Hyundai’s Victory Over Tesla at Pikes Peak

It’s not really a question of balls,” said Dani Sordo, three-time World Rally Championship stage winner, a day before taking on the legendary Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in a new car that was as brutally fast as it was totally unproven. The word “drops” undersells it a bit; that’s the typical professional race-car driver aloofness for you. What Sordo means is that he had to drive faster than anyone else across 12.42 miles, up a mountain, across elevation changes as high as 14,115 feet above sea level, with basically no guard rails, at an event that outlawed motorcycles a few years ago because the riders kept getting killed. The kicker? The car Sordo would drive was not only fully electric, like precious few before it, but came together with extreme haste. The modified Hyundai Ioniq 5 N he was to pilot was built in just six months. That’s six months to prepare four drivers and a new car for one of North America’s most dangerous and historic races. And not everyone even made it to race day. So, yes. “Quite nice” is underselling it a bit.

Just Six Months
Sordo, who normally drives for Hyundai’s WRC team, was requisitioned to drive the world-famous hillclimb in a modified Ioniq 5 N in an attempt to capture the modified EV record. Along with Randy Pobst, an SCCA legend and previous modified EV record holder, and Ron Zaras, rally driver and founding member of Hoonigan, Hyundai entered three cars on race day to maximize their shot at hill climb glory. Competitors get just one shot at an official run up the mountain. Sure, you can get a Certified Course Record, Pikes Peak’s certification for a record not completed on race day, but the coveted Race Day Record can only happen on race day. Thus, preparation is critical.

Conquering The Mountain
Race week dawned wet, foggy, and cold. Official practice sessions were canceled, with some sections being run wet for qualifying. On the last day of practice, drivers were met with a total grayout of fog, preventing running until the final hour. Hyundai emerged looking strong after qualifying but without a real picture of what time they could run on race day. At lunch the day before the hill climb, the BHA team joked that all they had to do was make it to the top, but still had their target. A nine-minute, 35-second run up the mountain was their goal. Sordo, despite having never run the full course, felt confident he could maximize the car. Pobst, having done only a couple of days of practice, but with a decade of Pikes Peak experience, wanted to give his best shot against a WRC driver. Zaras was determined and unfazed, even as a Pikes Peak rookie. Race day was clear and warm; almost perfect record-setting conditions.

Hyundai’s Success
Then, Paul Dallenbach crashed in private testing at Pikes Peak, writing one of the production-spec I5Ns off. He suffered a broken leg when he did, proving yet again how this race isn’t some coddled gentleman’s series. Not long after that, Robin Shute, four-time Pikes Peak King of the Mountain and driver of one of the TA Spec cars backed out just days before race day. Sordo never completed a full run-up of the mountain in testing, nor did he play a huge part in developing the car. The team called in Randy Pobst as something of a Pikes Peak super-sub, who also happened to be the holder of the modified EV record in the Unplugged Performance Tesla. Pobst, too, is no stranger to how dangerous Pikes Peak is, even for the best. In 2020, he crashed hard in a Tesla Model 3, going briefly airborne before hitting a stone wall and sliding down a hill. He also went flying in 2015 in a Nissan GT-R. Terrifying outcomes, even for someone with racing experience as extensive as his. Still, Pobst was in. A showdown was set.

Electric Vehicles at Pikes Peak
But electric vehicles were arguably the real winner of this year’s Pikes Peak race. They’ve gone from science experiments to the technology to beat at the storied race. Internal combustion cars lose dramatic amounts of power at super-high altitudes—the air is thinner up there, and combustion needs air, after all—but EVs do not. The efforts of Hyundai, Ford, Rivian, and even Tesla privateers prove that these cars are here to stay. And they’re hitting major milestones. When a 680-horsepower EV can keep itself cooled more effectively than an equivalent ICE car–That is something to behold. Yet, there is no guarantee that Hyundai will come back next year. Despite its success, the automaker might just one-and-done Pikes Peak. If it could achieve this with just six months, what could it do with another full year of development? All I can say is that it would be a shame to quit now.

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