Running Up That Hill

Running Up That Hill 1
Screenshot courtesy YouTube
Running Up That Hill 2
Photo by Rupert Berrington
Running Up That Hill 3
Photo by Rupert Berrington
Running Up That Hill 4
Photo by Rupert Berrington

As a companion piece to the print edition, this is the complete transcription of an interview with Paul Ritchie, Andrew Gregory, and Jim LaBine of Porsche Motorsport North America. They were the team responsible for preparing Jeff Zwart’s record-setting GT3 Cup car for the 2010 Pikes Peak hill climb.

It should be noted that Paul Ritchie has since been replaced as president of PMNA for reasons not fully explained. However, there can be no doubting his personal enthusiasm for motorsport in all forms and the success of Porsche and Porsche powered cars in competition during his tenure.

These interviews were done individually at PMNA during the month of August 2010.

Paul Ritchie

Excellence: How did this all come about? Did Zwart just say, “Hey I want to go up a hill?”

Paul Ritchie: Jeff had won six times in his class and always in production cars. For several years he considered a Cup car, as it had never been done before, and a few weeks before the event he finally took receipt of a 2007 GT3 Cup car and asked us to take a look at it, so we did.

Who came up with the idea of stuffing a 3.8 in it?

Ritchie: If Jeff was representing both the brand and the Cup car, we wanted to give him the best opportunity to get to the top of the hill, and we needed something with some grunt in it because you lose power (at higher elevations) being a non-turbo. We used this opportunity to run Jeff and, potentially in the future, run more Cup cars; we wanted to evaluate our latest and greatest. So we put the 3.8 motor in there with the RSR exhaust system to give him the maximum torque.

That sounds a bit too simplistic to me; there has to be more to the effort. What data were you relying on?

Ritchie: Yes, it was considerably more complex. The Cup car had never run above 14,000 feet anywhere in the world. Andrew did his research and remapped the management system. Eric Bloss had a conversation during the ALMS race at Laguna Seca with Roland Kusmaul and he later provided suggestions for spring rates and the set up. We did the suspension modestly; just softened it up a bit, played with aero settings.

It is interesting that you mention Roland Kusmaul. His resume at Weissach Flacht includes the Paris Dakar efforts, Monte Carlo, and even the special GT3 rally cars. He knows his way around the dirt as well as he knows circuit racing.

Ritchie: Roland is a great asset to have when you want to ask questions like this. Very few people have been there before and Roland has. He knew the product very well and he immediately gave us a happy response and made his suggestions, and that’s what we put in the car. It ran so well that Jeff didn’t want to change anything. We did a short test at the former El Toro airbase, as Jeff was not familiar with the sequential shift, and then went straight to Pikes Peak.

You have personally done pro rally but this was your first time to Pikes Peak. Did it live up to its reputation?

Ritchie: Absolutely. I was fortunate enough to go up and down the hill with Jeff and with Rod Millen. Being able to go up the hill and have such incredible drivers showing where you want to be on each corner and how to take a certain corner, what to look for, what not to look for, it was a very interesting experience.

Based on the practice and qualifying sessions, were you and your team surprised at just how quick the Cup car was?

Ritchie: We knew the car could be quick. There was less gravel and less dust at the top, which immediately showed us that we didn’t need too much additional ride height. There is not a lot of clearance on this car. It was raised, but only half an inch, and that helped us understand the surface at that point.

Did you make any aero changes between practice and the actual race?

Ritchie: No real changes other than a 2010 Cup car rear wing and some little dive planes on the front, more for decoration, but they all seemed to work very well together. You need time in the wind tunnel (to test aero pieces) so we went with what we knew. In addition, we were trying to mimic the current 2010 car because that is potentially what we would propose to use in the future if we ran a series of cars for Pikes Peak.

How many people were involved in this from PMNA?

Ritchie: I got to watch (laughs), Andrew did the remapping and data, and Jim LaBine did all the hardware; he really was the one who built the car.

Jim LaBine?

Ritchie: Yes. The supervisor. Jim has got a lot of off-road experience and a lot of Cup car experience so he was in his element bolting this together with all the parts we had.

You guys achieved sixth overall with Zwart and a skeleton crew from PMNA like it was a Jr. High talent show. You went with the minimum amount of time and money put into this and you came out in front of manufacturers that spent some big bankrolls to compete, and only behind cars that are basically prototype machinery. And that’s almost a real return to Porsche engineering, where just a handful of people decided, “This would be a pretty good thing to do, and we can do it and be successful.” No board meetings, endless memos, marketing tests, just results.

Ritchie: We could say that we didn’t invest much in it, but then we have over ten years’ investment in the Cup car. Essentially, when you start with a race car you don’t have to build a race car like a lot of the people do with their road-based vehicles. Now, it’s road based, but it’s already a racecar out of the box, and we just had to adapt it to the altitude and the surface. Clearly, when Jeff drove it, he’d never driven anything like it before, having always driven modified road cars. You could see there was a huge incremental difference in taking the Cup car.

