The clouds parted just long enough to let sunlight timidly lick the surface of the Nürburgring race track in Germany. The previous night, I watched in amusement as an amateur racer had a blast taking a fully stock, 1970s Volkswagen bus around the former Grand Prix track in the pouring rain.
On this wet late-April morning, however, I was waiting for a very different kind of Volkswagen to zip around the Nordschleife: the fully electric ID R, a purpose-designed race car that shares little more than a name and a few minor styling cues with the other ID-badged cars, like the Crozz, the Vizzion, and the Buzz.
The ID R’s siblings are close-to-production design studies that preview electric cars normal motorists who have never competed in a race—let alone won one—won’t have to wait long to commute in. The ID R, on the other hand, proved its mettle in 2018 by shattering the all-time Pikes Peak Hill Climb record without burning a drop of gasoline.
It’s facing a completely different challenge at the ‘Ring, where Volkswagen’s Motorsport division is embarking on a bold quest to set a new record in the electric car category. As it stands, the 22nd-century-esque Nio EP9 reigns supreme with a time of six minutes and 45.9 seconds set in 2017. To add context, the Porsche 919 Evo holds the overall record of five minutes and 19.55 seconds.
The Nürburgring "is the most demanding track in the world,” Volkswagen Motorsport boss Sven Smeets told Green Car Reports. “Winning here is not the same as winning at Spa; if you can win here, you can win everywhere,” he added. That’s why Volkswagen chose the ‘Ring as the R’s next challenge.
He has a point. Commonly called the Green Hell by those who have tamed it, the ‘Ring is a brutal, 12.9-mile monster of a course that zig-zags through a thick forest in the western part of Germany. Dozens of turns, blind corners, and constant elevation changes are on the menu. There’s a good reason why companies from all over the automotive spectrum test, tune, and race their cars on the Nordschleife.
Slipping under the EP9’s time with a mass-produced model that complies with safety and emissions regulations would be nearly impossible, which is why there’s really no direct connection with VW’s upcoming all-electric production models.
Volkswagen ID R Nürburgring
The ongoing record attempt is not just a marketing stunt, though. For well over a century, automakers have funneled the lessons learned by accelerating, turning, braking, and sometimes crashing in all kinds of motorsport events to their production cars. Audi and Porsche notably spent decades racing cars equipped with a dual-clutch automatic transmission before the technology trickled down to the Volkswagen Golf R32 in 2004. The ID R program is no different; the prototype clearly won’t spawn a production model, but the takeaways are nonetheless significant.
Takeaways that can carry through to the road, not just the track
“We’re learning a lot about battery management, software, and energy recovery,” François-Xavier Demaison, Volkswagen Motorsport’s technical director, told Green Car Reports as engineers and mechanics huddled around one of the two Rs propped up on jack stands in the pit lane.
Smeets pointed out one of the main takeaways from the project is learning how to predict and control what happens when you push a battery pack to its limit, and Demaison said that Volkswagen is also gaining a tremendous amount of knowledge about developing a battery pack that strikes an ideal balance between power density and energy density.
The team hasn’t confirmed details regarding the cells used in the pack, but last year said that they’re not the same ones to be used in the production ID models. However, they’ve clinched valuable knowledge about keeping weight in check when designing the components of an electric powertrain.
That’s one of the lessons the engineers in charge of sending Volkswagen’s recent string of ID concepts from the auto show floor to the showroom floor will carefully study when they exchange notes with their colleagues in the Motorsport department.
As the R sped out of the pits emitting an extragalactic whine on a test run, Smeets reminisced about the project that has monopolized the bulk of his time since 2017. “It’s Volkswagen’s first record car. As a company, the learning curve has been steep for the last two years.”
That’s why the R needs to bring something to the brand beyond records; getting to this point has required a substantial amount of time and money.