'We've got the weapon' – Millen and Bentley to tackle Pikes Peak

Hill Climb

Two-time Pikes Peak winner will drive the Bentayga SUV in Bentley’s bid to break Range Rover’s record

Pikes Peak veteran Rhys Millen will attempt to break the SUV record for Bentley, as the British manufacturer fields its Bentayga for the 96th running of the hillclimb on June 24. The existing record of 12 minutes 35.61 seconds was set by Range Rover in 2013.

The lime-green SUV, powered by a six-litre W12 engine, claims a 0-60mph of 4sec and a top speed of 187mph. However, Millen explains at Bentley’s Crewe factory, Pikes Peak’s punishing altitude throws up numerous obstacles.

“On a normally aspirated engine, the standard rule of thumb is three per cent loss for every thousand feet of climb. The start line is just shy of 10,000ft, so you’re already down 30 per cent on power. And you’re going to lose another 14/15 per cent, so at the top of the mountain it’s a 45 per cent loss – a noticeable difference if you’re in a naturally aspirated car with anything under 350 horsepower. That’s when displacement is the biggest factor. Credit to this car, it’s six litres, which is what you want. It’s basically a big air pump and when you’re trying to run a 1.6-litre highly strung engine at mid-altitude it does not like to perform.”

Millen won the event outright in 2012 and ’16 and has two hill records to his name: the electric record, set in 2016 driving the e0 PP100, of 8min 57.118sec, and the time attack production record of 10min 3.433sec in the 2017 Acura NSX. So he’s well versed when it comes to the physical challenge on Pikes Peak.

“Quite a lot of competitors have gone there with high blood pressure issues or altitude sickness, fainted, and crashed because of it,” he says. “To keep calm and focused we choose to run oxygen. That’s something that my dad did many, many years ago, and it kind of got handed down. Not a lot of people do it though. It’s a medical-grade oxygen, like in an aircraft over 12,000ft you’re required to have oxygen on board – it’s the same system. It’s on a regulated puls system and it’s just flowing into the helmet.”

Millen will test the Bentayga at Willow Springs, California, to gain thermal data for the transmission, brakes and engine, before a three-day test in Colorado takes place in mid-June. Though the track is covered in tarmac rather than dirt, set-up is still difficult on the new surface. “Maybe more so now that it’s paved,” he says, “because dirt required a more consistent set-up.

“When you practice in the morning, road temperature is very, very cold. It affects the chassis and tyre balance. So the programme runs from 5am to 11am and the balance of the car changes during the day. If you’re tuning for morning practices, on race day the car will be completely off. You’ll usually have the car be a little looser on practice knowing it will be higher on the race day.”

And although the classes of car are relatively unconstrained when it comes to technical regulations, the Bentley will retain most of its road-going features. The sunroof, carpets, wall panels and seats will have to be removed – so Millen won’t be able to use the massage function up the 20km climb…

The SUV will, however, run on 21- or 22-inch wheels (depending on which one comes out best during the upcoming test), it will keep its petrol W12 powerplant, eight-speed transmission and huge carbon-ceramic brakes.

“Not full-on carbon brakes,” clarifies Millen. “I used them in 2010 and it was one of the scariest things I’d ever done coming into a hairpin at 120mph… It felt like a three-second delay before they bit.”

The addition of fire extinguisher, roll cage and racing seats means that the Bentayga saves 300 kilograms from its gross weight of 3250kg, and Millen says that he will average around 75mph during the run, hitting a top speed of 125mph.

“It’s a pretty intense 10-12 minutes,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any real comparision. The intensity of the commitment of what you have – I guess you could relate it to the pressures of a qualifying lap. The pressures are probably far higher on the team and on the driver than a traditional race lap… but all of a sudden you’re in a comfortable, repetitive rhythm, trying to get everything out of the car.”

Bentley motor sport director Brian Gush is visibly confident, and there’s not much in the way of competition as of yet with just one other SUV on the entry list: an Acura RDX. But who knows whether Acura is gunning for the record.

“We think we’ve got the weapon to do it,” Gush explains. “We know we have. And it’s the best SUV with the best driver to get on the hill, and hopefully it comes together on the day.”

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