Robin Shute: The Motor Sport Interview

The name might not be instantly recognisable, yet this British driver is a master of his craft. On the eve of its 100th running the two-time Pikes Peak conqueror tells us of his fascination with ‘the Mountain’

Robin Shute portrait

Larry Chen Photo

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There is something deliciously serendipitous about a chap from pancake-flat Norfolk becoming the only British driver to have conquered the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb – at least in terms of overall wins on four wheels (Guy Martin claimed the invitational two-wheeled class in 2014). A California-based expat since 2011, Shute joined a hallowed roll-call that includes Mario Andretti, Bobby and Robby Unser, Michèle Mouton, Walter Röhrl and Ari Vatanen on his third attempt at the great Colorado mountain event in 2019, then repeated the feat in ’21. This time, on June 26 at the 100th running, he’ll chase a hat-trick, but also a target that means a deal more: the mountain record.

Never heard of him? You’re forgiven if that’s the case. Shute has flown low under the radar these past few years, partly because he’s an amateur racer with a relatively humble record in various GT series and Formula Pro Mazda single-seaters, but largely because he doesn’t drive for a major car manufacturer throwing dollars at Pikes Peak to make its point. Vatanen’s 1988 victory in a Peugeot 405 T16, and the amazing Climb Dance film that captured it, became for most of us the defining Pikes Peak image of an event that dates back to 1916 – which is precisely why Peugeot went back in 2013 with Sébastien Loeb and a bespoke 208 T16. The rally champion set a new mountain record of 8min 13.878sec over the 12.42-mile ascent that features 156 turns, a climb of 4720ft and a heady altitude at the finish of 14,115ft, and which since 2011 has been completely paved (making comparisons to the old loose-surface years completely redundant).

Loeb’s internal combustion engine mark is the first target Shute is aiming for this year. But he’s vowing to keep going back even if he hits it, because what he really wants to beat is the outright record, set by Romain Dumas in the incredible all-electric Volkswagen ID R. Dumas managed a dumbfounding 7min 57.148sec in 2018, so Shute has some way to go. His winning time in 2019 was 9min 12.476sec, while last year poor weather at the summit forced a shortened finish to just nine miles. But as Robin tells us, there’s plenty of time to be found in his car, a long-tailed Wolf sports racer powered by a 550bhp Mountune-developed 2.1-litre K-series Honda turbo that runs in the Unlimited class.

Robin Shute on Pikes PEak in his Wolf with twisting road in background

Tackling one of the 156 turns on Pikes Peak – but is Robin’s Wolf fast enough to take the overall record from the VW ID R? He thinks it is

Larry Chen Photo

Shute originally moved to the States to begin his career as an automotive engineer at Tesla. But through his team, The Sendy Club, he now has ambitions to turn full-time as he chases the dream of his personal ‘Race to the Clouds’.

Motor Sport: Racing a powerful downforce-laden car up a mountain is… eccentric. Would you agree?

“My first time was 2017 with Faraday’s FF91, a 2.5-tonne SUV”

RS: “Yes! I regard myself as pretty lucky that I’m able to head off on this adventure each year. There aren’t many things like Pikes Peak left. There’s the Isle of Man TT, but land speed records are almost unobtainable now, seeing how the Bloodhound project struggled to raise the finance to get its programme together. Pikes Peak hits the sweet spot of being accessible – as I have the resource and people around me to make it happen – and I can be competitive for what is a big challenge. It’s super-special.”

The road has been fully paved since 2011. What’s it like to race up the mountain?

RS: “Bonkers! For the most part, it’s a fast and flowing course with smooth asphalt, punctuated with hairpin bends. Then the top gets insanely bumpy – the kind of bumps that rattle your brain. It’s faster to set up the car stiff and low for the good asphalt and accept that you will lose some brain cells on the top section.

I can’t really comment too much about the gravel, as I never drove it that way. But the speeds are a lot higher now, and that comes with its own challenges and reduced margins for error. The cars looked spectacular in the gravel days; I can see why people miss the loose surface.”

Lotus Exige GT4 of Robin Shute

he mid-2010s saw Robin driving for Stratton Motorsport in the British GT4 series

You’re originally from Norfolk. What was the trigger for your Pikes Peak infatuation?

