Over 12 miles the road up Pikes Peak winds through 156 turns, climbing nearly 5,000 feet to terminate at an altitude of 14,110 -- 4,000 feet higher than the FAA requires to flip on your personal electronic devices in a commercial aircraft. On a normal day, people with RVs and SUVs lumber their struggling machines up to the top, engines gasping for air, and then gently thread their way back down to the bottom, brakes smoking and suffering. But, on one special day a year, a circus of hooligans with high-powered cars, motorcycles and various other motorized contraptions claim the mountain pass as their own.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has run since 1916 in some form or another, but lately the tone of the competition has been changing. Quite literally. Electric-powered vehicles are now whizzing up the mountain in droves and, increasingly, they're challenging their gas-powered competitors. Indeed, the fastest motorcycle up the course this year was electric, and the cars are getting faster. How fast? How about more power than a Ferrari 458 and nearly three times the torque in a package that weighs 1,000 pounds less? That's what Toyota's TMG EV P002 puts down in Pikes Peak trim, 600 horsepower and 900 ft-lbs of torque. It's a ridiculously overpowered little machine, and Toyota was kind enough to let me drive it.
Gallery: Focus Life Gear | 11 Photos
Gallery: Focus Life Gear | 11 Photos
The test drive would take place at Pikes Peak International Raceway, a 1-mile oval track that's had a road course cut through the middle. Situated just south of Colorado Springs, it's here that many of the top teams tackling the mountain set up shop for the week leading up to the race. As we drove up to Toyota's pit stall, the day after the race, the last few teams were packing up to go. Triumphant Peugeot, whose record-breaking car was the fastest of the day at the hands of World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb, was loading up its last transporter. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of both the parking lot and the spectrum of success, lay what remained of the PP01 EV from the Latvian eO team. During its run, the car spun off the track, slamming into a boulder and flipping over, injuring (but thankfully not seriously) driver Janis Horeliks. The ruined car was spread over the asphalt in the parking lot, battery cells ripped open and already badly corroded.%Gallery-193374%
And then in one garage, looking impossibly small and rather tidier than eO's entry, sat Toyota's EV P002. Both its front nose and tail had been removed to facilitate cleaning out all the filth that had accumulated from the previous day's run. Despite its small size, it was encumbered with considerable aerodynamic appendages front and rear, grafted on after this very car broke the EV Nurburgring track record last year. (Beating its own 2011 record by some 20 seconds.) While many joke that big wings on a street car signal their drivers are compensating for something, the big wings here are also compensating: for reduced air pressure. Because of the thin air toward the top of the mountain, and due to the ridiculously twisty nature of the course, Pikes Peak cars tend to have massive wings on both front and back.
That pressure also wreaks havoc on the output of traditional internal combustion engines, which suck in a combination of fuel and air, squeeze the resulting mixture and then light it on fire (bang) to make power before blowing the resulting pollution out the exhaust. Less air means less oxygen, which means less power -- up to 40 percent less at the top. Turbos and superchargers can help, but the only real solution is a powertrain of a wholly different sort.
Electric vehicles generate the same amount of power from the bottom of the course to the top, and in the case of this Toyota, that's a lot of power.
Electric vehicles generate the same amount of power from the bottom of the course to the top, and in the case of this Toyota, that's a lot of power. Again we're looking at roughly 600 horsepower and 900 foot-pounds of torque and, since it's an EV, it's all available basically anywhere in the powerband. There's also no shifting, the high-RPM motor spins fast enough to take the car from zero all the way up to the 140MPH that the P002's current gearing allows. (That's about all one can hope for on the twisty Pikes Peak climb, but in Nurburgring trim, with less aero and more room to stretch its legs, Toyota's little rocket can top 170.)
The EV P002, at its core, is a Radical SR8, a small, $160,000 open-cockpit and typically gasoline-powered racecar that is surprisingly road legal. That chassis has been heavily modified for electric duties, one electric motor for each of the rear wheels and, of course, a battery. (42kWh to be specific, about the same as that in the cheapest Model S that Tesla axed -- basically just enough battery to get up the hill.) Since that record-breaking Nurburgring run, Toyota engineers moved the driver's seat to a central position and made dozens of other modifications to get it ready for the hill, all on short notice.
