The Bentayga performed faultlessly, as did the standard, scrubbed road-going tyres. And, even though the ambient temperature of the run had a variance of almost 20 degrees Celsius, so too did the Mobil 1 oil, ensuring that 600 bhp and 550 lbs of torque from the 12 cylinder engine were available as far up the mountain as possible.

If you are a motorsport fan – and you are, because you are reading this – Pikes Peak HAS to be on your bucket list. The Race to the Clouds stands apart from all other motorsport competition, both in a sporting sense and as an ‘event’.

There’s no rush to parity, no Balance of Performance. You want to go faster, then build it better and bring it to have a go.

One go; no retakes. No next chance. You mess up at the first right hander, it’s 364 days before you get to put it right.

‘Run what you brung’, might sound a bit old school, but what’s wrong with that? This event has been running, almost continuously, since 1916. And throughout that Century of competition, it has encouraged, and given a platform to prove, new technology. This year is a perfect illustration of that. It’s PURE competition.

Judging by the number of executives who were on hand to watch the Bentley go up the mountain, the Bentayga may have just lit a beacon in the consciousness of premium SUV brands. Brain Gush, the Director of Bentley Motorsport, was rightly delighted as the time was announced.

“It’s been a great effort by all the team and our partners, and especially Rhys. Taking the record was always our aim, but by such a margin and to break 11 minutes as well, is a testament to what a great car the standard Bentayga is.”

And with that, Bentley are literally on top of the SUV world. And as far as Pikes Peak is concerned, the Bentayga is the fastest SUV on the planet. For now.

With interest peeked from Lamborghini, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Jeep and previous record holders Range Rover, Brian Gush not only expects competition, in the true spirit of the original Bentley Boys, he relishes it.

“Let them come!”, he tells me. “Bring it on!”

To hear exclusive content from the Bentley/Mobil 1 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, please visit: www.radiolemans.com (http://www.radiolemans.co/2018/06/19/pikes-peak-international-hill-climb-2018).

Race-42 Bentley Pikes Peak Bentayga, June 2018Photo: James Lipman / jameslipman.com