Not all Retropower Heroes are made from flesh and blood, or even steel and carbon fibre; some are hewn from granite, and have stood the test of time for millennia. What’re we banging on about this time? Why, Pikes Peak of course.
Pikes Peak has long been a subject of cultish fascination among petrolheads of all types, either through its role in late ‘80s motorsport (the era we’ll be discussing here), or through its appearance in dozens of video games over the years. Indeed, some of you may have first encountered Pikes Peak through it, or rather one of the cars most closely associated with climbing it, the Suzuki Escudo, on Gran Turismo 2.
Wind the clock back a little over 35 years though, and things looked rather different for the USA’s premier hillclimb. The annual ‘Race to the Clouds’ had been a fixture of the American motorsport calendar for generations of course, but it was little known outside of the USA’s borders despite being an immense challenge in its own right. The 12.4-mile course has a massive 156 corners, climbs to an altitude of 4720ft high, and was, at least until 2012, largely composed of gravel sections.
The challenge offered by Pikes Peak, not to mention its sheer scale, made it an appealing location for European car makers seeking to bolster their sporting credentials stateside. 1984 saw the first of such forays, with Audi sending an S1 Quattro for Michelle Mouton. Rallying’s ‘First Lady’ faced stiff opposition from Norwegian rallycross ace Martin Schanche and his all-wheel drive, BDT-powered Mk3 Escort however, and the moustachioed Norse looked set to take the win and the overall record…until a puncture destroyed his run.
Mouton didn’t set the overall record that year but she did raise eyebrows, both amongst the somewhat aggrieved locals (justified in some respects, as she was using a co-driver for her runs) and the European motorsport community. She returned the following year with a point to prove and did just that, smashing the overall record and becaming the first woman to conquer the mountain in the process.
It was only 12 months later that the full effect of Mouton’s foray became clear, with Audi doubling down on its commitment by sending yet another big-power Quattro S1, this time for local legend Al Unser. Unser’s time was easily the fastest ascent of that year and made some of the local opposition look somewhat tame in comparison. Things were beginning to heat up, with rally teams and well financed individuals both now mulling the prospect of an assault on the world’s ultimate hillclimb.
The following year was 1987, the year that Group B was officially replaced by Group A as the World Rally Championship’s premier class. Audi understood that the glory days of the Quattro concept were now firmly in the past, and while it would continue to compete in the WRC with the lumbering 200 Quattro, it was nothing compared to the E2 of 12 months previously.
There was one silver lining to the death of Group B, namely the freedom it gave Audi to contest that year’s Race to the Clouds in a fully paid up, fully committed fashion. So it was that Audi flung open the lid of its toy chest and deposited the contents at the base of Pikes Peak. The firm had a special, space-framed version of the mighty E2 Quattro (complete with Umluft system, advanced aero, revised suspension and water cooling for the brakes), this time driven by 3-time WRC champion Walter Rohrl.
That Rohrl and the ultimate iteration of the Quattro concept would break the record and win the event that year was never in doubt. What was up for speculation was just how much faster than Unser’s 1986 effort he’d actually be. As it turned out, quite a bit: Rohrl took Unser’s record and shredded it, posting a time of 10:47.850 – over 20 seconds to the good.
Audi wasn’t alone in looking to Pikes Peak as a venue for now outlawed Group B machinery, its arch rivals at Peugeot had also opted to contest the 1987 event with a trio of specially modified 205s. These cars were markedly different from the WRC variants and had been modified to better suit the demands of hill-climbing, with an extended wheelbase for enhanced stability, increased aero and, thanks to the lack of FIA regulation, a dramatic reduction in weight.
The 3 Pikes Peak 205s were also powered by unique engines with much in common with Peugeot’s aborted Evo 3 variant, one which never got to see the light of day thanks to the cancellation of Group B. Freed from the restrictions imposed by the FIA Peugeot developed a larger capacity variant of the TU based engine (the XU9T), now paired with a variable vane turbo for more tractable power delivery. Power was quoted at no more than 550bhp but, as is the case with all of the Group B Pikes Peak attempts, it’s probably safe to add an extra 50bhp.
Audi had Rohrl, while Peugeot had its own former WRC champ, Ari Vatanen, the Finn charged with leading the 3 car assault in 1987. Results were mixed, with the T16s initially proving off the pace compared to the times set by Audi, the 205’s (relatively) restrained aero being blamed. Modifications made on the fly appeared to make a big improvement though, so much so that Vatanen was on course to challenge his Ingolstadt rival for overall honours…until a boost hose failure on his final run dashed French hopes.
Peugeot Sport went back to the drawing board, reasoning that the 205’s 2nd, 3rdand 4thwere solid foundations on which to build for 1988, and build upon them it most certainly did.
The 405T16 of 1988 was effectively built from choice components from the 205s of the previous year, albeit with a longer chassis deemed essential for enhanced stability and a far more polished aerodynamic setup. The chassis was also now a fully tubular space-framed affair, while the XU9T made a claimed 600bhp. (This has since been confirmed as being a full 200bhp down on its actual output.) That power was also now far easier to exploit thanks to Peugeot’s decision to fit an adjustable central diff,’ one able to be toggled mid run by the driver.
Audi’s withdrawal from off-road motorsport meant that Peugeot had an open shot at stealing the Race to the Clouds record, especially with the talents of Vatanen once again on hand. The Finn was now fully recovered from the horrific Argentine smash which curtailed his Group B career and very nearly cost him his life, and the results were spectacular to behold. Vatanen bettered Rohrl’s record by a tenth of a second or two, his fastest time an amazing 10:47.220.
Peugeot would cement its position as ‘King of the Hill’ the following year, this time with Bobby Unser driving, and again with Sebastien Loeb in the immense 208 T16 24 years later, but its Vatanen’s effort which remains the most iconic. Much of this can be attributed to the award winning short film Peugeot commissioned to mark the occasion, ‘Climb Dance.’ It remains among the most spectacular motorsport footage ever shot, and you can watch it below.