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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Less Than Ten Minutes

He takes it easy on some of the hairpins, but that's probably to give the engine a short rest, for reasons explained below.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb took place over the weekend, along with the European Grand Prix and the Nürburgring 24 Hours. Not as many people know about this race compared to the other two, as it only happens once a year at Pikes Peak in Colorado. The task is simple: it's a rally-style Hillclimb event, in which the driver has no co-driver and there are many classes to suit different budgets and upbringings. The fastest time in each class wins. The fastest class is called the Unlimited Class, and oh boy do they mean unlimited. Anything goes (one of the 'Unlimited' cars was packing 1350bhp for crying out loud)! The spoilers are the size of picnic tables, and the turbochargers involved could cause a black hole they're so big.

These are, without doubt, the most awesome racing cars in the world. In no other sport are they allowed to simply make everything as big as possible and just make the fastest car they can. But there is more to the huge wings and power than just "well we can, because anything goes". The 12.42-mile run (featuring 156 corners) climbs from 9390ft above sea level to 14,110ft, and as they climb ever higher, the air gets thinner, making aerodynamics less and less effective as you go up. Also, because all internal combustion engines run on an air-fuel mixture, they make less power as the air gets thinner. All this means that if you plan on setting any records, you'd better go large and make the absolute most of what air there is in the closing stages, where you'll still want to be going just as fast. The really cool thing about this race though is that it's a rally race. Some of these guy have to handle over 1000bhp on dirt, with varying levels of grip. Some of them have got 4WD to help them, but some don't. Some of them are in road-based cars, some are in open-wheel buggies and formula-style cars. Some of the drivers are in trucks! I'm not slagging off American muscle cars, either - there's genuinely a class for lorry cabs with AWD and humongous rear spoilers. It just looks so... wrong, and yet so, so very right indeed. In fact, there are classes for just about everything. From vintage muscle cars to Imprezas and Evos to Porsche 911s to motorbikes (with or without sidecars) to purpose-built buggies (some of them are effectively just tubular frames with wheels, wings and a huge engine attached) to the wild Unlimited stuff like Tajima's SX4 or Rhys Millen's Hyundai, which looked like a squashed Le Mans prototype. There was even a Dacia with a Nissan GT-R engine tuned to produce 850bhp!

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So that's Pikes Peak in a nutshell, but the amazing thing about this year - the last running of the race before the route becomes 100% tarmac next year - is that records have been broken all over the place, including the big one: For the first time ever in Pikes Peak's 95-year history, someone has finished the race in under 10 minutes. That someone was the current king of the hill, Nobuhiro Tajima, or "Monster" for short. He's done this race for years now, always in a Suzuki (including the Escudo familiar to Gran Turismo players), and has now won it 6 times in a row. In 2007, he came close to breaking the fabled 10-minute barrier with a 10:01.408, beating the long-standing record of 10:04.06 set by former legend Rod Millen (father of Rhys, who also competes in the Unlimited class now) in a yellow Toyota Tacoma in 1994. The year that followed didn't work out, but Monster kept coming back. The video atop this article shows him smashing the all-time Pikes Peak record by setting a 9:51.278.

Now, there are a couple of things about this that make it even more awesome than it already is. The first thing is that Monster Tajima is now 61 years old. How many 61-year-olds, nay, how many people over 50 would even dream of hurling a 1000bhp rally car up a mountain? I suspect there is only one. The second thing is that after just 2 miles or so, the car started overheating, so he had to not only avoid sheer drops, adoring fans, metal barriers that came and went and rocks, all of which are mere inches or feet away, he also had to look after an overheating car, at race pace, for 10 miles, and he STILL set a record time! Jalopnik commenter 'Drunken Messiah' puts it like so:

"The most amazing thing about this run? Tajima DESTROYED the car!
Seriously; when it got to the top of the hill fluid was gushing from the radiators. The motor and turbos where cooked, ruined. Tajima said that the car started overheating two miles into the 12 mile run. 9:51 is pretty much the fastest time that car could possibly have gone. It was physically incapable of giving up any additional performance. The Monster was totally in the zone, driving 11/10s the whole way up. He was so far beyond the limit it was just mesmerizing to witness first-hand. He went around the three corners that make up The Sump as if it was one continuous bend. From start to finish he was on it the whole time. I heard from people at the starting point that it was the hardest launch any of them had ever witnessed; he exploded off the line and did not slow up for a nanosecond. By the time he was a couple hundred yards into the race he was already four seconds ahead of Rhys Millen [in second place].

Fucking unbelievable. I felt so privileged to see it; and on my very first experience as an in-the-flesh PPIHC spectator to boot. Just too cool!"

I've heard commentators claiming that someone's "driving the wheels off that thing", but to literally drive the car to death is something else! Congratulations, Tajima-san, you glorious mentalist! I hope you celebrated your 61st in similar style earlier today!

In other news, Rod Millen returned to Pikes Peak this year and promptly set another record, with his 11:04.912 in a Hyundai Genesis Coupé being the fastest time for a Two-Wheel-Drive car. In fact, six different records were set/broken this year. Some will say that's in part down to the course being around 50% tarmac (a lot more than previous years). Next year it will be entirely road, taking one element of uncertainty out of the equation, and taking a little away from the viewing spectacle. Still, it's satisfying to know that 10 minutes could be broken while the mountain was still dirty. If Monster had waited until next year to set the record, people would probably have said that it was down to the extra grip provided by tarmac (and possibly slick tyres). This way, we can put that idea to bed, which his where I'm heading now. .

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