Why VW’s first electric race car previews the future of EVs

Last week, Volkswagen Motorsport revealed the first all-electric race car in the company’s history. Built  with the goal of setting a new record for the race up Pikes Peak in June, the I.D. R Pikes Peak combines cutting-edge motorsports engineering with Volkswagen’s growing expertise in electric mobility. And while the custom-built race car was designed for one purpose, it also previews the technology that will help make electric vehicles a more mainstream reality.

Pikes Peak ranks as the world’s most famous hillclimb, a challenging and dangerous 12.42-mile run up the mountain with 156 curves and altitude changes that challenge humans and machines alike. VW’s goal for this year’s run: Set a new electric record, which currently stands at 8 minutes, 57.118 seconds, or roughly 83 mph all the way up.

Volkswagen I.D. Pikes Peak R First Test

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To meet that challenge, Volkswagen Motorsports has come up with a uniquely balanced electric vehicle. Designed from scratch for maximum aerodynamic advantage, the I.D. R Pikes Peak gets its power from two electric motors on each axle, with a total of 671 hp and 479 lb.-ft. of torque, variable among all four wheels. The 40 kWh battery pack sits beside and behind driver Romain Dumas, with unique lithium-ion battery cells chosen to maintain maximum power output throughout the run.

Those specifications are powerful, but may sound low to motorsports fans; the current EV record holder at Pikes Peak sported 1,000 hp more than the I.D. R Pikes Peak. François-Xavier Demaison, technical director for Volkswagen Motorsport, says his team used extensive computer simulations to keep the I.D. R Pikes Peak’s weight at less than 2,425 lbs. More power would have meant more batteries, bigger motors and more weight to haul up a mountain.

“For a racecar, weight is always the biggest enemy, and in electric cars the battery is always the biggest weight,” Demaison said. “We had to fight a lot to find the best compromise between weight, battery capacity and maximum power.”

And the results speak for themselves. At 2.25 seconds, the I.D. R Pikes Peak is faster from 0 to 62 mph than a Formula 1 car. The wild aerodynamics – from the front spoiler to the giant rear wing – were developed in VW’s wind tunnels with input from Porsche’s Le Mans-winning race teams to maximize downforce at higher altitudes while minimizing drag. And by using the rear electric motor as a brake that can recapture energy, the car will actually regain about 20 percent of the energy it needs to go full blast for the record.

As with other EVs, charging also posed a challenge. Given the rapidly changing weather on the mountain, a racer’s run can be called off after they start – but then they only have 30 minutes to be ready to restart at the base. This means the I.D. R Pikes Peak would need the ability to have a full recharge in half an hour. “The Technical Development department of Volkswagen has the right workshops and laboratories to perform a range of various stress tests on the batteries,” Demaison says. “They also have plenty of experience in the area of high-voltage technology. You have to be aware of special requirements for cabling and insulation.”

Few people will ever have the chance or desire to run up Pikes Peak at full tilt. But with the I.D. R Pikes Peak, Volkswagen helps show how battery research, EV chassis engineering and fast charging can improve on what’s come before – the same promise made by Volkswagen’s I.D. series of electric vehicle concepts that are tentatively set to enter production within the next couple of years.

“Motorsport greatly accelerated technical innovation in the early days of the automobile,” says Jost Capito, head of Volkswagen Motorsports. “It will continue to play a similar role in the development of powerful electric cars in the future.”