Zwart’s past effort was with a GT2, a turbocharged car. You would think there would be an advantage despite it being a heavier car. The turbo allows it to work in the higher altitudes, yet he just completely demolished that previous time.

Ritchie: The Cup car had a very balanced package and we had the right grip, with a good tire from Pirelli. It just made a very big difference having 300-400 pounds less weight to carry.

Is it true that Pirelli modified its Cup (GRAND AM) rain tire?

Ritchie: Pirelli didn’t modify it, they gave us the GRAND AM rain tire and that’s what we ran — exactly that tire right out of the box.

Let’s go back to this point. You said you had a race car; isn’t that sort of a contradiction? The GT3 Cup car is closely related to the car on which it’s based and had results normally expected from some of the big budget teams with cars that are less related to their production counterparts. In addition, Zwart wasn’t that much slower than purpose built race machinery.

Ritchie: That’s a little bit like our track story; we are a manufacturer, and probably the only one that builds a race car on line with our production cars. We start with a very stiff structure in the production car because it is a sports car, and then just take it to the next level into the race car. Whether it’s racing on a track or racing on a hill, it’s a purpose-built race car at that point, and they are built in such large numbers it keeps it very cost effective.

But how does that appear compared with the cost of effectiveness of three guys from PMNA and a single car trailer going to Pikes Peak?

Ritchie: Well, it was probably like going back twenty to thirty years in that respect and it was very low budget for us. We didn’t have to do too much to the car and it was a first time event for us. It wasn’t like we turned up the first day ready to go, but we had enough to get the car where it needed to be; Andrew spent many hours perfecting the (ECU) mapping for the elevation changes.

Will you attempt to build a kit to modify Cup cars to run the mountain, say for next year?

Ritchie: We had a very good collaboration with the Colorado Springs Porsche dealership and they were very accommodating; they would be very interested if we turned up with more cars next year. The organizing body was extremely interested in talking with me about potentially creating more road car-based racing on the hill, especially as there is going to be more tarmac.

Have you had any interest from other drivers since the event?

Ritchie: Yes, several, including Patrick Long and Wolf Henzler; they are both interested in adding Pikes Peak to their resume.

The whole effort seems to have generated a real buzz here. It’s a real U.S. win.

Ritchie: Incredible response. I took the car to St. Charles in Chicago to show it at the PCA annual Parade and then to Laguna Seca for the Monterey event.

So the car went from Pikes Peak to PMNA and then to the parade in Chicago and finally Monterey, well received, all hail the conquering hero?

Ritchie: Yes, absolutely, everybody seemed to know all about the car. I didn’t even have to talk about it much because they had all been following it on the various websites. The PCA guys were just crazy about it. They had followed it every day and on every release that Jeff made. We had the car in prime display at Laguna Seca and Jeff gave a talk on the run that drew a large crowd. It was on the video, all the noises, the drama. People came in all day and told me this is what a Porsche is all about, the sound. I would call that a success. Jeff stayed an extra hour to sign copies of the official poster that Porsche had printed. A great time for all involved in this project.

Andrew Gregory

So Paul comes walking into the dyno room and says, “Want to go to Pikes Peak?”

Gregory: Yes, and a few other comments. (laughs)

Tell me about the 3.8 motor; what specification did you build it to?

Gregory: The 2010 World Challenge specs, with an exhaust system used for GRAND AM.

How did you go about mapping the ECU? I assume it was your first time there.

Gregory: Yes, my first time. On the mapping, I looked at the altitude and air density and possible minimum barometric pressure, and then I had to rescale the
barometric pressure table in the ECU because it only went down to 600 millibars. We were going to see less than 600 millibars, so I scaled it to go down to
400 millibars.

Were you surprised how fast Zwart was right out of the box after looking at the data following the first practice? Did you find other areas that you thought you could have improved?

Gregory: I was pleased with how quick he went immediately but I could see that the fueling still needed some work, so basically over the period of several runs I corrected the air table multiple times to get the fueling where I wanted it.

Zwart said that there was one section where he felt he was going quickly and you told him, after looking at the data, that he could go even faster, and he went out and went the speed you suggested; pretty ballsy!

Gregory: Well, we had tons of the data to look at and so after every run I was going through data, looking at maximum speeds to compare and overlay one run against another. I was seeing the benefits, so we saw the best of every run together because we did maybe four or five runs on one section. Some runs on this part would be quicker or that part would be quicker, and it was a matter of overlaying the data and looking at the variances between the runs, piecing it all together and saying, “OK, if we take this part of this run and that part of that run and put it all together, then obviously the whole run will be quicker.”