The most important piece of the puzzle, however, is the one who will sit in that seat. And for that, Toyota turned to a man with whom they have plenty of experience at the Peak: Rod Millen. He piloted the ridiculously powerful Toyota Celica and Tacoma racers in the '90s and held the record to the top of the mountain for an incredible 13 years. This is why many call him the King of the Mountain.
Rod Millen's record-setting 1994 Pikes Peak Celica in action
Though I most certainly lack the skill and experience of Mr. Millen, Toyota still saw fit to let me take a few laps with the car before it was packed up and shipped off to a hillclimb of a very different sort and speed: the largely ceremonial Goodwood Festival of Speed. Under the watchful eye of Steve Wickham, vice president of chassis operations at Toyota Racing Development USA and a man with plenty of experience in Toyota's various motorsports pursuits, I clambered over and through the cockpit jungle gym and cinched the six-point harness tight. The harness was still damp from the downpour that had thoroughly soaked Millen the day before, forcing him to slow and finish the day in fourth position with a time of 10:24.301.
I too would be driving a bit slower than I'd like, but for other reasons. Wickham and various other Toyota personnel reminded me at every opportunity that this is the only such car that exists, which did weigh on my mind to some degree. Additionally, the top speed had been limited to an unfortunate 100MPH. That left me limping down the front straight, but offered more than enough speed to get a feel for things in the infield.
A twitch of the ankle is enough to open your eyes wide, thanks to G-forces alone.
My first impression was surprise at the stiffness of the car and the lack of body roll, something necessitated by the modern Pikes Peak course being fully paved and smooth. I was also surprised by the torque. I shouldn't have been, what with the 900-foot-pound figure being bandied around, but hearing a number that ridiculous and having that much power attached to your right foot are two very different things. A twitch of the ankle is enough to open your eyes wide, thanks to G-forces alone, with only the whine of the transmission and the increasing wind noise giving you some idea of your current speed.
Braking was rather less impressive in my limited drive, largely thanks to the nature of full carbon brakes. Brake pads and rotors made of compressed carbon offer amazing performance when hot, but when they're cold, you're left with an incredibly firm, but rather ineffective left pedal. That's exactly what I had for my unfortunately brief time behind the steering wheel. It was, for the record, a fairly warm day in Colorado (about 80 degrees F), but the operating temperature of carbon brakes is up closer to 1,000 degrees F, and keeping them there requires high speeds and a heavy left foot.
Speaking of the wheel, its center is 3D-printed and covered with knobs to adjust various engine and traction parameters, knobs I was told not to fiddle with. However, I was advised to press the yellow button on the lower-right section when pulling into the pits. That's a noisemaker, triggering an obnoxious siren loud enough to meet the Pikes Peak regulations for EVs, requiring some sort of noise to alert the spectators. Toyota's makes a particularly annoying sound, but Wickham told me it was the lightest siren they could find.
Toyota Racing Development's Steve Wickham
Cornering G-forces are actually less punishing than I'd expected as well. The car was still on its well-worn rain tires that had run up the mountain the day before, which was one strike against it. Additionally, it was still set up with a very predictable, but somewhat frustrating understeer-heavy suspension configuration. This makes the car safe on the climb, with little chance of it spinning around and backing into a boulder, but on this little road oval, it pushed through every corner, bits of rubber getting ripped off the front tires and arcing through the air.
And then, after just a few moments of high-torque fun, my laps were over and I had to return to the pits, siren wailing, so that the Toyota engineers could strip the car and pack it into its shipping crate for the long journey across the Atlantic to Goodwood. After that, it's unclear what the future holds for the P002. Another run at the Nurburgring record seems like a lock, but whether it comes back to challenge the mountain again in 2014 remains to be seen. The title of fastest EV doesn't come cheap these days, with multiple manufacturers putting together full-factory efforts, but this seems like a huge opportunity for a company to establish itself as the leader in this nascent motorsport.
Rod Millen and the TMG EV P002 Pikes Peak crew
Toyota established the Prius brand as the de facto choice for those looking for a hybrid they could live with simply by being the first to offer a practical option. Sadly, the company has already been beaten by Nissan, Mitsubishi, Tesla and more on the EV front, so if it wants to establish itself as a market leader, it's going to need to do something different. Defining itself as the force in electric motorsports would certainly be an interesting way to do it. Looking back at Toyota's utter dominance on the mountain through the '90s, achieving the same now with an EV seems eminently possible.