RS: “I always knew what Pikes Peak was, but thought of it as ‘unobtainium’. My father [Tony Shute, below, a development driver who worked for Goodyear, Lotus and Caterham] was a huge rally man and owned an Audi Quattro, so with that came an awareness. But directly mine came from Gran Turismo 2, which had the mountain on there. I was eight or nine when I played that. Then there’s the clips and film. Sébastien Loeb pulled it into the modern era with his record run in the Peugeot in 2013 and there was a lot of footage created around that. That cemented the challenge in my mind.

Tony Shute

Then I was lucky to get the opportunity at [electric-powered start-up] Faraday Future, where I was made reserve driver. They wanted to put in an entry at Pikes Peak and were planning to use a Formula E driver because of a sponsorship deal they had at the time. They were close to the deadline for entry and I had the required race licences, so they asked if I could be named. They said I probably wouldn’t end up driving, but I might… Then the company got behind me to drive rather than getting the star from Formula E.

When I got to the mountain I felt very at home. From that point I realised I wanted to go for the mountain record and win overall. It’s been my pursuit ever since.”

This year marks your fifth attempt. Tell us about the story so far.

RS: “My first time was 2017 with Faraday’s FF91, a 1000bhp electric SUV weighing in at 2.5 tonnes. Not really a race car… but we made it so for the attempt. We branded it as a testing exercise, which it was. Then 2018 was the first year with the Wolf and that was a baptism of fire when Volkswagen turned up with the ID R. We were battling our own gremlins and never got to be competitive. Then we went back and won in 2019 and 2021.”

Were you hard-pushed to prepare the car for what became your second win last year?

RS: “We had a mad panic to get the car built, then had an engine issue where the first one we installed had to come back out and a fresh motor had to be driven from California at 2pm on a Friday afternoon. It arrived at 3pm on Saturday. We got the engine in the car, dyno tested it from midnight to 4pm, then got the rest of the car together and headed to the track for a shakedown that evening. So we built the car, dyno-tested the engine and shook it down in the space of about 24 hours. It was a pretty monumental achievement.”

Steering wheel of Wolf Pikes Peak car

Flying the flag with The Sendy Club

Sebastian Loeb crosses the finish line at the top of Pikes Peak

Sébastien Loeb at Pikes Peak with the Peugeot 208 T16, 2013

How did the practice week go?

RS: “Really good and all the new bits on the car worked out as expected. We had a few challenges with a couple of mechanical issues, then qualifying ended up being wet. We beat Romain Dumas [in a Porsche 911 GT2 RS Clubsport] who also ran in the rain, and even compared to the other qualifying group who qualified in the dry we were still able to be fourth overall and only about three seconds off pole position. Not bad.”

The weather scuppered your hopes of going for the record, with the finish line brought down the mountain. Other than that, how was your race run?

RS: “The bottom was running really fast, the track was a good temperature and I had a lot of grip. Then as we started to get into the weather the Tarmac was cooling down and giving up a bit of grip. The mid-section became harder and then once I got to the top I drove through some fog, came out the other side and it was a winter wonderland! The finish line photos are in a wintry landscape, which is funny with an open-wheel race car.

“The biggest mistake was we forgot to turn my oxygen supply on, so I was huffing and puffing my way up the mountain. It was really physical and hard work, and it was a conscious effort to breathe. It was a distraction and there are another couple of seconds there. I was physically hanging on.”

You ended up beating Dumas by a whopping 36 seconds. Did you expect that?

RS: “Yeah, I did. I knew what was in the car and that we had a good run in us. Myself and Rhys [Millen, Bentley Continental GT3] both had a good bottom section, and Romain looked like he struggled a bit on the bottom because he was at a similar pace to still-wet qualifying. Then Rhys had an issue in the final section when he blew up his carbon-fibre intake so he lost his turbo boost. We had a pretty good run. Rhys’s struggles made the gap perhaps bigger, but I was well aware of the pace that was in the car. It was more a factor of me getting tuned into the car and the mountain.”

Robin Shute at Pikes Peak

Robin is the only British winner of the legendary hillclimb; 2022 would be his third victory

You’re preparing for the 100th running this June. What performance upgrades are you bringing to the car?

RS: “It’s probably the most amount I’ve made year on year and that’s a risk because I never like to do too many things at once. We have a couple of major things. On aerodynamics, we’ve put a full-tunnel floor on the car and a much bigger front wing, adding about 50% more downforce on last year. Each year we’ve added half again and this last one is a big leap, which creates other issues such as the amount of load going through the car. It’s 1.4 tonnes of downforce at 100mph, so more than a Formula 1 car and similar to the Volkswagen I DR – except we’re lighter: only 580kg at dry weight, ready to race with me in it, about 650kg. Making that work for us might be tricky.

