The Sunday supplement: Peak Porsche
Single-make magic in the Race to Clouds
It is regarded by many as the toughest hill climb in the world, a physically and mentally demanding flat-out sprint that heaps almost as punishment much on the car as it does the driver.
The Pikes Peak International Hillclimb in Colorado has been an annual fixture of the international motorsport calendar since 1916, pitting variously modified road and rally cars against a 19.99km course that climbs through no fewer than 156 bends to a dizzying 4301m above sea level.
The thin air and lack of oxygen at ever-increasing altitude plays havoc with a car’s performance and puts immense strain on the human body. Engine power drops by up to 30 percent, downforce is dramatically reduced, tyre temperatures change unpredictably. And all the while you’ll struggling for a decent lungful of air.
To make matters worse, there are no barriers, which leaves limited margin for error. An ‘off’ here is an ‘off the side of a mountain’, so the pressure is up a notch or two on your average FIA-approved F1 circuit.
Fond of a challenge then, Porsche recently launched its very own single-make class to take on the officially titled ‘96th Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb 2018’. This was the first time any manufacturer had undertaken such a venture, inviting eight drivers to compete against one another in specially prepared Cayman GT4 Clubsports. All bar two of the drivers who took part were entirely new to Pikes Peak, and some had never set foot in a Cayman Clubsport before their first tentative practice runs.
Among the participants were motocross champion, X Games winner and stunt performer Travis Pastrana, former professional baseball player CJ Wilson and IMSA driver Till Bechtolsheimer. “The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is a race with a cult status”, said Pastrana, who after previously participating in the 2004 and 2005 runnings was thrilled to be there again – this time in a Porsche.
The drivers were all coached by Pikes Peak veteran Jeff Zwart. The commercial film director and racing driver has taken on Pikes Peak a total of 14 times, achieving eight class victories and multiple records in the “Time Attack” division, all aboard variants of the 911. Zwart decided not to pursue a ninth win this year, however, allowing him to share his extensive experience with our Cayman drivers.
“The first time I ran Pikes Peak was in 1994 in a Porsche,” Jeff says, “and it was a very intimidating place. There are huge drop-offs over the edge on many of the corners. There are sections of the road that look identical, yet they’re different, and the consequences of getting it wrong are huge.”
As Zwart knows better than most, even the best laid plans can come to nothing in the Rockies: “After a week of practice, there is only one chance to race up the mountain. It all boils down to one run. You push everything to the limits: the engine, the tires and your own body. Bu the mountain is one big living organism. It can be warm and sunny at the bottom and snowing up at 4,000 meters. You never know what that one run will be like. And with 156 turns, there is always more to learn. At the speed we do now—235 km/h on a two-lane road with hardly any guardrails—the risk is high. And then there’s the pressure to perform. You have only one run. It’s 10 minutes and 20 km of insanity.”
In the end, Pastrana’s previous experience, and perhaps his own familiarity with automotive madness, paid dividends, with the fearless multi-disciplined driver posting a stunning time of 10 minutes 34 seconds, good enough to win the class. JR Hildebrand, well known for his many appearances in IndyCar, also achieved an impressive time of just under 10 minutes 40 seconds.
Zwart is confident that, when the stakes are so high, a Cayman is the right car for the job. “When I get into a Porsche, it feels like I’m wearing the car. It feels so natural that it could just be an extension of myself. That’s exactly the feeling you want—a car that is part of you. There are no trees at that altitude so your turning points are against the sky. It takes a lot of commitment up there, and it really separates the people who can drive like that from those who can’t.”