How Hyundai Took Tesla’s Lunch Money At Pikes Peak

By automotive-mag.com 15 Min Read

“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. “Because the stage is quite nice, even if there are some big drops.”

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, amid 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.

Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024

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.

Normally, automakers who enter Pikes Peak do so with years of prep, and millions of dollars invested. Take Volkswagen, Peugeot, and Ford. Each built its own completely custom silhouette racer with colossally powerful powertrains and physics-bending aerodynamics that hardly bore a relation to a terrestrial object, let alone a production car. Ford’s entry this year had about as much in common with its F-150 Lightning namesake as it does with a GT40.

Pikes Peak 2024

Ford, who also ran this year’s hill climb, has spent the better part of four years chasing–and failing–to secure the overall record set by the Volkswagen ID.R in 2018, and it’s not for lack of trying. Peugeot spent two years developing the 208 T16 that Sebastien Loeb piloted to a 2013 overall record. Loeb spent a month in Colorado Springs with a rented motorcycle, driving up the road several times per day and training at altitude to prepare for the race.

It seems strange, then, that Hyundai only gave itself six months to prepare for a race that most spend years developing for. But it took aggressive steps, hiring Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA), who handles their championship-winning IMSA TCR program, while also keeping things relatively simple.

It also helped that it started with the Ioniq 5 N, one of the meanest, most track-capable EVs ever created.

Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024

Two of the cars were stock Ioniq 5 Ns with the requisite safety equipment, with unchanged powertrains, wheels, tires, and stock aero, gunning for the production EV SUV record. The other two had more development crammed into them to gun for the overall modified EV record that Unplugged Performance has held with its modified Tesla Model S. BHA and some dedicated engineers from Hyundai’s head office in Korea worked together to optimize the cars in such a short timespan.

The TA Spec cars had 40 more horsepower than stock for a total of 680 hp. It’s a modest increase, but Hyundai carefully chose the number so that the I5N doesn’t overheat on its way to the summit, and could run at full power for the entire climb. The 2023 record-holding Unplugged Performance Tesla had to reduce power to manage battery temperatures.

Then, BHA turned to aftermarket partners with in-house production capabilities to make parts on short notice. Verus Engineering, an Indianapolis-based aerodynamics company, created the TA Spec’s aero package in CFD. The splitter is made from carbon fiber polyweave with 3D endplates, which is heavier than optimal but durable and easier to make in the time constraints. The wing is carbon fiber and colossal, featuring dual elements and semi-3D end plates to better manage wake and vortex drag. Completing the package was a unique feature underneath the side skirt that helps clean underbody airflow, which is already excellent due to the I5N’s flat floor.

Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024

Details of the Ioniq 5 N TA Spec.

For tires, 300mm wide Yokohama slicks and 11-inch wide forged wheels hide under a Hyundai-designed eN1 wide body kit from the I5N spec series it’s launching in Korea. Behind the wheels, Alcon brake calipers replace the stock hardware, along with upgraded brake pads. The front discs are actually smaller than stock, but the I5N’s regenerative braking is so strong (around 0.6g) that it doesn’t suffer in braking performance.

Where it does suffer, and BHA was open about it, is the simple but time-intensive detail work that makes a car truly fast. It is nearly full weight at around 4,650 pounds, which is only 150 pounds lighter than stock. It still uses the stock steering wheel, much of the stock body panels underneath the widebody kit, plenty of the stock electronics and systems, and a stock battery pack. BHA thinks it can easily lose another 500 lbs and possibly more with a trimmed-down battery pack.

Despite the rushed timeline, it was all looking promising. At the end of their full-course test runs a month before event, the I5Ns had over 60% charge left and a 50-degree Fahrenheit margin for overheating. During weeks of testing at the Hyundai Proving Grounds in Mojave, California, BHA was finding seconds in setup and felt a sub-10 minute Pikes Peak run was becoming extremely achievable. Data logging using a full array of sensors including air speed and suspension travel sensors helped the team set the car up quickly and efficiently. All that was left was putting it together for race day.

Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024

Ron Zaras piloting the 13 Ioniq 5 N on race day.

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.

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.

Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024
Hyundai Pikes Peak 2024

Assorted scenes at Friday practice.

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. Normally, the morning of Pikes Peak is a three-jackets-two-gloves-and-thermals kind of morning, but it was unusually warm. America’s record-breaking heat wave didn’t even leave Colorado’s mountain peaks untouched. I hardly needed a light jacket to watch from the shade at Engineer’s Corner.

The Hyundais ran in quick succession: Pobst was first up, setting the pace with a 9:55.55 on a green course, practically matching his 9:54.901 from 2023, but not beating it. Then Zaras ran third, setting a new production EV SUV record of 10:49.267. Finally, Sordo lined up third, and with him the hopes of dethroning Tesla.

pikespeak24-104

Dani Sordo on his record run at the 2024 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the Unplugged Performance Model S was no joke of a car. Years were poured into developing it, with an excellent aerodynamicist and suspension engineers behind the car. But its biggest weakness was always cooling, and the subsequent reduction in performance. Sure, it could run at over 1,000 horsepower, but not for the entire run. Pobst had to manage that car for his 2023 record, and was quick to say after his run in the Hyundai that he could push as hard as he wanted to the finish line.

Sordo, with next to no practice, and a car that was built in six months stormed up the hill in a blazing 9:30.852, handily beating the Tesla with zero battery management and maximum attack. Besting a record time set by a competent team is one thing. Beating it by 25 seconds is a slaughter.

“The Ioniq 5 N TA Spec was one heck of a machine. And it will only get better,” said Pobst enthusiastically after his run up the mountain. “Hopefully we can come back and be even faster.”

Sordo, in his Exhibition class victory, simply walked over to a bit shade and lounged instead of answering questions. A true aloof professional.

Pikes Peak 2024

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.

Top photo: Larry Chen

Chris Rosales is a staff writer at Motor1 and probably likes cars a little too much. He’s been around the Los Angeles car scene for a decade working as a freelance photographer, then as staff writer for Car Bibles and The Drive. You can catch Chris at an unhealthy amount of track days, on a mountain road, or in his home racing simulator. 

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