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The Weekend Read: Off Peak

By Bill Thomas, 27 Jun 2014 Features

The Weekend Read: Off Peak

The 92nd running of the world’s craziest hillclimb, Pikes Peak, is this weekend. In 2012 Wheels went to watch Mitsubishi chase the electric record… and crash

HIROSHI Masuoka crashed the Mitsubishi iMiev Evolution on Wednesday afternoon. It was the first session on the first practice day before Sunday’s race, and his second run along the bottom section of three. The run would establish not only the car’s speed against its competitors, but determine Sunday’s starting order. Important to start as early as possible in a place like this, known for its treacherous weather.

So Masuoka, 52, was pushing. One of Japan’s grand master rally drivers, he won the Paris-Dakar for Mitsubishi two years straight in 2002 and 2003, and finished in the top 10 in the event for 10 years in a row. But even grand masters make mistakes. Engineers Corner, a tight left-hander, bit him. It is about three kilometres into the 156-corner run at Pikes Peak, Colorado, the world’s greatest hillclimb – 19.98km long and climbing from 2862m at the base to 4300m at the summit (see map).

Masuoka thought he was two corners further up than he was. An easy mistake to make. At Pikes, experience is paramount, and although Masuoka had made and studied notes and videos for nine months, and memorised every detail as precisely as you’d expect a grand master driver to do, he’d never run up here in a car this fast. He’d missed a small yellow marker on the right side of the road on approach. The shape of not only the bend, but the run-up to it, the sight lines, the trees and other features surrounding it, are almost identical to the turn before Gayler’s Straits, which is much faster and more open. The way Pikes Peak repeats itself is one of its great challenges.

From 150km/h, Masuoka dragged the Evo down to about 50km/h before he knew he was gone.

“At that point, I had three options,” he told me in the workshop later. “Either try to get the car turned for the corner, try the handbrake, or hit the ditch straight-on to minimise damage. I chose the last.”

The car dropped off the road and slammed dead square into the far bank of a deep ditch at 30km/h. It was then left perched across the divide, wheels askew, nose panel pushed up into the sky. Pictures soon emerged on the internet of this great driver, race suit tied around his hips, grimly directing the rescue team as they dragged his multi-million- dollar one-off electric prototype onto a flatbed.

It’s easy to criticise a driver for any accident, but this one was also a measure of Masuoka’s intent. He is Mitsubishi Motors’ chief test and development driver and is named as team principle for this program. His employers weren’t here for a happy display run – they were shooting for the outright record and were confident the Evo had the speed to do it. Mitsubishi hasn’t been involved in any sort of serious motorsport for years. Now it was back, with many of the old WRC crew present.

Masuoka went off, but he went off because he was going bloody fast. Still, as the shattered car was scraped up and the truck trundled away, two years of work looked lost.

Edit to Clarks Metal and Speed, a hot rod shop in a nondescript corner of Colorado Springs. Matt Clark, owner and founder, and a man not much smaller than Pikes Peak itself, set up this garage only three months previously – he’d secured the Mitsubishi deal before the shop was open, a deal which meant hosting the team throughout Pikes Peak and being prepared for any eventuality.

Matt’s from the SoCal hot rod school of artisan fabricators (see Wheels, February 2012) – a magician when it comes to turning metal and building stuff from scratch. He’d built rally and drift cars for such luminaries as Rhys Millen and Travis Pastrana, as well as countless high-end SoCal hot rods, and had decided to come back to his home town to start his own business.

Now he was staring at the ‘any eventuality’ bit – an expensive, computer-designed foreign racing car with its nose bashed in. As he and co-workers Tim Eckert and Brady Dimmick – both race car builders with vast experience – and the Mitsubishi engineers peered at the car’s crushed form on Wednesday afternoon, all knew they were faced with a desperate race against time to fix it for Sunday morning’s event.

Most of the Evo in front of the firewall was destroyed and would need to be either replaced – there were plenty of spares – or in the case of the chassis, rebuilt. Once the damage was assessed, somebody was dispatched to Denver to buy the chassis tubing.

One spare they didn’t have was a steering rack, which had been split in the impact. It was early Thursday morning in Japan when Mitsubishi engineer Nobuo Momose’s phone rang – he would no longer be going on holiday with his family, he’d be packing a steering rack into a bag and flying from Tokyo to Colorado Springs. He arrived Thursday afternoon but his bag did not – the airline lost it for four hours. Tense hours, those, because the team knew that any delay would kill the rebuild.

Late on Friday night, I saw Momose putting all his weight on a huge wrench, fastening a suspension mounting bolt. He’d pitched hard into the work and – like the other amazing Japanese engineers here – showed no trace of fatigue at any point.

Dimmick calmly sawed off the entire front end of this priceless machine and work began on reconstructing the chassis. The team jigged the car and established its reference points. The chassis had to be dead straight, and the suspension mounts were too complex to manufacture in the time allowed, so they were cut out of the damaged original frame and welded in – ideally to a tolerance of 0.01mm! It took 14 hours of grinding to get this as accurate as possible. And by all the measurements available to them, it was spot-on.