“We were on pace with Loeb in 2021 to the Devil’s Playground”

“On tyres, we have a new partner in Yokohama [Shute ran on Pirellis last year]. It’s a cool partnership because I believe we’re the first people outside of Japan to get our hands on the Super Formula single-seater tyres. That tyre just about squeezes on to the car. It’s a significant performance boost in terms of the amount of load the tyre can take because Super Formula cars are some of the fastest-cornering around, so the tyres are a really capable product and open up the performance to use that extra downforce. That’s really exciting. It’s a road-racing tyre rather than a hillclimb tyre, so it comes with some development. We’re up for the challenge.

“The other big upgrade is the suspension. We’re now partnering with R53 who are renowned for their shock absorbers in the WRC and cross-country off-roading. They are the only fitment now on Gordon Murray’s T.50 and the Revolution sports car. Their expertise comes from WRC and that’s what we need, dealing with the bumps. We were struggling with that at the top of the mountain last year.”

Who are you up against this time?

RS: “I 100% want more competition. The big one is JR Hildebrand in a contemporary Dallara Indycar. He had it last year but wasn’t able to run, but I believe he’ll be there this time. It will be really awesome to see that car and it would be great to compete against it.

“Then we have Rod Millen in his Toyota Tacoma [a Goodwood Festival of Speed favourite], which I’m excited to see. People will be surprised how fast that is. It’s cited in aerodynamic textbooks for how it is put together. There’s huge potential in the car. Basically it’s a single-seater frame with a Toyota truck body slapped on it. There are also two more Wolfs now, the new Ford V8-engined single-seater and another chassis similar to mine with a Hartley Hayabusa V8 engine. They will be quick. Then on the closed-top side, Rhys Millen [son of Rod] is back with a Porsche 911 GT3 R with big turbos on it. He’s always competitive and that car is potent, similar in performance to the Bentley he ran last year. It should run in under nine minutes. We’ll hopefully be quicker than that.”

Robin Shute at summit of Pikes Peak with king of the mountain flag

King of the Mountain on the 99th running

Is the record in reach for you?

RS: “I feel like it is. It’s really hard to say until I run the car with all the upgrades, then get a feel for how it sits and how the tyres work. Also how stable the downforce is. But looking at the data from last year I was a lot faster than I was expecting. Last year’s aero package delivered well. There were just a few set-up issues which we didn’t have time to dial out. The bottom section I’m confident we can get into a place that’s equal to the ID R. The middle section as well, we’ll be there. Then it’s down to the top section and the level of re-paving they do. Also how well our suspension works up there, how much I can push flat out.

Last year I had to baby the car through the bumps. I was nowhere near flat. If that comes together and the weather holds, we’ll have a shot. It’s between me and the car. We were on pace with Loeb in 2021 to the Devil’s Playground [where the race ended because of the weather]. I’m confident in saying we’re in touch for the internal combustion record and I’ve engineered the car so it’s capable of going for the outright mountain record.”

All week you only practice the mountain in sections because it’s a public road, then get one single run over the full 12 miles on race day. What’s that like?

RS: “I enjoy the challenge. It makes that one run very special. It’s a hugely frantic and intense moment. Honestly, I think it’s quite good because if you had too much exposure to the mountain for full runs you’d push too hard, and you’d make poor judgements. It puts a lot of strain on driver and car. It’s a very different style of driving compared to road racing. It is more in tune with rallying. The cars don’t look like rally cars, but it’s closer to a rally-style event.

From a machine perspective, if you have a technical problem, you’ve got to wait another year. That’s the killer. I still haven’t had a clean run in the four years I’ve done it so far. The likelihood of weather and mechanical issues coming at you means it’s a rare opportunity to have a good clean run up to the top.”

Cockpit of Robin Shute Wolf car

You feel those straps as air thins on the way to the top

Engine of Robin Shute Wolf Pikes Peak car

Mountune-developed 550bhp 2.1-litre Honda K-series engine

And you’ll want to switch your oxygen supply on this time! What effect does the altitude have on you?

