20 years ago, on 11 July 1987, Walter Röhrl and his Audi Sport quattro S1 won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb in the US state of Colorado.
Walter Röhrl and Audi, the best driver and the most successful rallying team at that time, enjoyed a close and always extremely intensive relationship. Röhrl, the world champion of 1980 and 1982, had joined the Ingolstadt team in 1984 at a time when the brand with the four rings dominated the entire rallying scene. The permanent four-wheel drive system left the rear-wheel-drive competitor vehicles with no chance whatsoever. A mere two years after first testing the Audi quattro at the end of 1980, Audi had already clinched the manufacturers’ world title. The Finn Hannu Mikkola won the drivers’ world championship in 1983, and in the following year Audi took both titles, with Stig Blomqvist from Sweden topping the drivers’ rankings.
From 1984 Audi’s rivals – Peugeot, Lancia, MG and Ford – also featured four-wheel drive to compete against the brand’s new racing car, the Sport quattro, whose wheelbase had been reduced to 222 centimetres. The regulations of what was then Group B imposed few restrictions in terms of technology; the fierce competition resulted in engines which generated over 370 kW (around 500 bhp). The supercar era ended in 1986; Audi withdrew from the World Championship.
In order to acquaint the US public, too, with the “art of engineering” (the slogan in the USA), Audi had entered the world’s best-known hill-climb race for the first time in 1984 – the “Race to the Clouds” on Pikes Peak in Colorado.
4,301 metres high, it is in the Rocky Mountains and is named after the explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who charted it by order of the US army. The first race was staged in 1916, and subsequently took place on a regular basis, generally on the national holiday, 4 July. At the start of the 1980s the organisers introduced a category for rallying cars – an ideal stage for high-tech brands such as Audi.
The Pikes Peak track is unique. The International Hill Climb, as the race is officially known, takes place in an environment where mountain racers feel at home. It starts at a height of 2,866 metres at Crystal Creek, and the route to the summit is 19.99 kilometres in length with an average upward gradient of seven percent.
The S1, with which Röhrl took part as the only Audi driver in 1987, was a high-tech driving machine of pure, maximised functionality. The 2.1-litre five-cylinder engine, installed longitudinally at the front of the vehicle, had a nominal power output of some 440 kW (around 600 bhp) at 8,000 rpm and 590 Nm of torque at 5,500 rpm. At the top of Pikes Peak the power output actually available would have been approximately 330 kW (around 450 bhp).
The power of the five-cylinder engine was transmitted via a six-speed gearbox, which even then used the dual-clutch principle – a pioneering feat by Audi – on a quattro driveline equipped with three locking differentials. The four 16-inch wheels, fitted with Michelin tyres, were mounted on double wishbones. On Pikes Peak, where the route almost always led upwards, Audi used a small and correspondingly light brake system.
On 11 July 1987, the day of the race, the organisers made the drivers start the race in the reverse order of their results in qualifying. Vatanen brought up the rear of the field, with Röhrl one place in front of him. The man from Regensburg, always calm and collected at the wheel, conquered the world’s most elevated highway in a new world record time of 10:47:85 minutes. He reached sixth gear in the S1 on four occasions, and at the quickest point of the track was measured at a speed of 196 km/h. Röhrl took each of the 156 corners with razor-sharp precision and performed full power-slides around the hairpin bends; sometimes the edge of the car was actually hanging over the precipice.