Romain Dumas has conquered the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb, and won 24-hour races at the Nürburgring, Le Mans and Spa. Yet even he describes the Tianmen Shan Big Gate Road as “completely crazy”.
The road was built in 2006 to improve access to the 999-step climb to Heaven’s Gate, a huge rock arch at the summit of Tianmen Mountain in China. But Volkswagen has now turned it into a hillclimb course as the latest challenge for the record-breaking ID R electric prototype.
It's an interesting challenge, packing 99 tortuously tight corners and 1100 metres of elevation into 6.776 miles. And since the road has never been used for a hillclimb before, simply learning it was a big challenge for Dumas and the team. VW visited the site in December to study it and capture data, and were able to create a video game version - but not a full simulation. So the first time Dumas drove it in anything approaching anger was his first practice run - two days before his ‘record’ attempt is shown live on Chinese TV.
The full challenge offered by the road becomes apparent when you head up it. Since the ID R doesn’t have a passenger seat, Autocar’s view came aboard one of the huge fleet of Golden Dragon XML 6700 buses that shuttle the many tourists up and down the mountain.
It was a brilliant, if nerve-inducing, showcase of the challenge the road presents - and of the crazy drivers who ply their trade hustling buses up and down it each day.
The hill packs 99 turns into just over six miles, including one so steep the bus has to use a large figure of eight turning area. It’s so twisty that, at points, you can lean out the window of the bus and look directly down to the road several hundred metres below.
So it would be challenging to drive, even before you account for the distinct lack of run-off. There’s no safety barrier, with ‘protection’ offered by a line of solid concrete blocks that look more likely to damage the car and launch it rather than stop it.