RS: “It is really noticeable, huge. It’s something you are conscious of from the get-go. You have to pay attention to how you are reacting compared to how you are expecting to react. You must focus on breathing and you’re strapped in so tightly by the belts it’s difficult to open and close your lungs the amount you need. That’s the normal adaptation you make when you are at altitude; you fill your lungs to get more oxygen. But with the belts you are not able to. You get this tunnel vision style of consciousness and you just have to be aware and get used to it. It’s a little unnerving. You have to manage yourself accordingly. Oxygen does make a big difference because you go from sea level physicality to being oxygen-starved. It’s like holding your breath while you are driving a race car.”

You can’t see the drops from where you are sitting, but you know they are there… What’s that psychological challenge like to deal with?

RS: “It’s something that bothers me more on the way down than on the way up. On the way up I’m a little busy! You just know on the climb you can’t risk everything, you can’t afford a mistake. You have to drive with a little bit of margin. That’s the difference between the good and bad drivers: a good driver can drive with a bit of margin and not be that much slower. You’re at nine-tenths, but you are only giving up a tenth or two per kilometre. Someone like Loeb in the WRC, he was so fast yet he didn’t have to push to the limit, so he rarely crashed. That’s how he did it.

“I’m on the verge of doing this full-time as a driver and team owner”

“On the way down I’m petrified because you have the time to look around and see how exposed it is. The car doesn’t have a lot of steering lock either so it’s a conscious effort to get it through the hairpins. When you are racing up you get the weight transfer so the car is eager to rotate around the turns. On the way down the tyres are cold and you just don’t have the weight transfer, so you are understeering, scrubbing the tyres and the diff is slightly tight. All my scary moments have been driving downhill.

“We’ve had years where it has snowed. Normally on race day in the afternoons snow and hail come, so typically you are driving down in a cold car on snow and ice. That’s also petrifying. Then there’s fog, so you can’t see where you are going. One year we did anti-lag development on the way down and used a really pushy setting, and I almost drove the car off the side of the mountain at the hairpin because it wouldn’t slow down.”

Robin Shute in his Wolf car on Pikes Peak

This year’s Pikes Peak Hill Climb, on June 26, will be its 100th running – and Robin’s fifth attempt

So you use the downhill run for testing?

RS: “If you’re having issues with the car it gives you a chance to figure out what’s going on.”

You say they are resurfacing the top.

RS: “They’re trying to. I don’t know how much they are going to do. The latest I heard was, weather dependent, they would put some work into the really bad areas. We were running with 20mm suspension travel last year. Letting the car breathe a little doesn’t hurt up there. You have a couple of big bumps, one going into Bottomless Pit and one coming out of Glen Cove that are like jumps. Bottomless Pit is actually a pit in the road. There’s footage of Dumas last year taking off there.”

You’re an engineer in California by day.

RS: “At the moment. I’m on the verge of doing this full-time as a driver and team owner. I’m moving over to rally, rallycross and hillclimb. I’ve always wanted to do this but never had the chance. Now it’s easier for me. I love driving; I’m doing all I can to make it happen.”

Volkswagen ID R on Pikes Peak

Romain Dumas and the Volkswagen ID R became the first sub-8min car at Pikes Peak

Your exploits are a little unheralded. Have you had much recognition in the UK?

RS: “It’s been mostly quiet. The 2021 victory triggered more recognition in the UK and news spread, plus
I did a run at Shelsley Walsh. I’m not doing it for that; it’s for the record. But recognition is nice.”

What kind of response do you get in the States?

RS: “I did some filming for [YouTube channel] Hoonigan, which has brought the programme to a much broader audience. We’ve had more than 2.5 million views. There’s nothing else like this car and it’s very different to any other kind of motor sport, so I have that challenge of really explaining what we do. In terms of the Pikes Peak community, I’m lucky to have been there for a while and I’ve made good friends. They know who I am, what I’m about and what I’m going for. It’s great to have that support. And I think everyone wants to see the Volkswagen record broken! The big company coming in, spending loads of money and then leaving never sits well. Everyone is excited we are getting there and have the potential to do it. We’re bringing it back to the true spirit.

“The frustrating thing is that everyone thinks electric is the only way to win on the mountain. Yes, altitude doesn’t affect electric so much, but we’ve got the systems with internal combustion to get very close. Internal combustion is still the way to go, having run and understood both. It’s sad people have been put off by the ‘Electric Dream’ VW sold versus the reality that people can come with gasoline cars and challenge.”

What’s it like to be a two-time winner of Pikes Peak?

RS: “It was really nice to prove the performance potential of the car last year. Although we didn’t get the numerical result we wanted or the financial result – there’s a lot of money at stake for going under eight minutes – it’s looking good for the 100th running.”