How do you prove your car is good? Drive it up a hill, obviously. It was the toughest proof for a car in the early days of the automobile, but now in the 21st century, the hillclimb is making a comeback in the face of new technology.
Well, okay, it’s fallen out of fashion more recently. But back in the early 1900s the way you proved you’d got the pinnacle of automotive technology under the bonnet was to find the steepest slope available and try and bang the thing up it, preferably round some corners. I am talking, of course, about the noble pursuit of hillclimbing.
Long before circuit racing, hillclimbs were where it was at. In the early days of combustion engine development there was a major challenge with torque, a word that’s become so not a challenge that the main struggle is the meaning.
Basically, in your car there’s a big stick (drive shaft) that makes the wheels go. The stick has to be turned by something and that thing will need more or less force to turn, depending on external factors like grip (super easy to spin wheels on ice, less useful for going anywhere) and elevation (imagine pushing something up a hill vs on flat) and the torque measure is how much force can be extracted from the engine or motor and exerted via that drive shaft.
Daft simile time: the engine’s horsepower is like a dude who’s so ripped he can benchpress a Mini Cooper but keeps skipping leg day so when he tries to push it along the street (the torque) he’s got nothing.
Early transmission technologies were… primitive. But effective; adding gears (or well, gear singular) meant that you could up the torque and get enough force behind the wheels to go uphill. Initially that was some weenie little slopes that even me in stilettos could contemplate a run up if there was enough free prosecco at the top but eventually some real monsters, like Pike’s Peak or Shelsley Walsh.
Okay sure, you’ve heard of those. Well, you’ve probably heard of Pikes Peak at least; Shelsley Walsh is an obscure location deep in the Worcestershire hills, in a lush cut of a valley that’s so heavily wooded with towering, ancient oak trees it feels a bit like you’ve bumbled into the set of The Hobbit, not a motorsport venue.
Most of the cars that go up Shelsley are either vintage or hillclimb-specific, modified “specials” that enthusiasts have built. It’s a great event; perched on musty tree trunks under the dripping canopy, heart in mouth as cars nearly meet the old railway sleepers that reinforce the track cut into the hillside.
Like a less tweedy Goodwood, it’s an opportunity for enthusiasts to get out and compete in a series it’s still entirely plausible to enter in the car you drove there, provided you’re confident you’ll be able to drive it back. Hillclimbing has remained a decently-accessible-to-enter form of motorsport, attracting good crowds across the UK, Europe and the US.
That’s nice and all. Little bit kitsch. Something for the real motorsport nerds, a wholesome day out away from the VIP-attracting events or a busman’s holiday for those of us who normally cover circuit racing.
So why the hell are manufacturers suddenly sending their most cutting edge machinery up there? Last month VW smashed the Pikes Peak record with a specially designed electric vehicle—a pretty gutsy move for a brand not strongly associated with prototype racing.
And the year before at Goodwood, Mahindra had sent Nick Heidfeld to revisit his own record. Designed to last the distance of a Formula E race rather than a few minutes of hillclimbing, getting close to the electric record there is no shabby feat in a car that laughs in the face of downforce.
The same event this year saw NIO run their new EP9 supercar up the hill, despite it being a clash with Formula E’s New York finale and the fact that previously, they’d taken the Nurburgring lap record with the car. Albeit only for two weeks before it got dipped again by a hybrid.
And then there’s this, where Roborace decided to prove they’d actually taught a car to drive itself competitively by sending it up the same hay bale-strewn hill:
Maybe it’s just me not knowing what angle I’m supposed to have my little finger stuck out at for sipping tea correctly but: when one thinks “the absolute raw, sci-fi edge of technology” the first thing that springs to mind isn’t Goodwood.
There’s a reason that manufacturers are so keen to send their hypercars up hills, which is that we’re getting back to an old and fraught battle in motorsport: big, beefy power.
Away from cars that the mere roar of tells you they must have at least the firepower of a dragon under the hood, a different sort of test is needed to back up the bhp claims. Car demos have got a little lazy—some impressive donuts with smoke pouring off the tires, an amplified engine sound and everyone’s excited.
With a hill climb, there’s no smoke and mirrors. Well, there’s probably a bit of smoke and wheelspin at the start but it’s a naked drive—the skill of the driver and the power of the car are the only things to prove.
Which is how Jaguar ended up sending off their first-generation Formula E car by firing it up Shelsley on Sunday.
It’s not Jaguar Land Rover’s first go up a hill, of course—a company with a heritage that long is going to have seen more than a few hay bales in their time. Even recently, if you want to experience profound vertigo without leaving your seat, they had Ho-Pin Tung drive a Land Rover up the stairs of Heaven’s Gate.
Shelsley had only had one electric car climb it before; a Tesla, in 2011 that set a time of 37.30 seconds. Not earth shattering—in fact it’s 13 seconds off the Shelsley record but by no means shabby for a car not specifically designed for hillclimb.
Electric seem perfect for it. All that torque that combustion engines had to develop gears to manage is immediately controlled by an electric motor; because there’s no need to fire up cylinders of exploding stuff to generate the power it has as much or as little torque as it needs whenever it wants.
Or well, they would be were it not for the batteries, which are—as I have mentioned on this site—large bois who really weigh a car down. Especially when, as with the I-Type 2, they are at the back.
Taking a new electric record is no mean feat—especially not by a whopping seven seconds in greasy conditions. Tesla cars have vastly more horsepower than Formula E cars and while they might also be built like a hearse, a better-balanced battery location; it’s in the base of the car to lower the centre of gravity, whereas the Formula E battery sits up behind the driver.
Evans—a sometimes slightly-too-cool-for-his-own-good 23-year-old New Zealander—had never done a hillclimb before. Why would he? He’s a young person with a racing contract, this is just a PR event surely.
But for manufacturers this isn’t a civilised tootle up a slope to let a couple of VIPs see the car. Hill climb is going to come back as the proving ground for performance; with no endurance requirement, the limitations of battery-powered cars are less obvious, even up against their petrol-powered peers.
And with custom EVs, as VW proved at Pikes Peak, the advantage clearly shifts in favor of all that torque.
Asked when he thought the electric record at Shelsley would next be broken, having stood for seven years before his Sunday run, Mitch definitely confirmed that hillclimb is where electric technology is heading to prove itself. “Probably not too far away. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was [broken] in the next 12 months, the technology’s developing so rapidly.
“It’s kind of frightening, because the electric potential is so big.”
Electric vehicles are a pretty new experience for the hillclimb aficionado, too - and probably about to cause some controversies if they make significant gains but at the end of the day, hillclimb isn’t about speed or even sound, it’s that grunt force shove to the drive train.