Watching the in-car video, Jeff Zwart’s use of the sequential box looked like he had been doing it for years. In fact, from the mechanical sympathy point of view, he appeared to be using it much better than most of the cup and RSR drivers I have seen. And considering that it was all new to him…

Gregory: Yeah he did really, really good. He lifted on the downshift, that’s a good point. And he did that very well. He did have some missed up shifts, but that happens anywhere. In particular he had some on the gravel when he had some wheel spin trying to go from first to second, so we actually found that it was better for him to lift slightly rather than trying to shift at full throttle.

To carry the momentum?

Gregory: Yes.

Sixth overall and a modified production car versus pure out-and-out prototype racing cars; how surprised were you?

Gregory: Well, as we ran everyday you could see that the 12:09 was definitely a realistic target, and to be honest, on the last (part) of the qualifying day, that was obviously Jeff’s favorite session. He did a 5:19, I believe it was, on the first run and then did two 5:04s, which we knew was good enough for the record for sure … we were ready to put the car on the trailer after the second or third run because (we thought): Where were we going to learn anything more? But obviously we had time for another run, so we did another run, and Jeff said he was going to take it easy and drive it nicely. He came back with a 5:01, so it really just got better every run. And to be quite honest, over all the runs over all three days of practice he went faster and faster and faster in every section. Obviously (we ran) one section per day, but we never had a run that was slower than the previous run in the same section. Every time I guess he learned something, so every time he went in and out again, he went faster again, and he just managed to keep going faster. So by the time we got to the end on Friday, the 12:09 was very realistic and probably we already knew we had that barring any mistakes; we had that in the bag. From there it was how fast were we really going to go? For me, I had in my mind that 11:45 — 11:40 maybe — would be absolutely fantastic, and then when I heard he did an 11:31… It was unbelievable really.

Not bad for a couple of guys who had never been there, with a driver who had…

Gregory: Yeah. Honestly Jeff was the big factor in that because with 156 corners there is no way to learn (Pikes Peak) in three days. It is obviously a culmination of all the years he has been there. So the car was obviously very, very good, but the driver was also very good too.

And professionalism aside, you were obviously very pleased?

Gregory: I was really, really happy. The thing is … I’d heard of Rod Millen and Pikes Peak when I lived in England years ago and never did I even think that it was something I would ever go and do. A lot of people were interested in the car when we were there because it is probably the first time that a cup car has ever run (Ed.: It is). Also, the car performed better than we expected it to, so there were no issues with the car at all. It was nice to be involved in something like that and obviously the end result was phenomenal, you know? Very, very good…..

Jim LaBine

Rumor has it that you were responsible for bolting Zwart’s car together.

LaBine: Yes (expressionless).

So what mechanical changes other than with the 3.8 did your off-road expertise bring to this?

LaBine: Well, we took his car and changed the spring rates on it, the camber settings, the ride height, removed the steering stops so he would have tighter turning, and obviously changed the tires to the Pirellis, and went up there and adjusted from each session.

Andrew stated that the car in each session actually got faster, so it was one of those things that each improvement resulted in a faster car. That goes against the usual flow of things when trial and error is involved. Did you have a pretty good idea how to adjust the car, even though your previous trips to Pikes Peak had been on motorcycles?

LaBine: We had a basic set-up that was pretty good, and then I think as Jeff drove the car and got to know the car better we made adjustments and kind of went the way we were supposed to go, which was forwards not backwards.

Are you surprised just how good the Cup car really was? That’s a phenomenal record, especially in the overall positioning when you consider what people spend on prototype vehicles purely for a hill climb.

LaBine: Yeah, I was a little surprised. I figured that the car not being turbocharged would suffer some at the high altitude, but according to Jeff it had plenty of power, so it just shows what a versatile car the 997 cup car is — that you can take it from the race track to Pikes Peak and do what we did with it.

How do you top that? Seriously, what modifications would you still go further with today? Or would that then turn it into a pure prototype hill climb car?

LaBine: I don’t know. I kind of think that the balance between the horsepower that he has with the traction that was available probably worked in our favor. It obviously seems like it is a pretty good car.

It’s interesting if you look at Zwart’s GT2: He had a turbocharged engine, which functions well at high altitude, yet the Cup car was much, much faster. Granted there is a weight difference, but it was a perfect storm; everything just worked to benefit.

LaBine: I think the balance, like I said earlier, was just about perfect on it. After watching the in car footage there are areas that could be improved upon, but I don’t think you are going to take one of the Cup cars up there and cut a minute off that time next year. It is going to be small increments now.

What do you consider the most critical part of the run up the hill to be? That time of transition from asphalt to gravel? Was there is an adjustment of style to how the car reacts?

LaBine: Yeah, that and the fact the driver has a lot to do with it. Knowing each and every corner probably helped and Jeff has been up there (many times). So it’s just as much the driver as it is the car.

How were you able to come up with the spring package without any raw data to refer to?

LaBine: We have the weight of the car and we run street tires in some of the other series, so we sort of know what the street tires need as far as spring rates. We just kind of went from there. We got some input from Germany, through Roland Kusmaul, and came up with a package and it happened to work out for us.

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