I watched for hours, mesmerised. The Japanese and Americans worked fantastically well together – never an argument or tense moment, just grim determination and the application of awesome expertise and experience. And a few practical jokes and laughs, too.

“At first, it was hard to communicate with them,” said Clark. “But after a few hours you can understand what they’re saying – it’s pretty fun.”

The work went on and on and on – all night Wednesday night, all day Thursday, all night Thursday night, all day Friday, deep into Friday night. Matt welding and overseeing, Brady grinding, Tim assisting, the Japanese fitting, measuring, honing, building. Not until Friday night were they sure they’d make it happen – at best, they thought they’d fix the car and take it straight to the hill.

I bailed out at 1:00am on Friday morning, just as the team was about to tackle the task of cutting, shortening and re-welding the steering column to fit the rack Momose had delivered. I’d only been observing and was almost too tired to drive back to the hotel.

The work was completed on Saturday morning – the team had slept about six hours in the last 90. Three great moments followed: Masuoka climbed into the Evo and reversed it out of the workshop under its own power. He then lapped it on the short infield track at Pikes Peak Raceway in nearby Fountain. Clockwise first … and it held together. Then anti-clockwise … and it held together. He rolled back to the service area after this second run, the loudest sound the slap of pebbles hitting the wheel wells.

“Same as before,” said Masuoka. He’d clasped Matt and Brady’s hands even before he’d clambered out of the car.

A red and white speck appeared in the distance, rounding a corner 12km away and more than a kilometre below. There he is. From this vantage point, I could watch about six minutes of the Evo’s run. Where even the quietest of the petrol cars would be audible by now, their engine notes rolling up the mountain, the little Mitsu was silent. As he climbed higher, the Evo was very much coming into its own – its three tuned iMiev electric motors, two at the back, one at the front, driving all four wheels (see panel) were losing no power at altitude, where petrol engines lose up to 40 percent of their power near the summit. Masuoka had 600Nm at his disposal from 0rpm. He says the acceleration and throttle response is unbelievable – the package only weighs about 725kg.

Up and up it climbed, the speck becoming a mini-car, Masuoka precise and clean – viewed from so far above, you could see how beautifully he was carving his lines – arcs all geometric perfection. Go.

There could be no thought of the accident now, no worry about a repeat occurrence – that wouldn’t happen with a driver of Masuoka’s calibre – just sheer wonder that the car was running at all. It was powered not just by motors but the raw skill of artisans – Matt, Brady, Tim and the brilliant Mitsubishi engineers. Go.

As I watched the little Evo grow bigger, thoughts of all of the hard work I’d witnessed came flooding into my head – the grinding and welding and measuring, the trial and error, the blueprint checking, the chat, with Masuoka overlooking it for countless hours himself, standing in the doorway and drawing on cigarettes in the dead of night. Now here he was, dishing out some payback. Go!

The car’s silly toy ambulance-like siren became faintly audible. It’s mounted to warn spectators of the car’s approach, and it’s a dumb rule that should be changed. Put marshalls on the corners with whistles, Pikes Peak. Then he was right below me, all siren and no engine, braking late for the final hairpin before my vantage point, the tyres’ scramble for grip and a faint squeal of brakes the only sound – no blipping, no popping, no gearchanges – then clipping the apex and whirring out with just a trace of oversteer. I couldn’t help it – I stepped out onto the track and pumped my fist. GO!

Masuoka, in his hyper-aware state, spotted me instantly and lifted his gloved hand off the wheel for half a second. This little wave was just about the most moving moment of my career.

Off he whizzed around the next hairpin and out of sight, the car looking beautifully balanced and devoid of roll or understeer, whirring away like a giant slot car. No, it doesn’t sound as spectacular as a petrol-engined machine, but its speed is gob-smacking. The thing has an other-worldly cool about it when you see it pushed to its limit.

Soon, word of the time filtered back – 10 minutes 30, so about 40 seconds shy of the fastest-ever petrol-engined time set on the hill. Not quite fast enough to beat the Radical-chassis TMG (Toyota) electric racer, which ran a 10min 15 shortly afterwards, but given Masuoka’s zero running in testing, it felt like a win. He said afterwards that he’d taken it relatively easy on the bottom section, and could have shaved 30 seconds off his time with more practice. But he was pleased and proud, paying constant tribute to the team. You often hear such words from top drivers, but having seen what went into this rebuild, and watched him watching on, you knew he meant it.

In the future, Pikes Peak will become more and more ‘corporatised’ – it was a bad sign that Audi was sniffing around it this year, running an understeery RS5 pace car – and no doubt other manufacturers with deeper pockets than Mitsubishi will mount attacks on the electric category. But when that happens, we should remember 2012 and this pioneering little electric iMiev Evo.

In the years to come, it’ll be sitting in a museum somewhere, godfather to a range of world-beating electric Evo road cars. But whatever glass box it’s in, let’s hope they leave the nose panel off. Matt Clark would like that.