DOUGLAS, Isle of Man–Although the Nűrburgring Nordschleife is a good enough proving ground for every other car manufacturer, Subaru looks at the 14.2-mile circuit in the Eifel Mountains and curls its lip in disdain. Back in 2011, the Subie-folk instead brought their Subaru WRX STI to the Isle of Man TT, an annual event for motorcycle racers that features a 37.7-mile loop on public roads around the island, and established a standard of 115.3 mph.
This year the brave guys at Subaru returned for Subaru TT Challenge II. Three-time British rally champion Mark Higgins (a champion in U.S. rallying as well), got the driving assignment, since he’s a native Manxman. The car would be the newly introduced 2015 Subaru WRX STI. The car’s electronic top-speed limiter would be disabled, so it was pretty clear that Subaru was serious about this. And I was there to see it all.
An island in the middle of the Irish Sea
The 2015 Subaru WRX STI represents a big step up from the 2011 version. The 2015 Subaru WRX has a stiffer chassis, while the STI’s turbocharged 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine has been tuned to produce 305 hp. Modifications to the U.S.-spec STI for Subaru TT Challenge II included improvements to the STI’s suspension and the addition of Dunlop Direzza 225/45R-18 tires. The Isle’s truly ancient triskelion added graphic distinction to the Subaru’s exterior bodywork, its three legs radiating from a common center thought to be symbol of the sun’s movement as it speeds through the heavens.
The Isle of Man TT’s treacherous Mountain Course begins in Douglas, home to about 30 percent of the island’s 85,000 inhabitants. It goes along the A1 westward toward Peel. Meeting the A3 at Ballacraine Corner, it arcs across to Ramsey, on the northeastern shore. Here, it heads back for Douglas. The most dramatic section is encountered as the A18 climbs over the slopes of Snaefell, the 2037-foot mountain that dominates the northern half of this 221-square-mile island of rugged shores, wooded glens, divided fields, and lonely moorlands.
A little lift at 160 mph, he says
I had borrowed the rather amazing Honda VFR1200F DCT motorcycle (pictured, right) from Honda UK in order to scout the course between the Isle of Man TT’s motorcycle races, and it helped me understand the challenges and perils of the circuit. There are bumps, crests, and kinks in otherwise flat-out straightaways, and rock walls and stucco-faced brick buildings stand just behind the sharp-edged stone curbs.
Numerous off-camber turns presented a particular problem for Higgins’s 2015 Subaru WRX STI. To keep the car balanced in the corners, he would have to follow the crown of the road rather than take the preferred racing line. And since the sidewalls of the Dunlop street tires were a little less resolute than racing tires, Higgins found the front end of the car tramlining a bit, which required continual steering corrections. And at speeds nudging past 160 mph, the Subaru’s bluff nose wanted to lift.
This would be far from a casual drive in the country. The consequences of error on this notoriously dangerous high-speed circuit were exemplified on June 2 by the fate of Supersport motorcycle racer Bob Price, who missed the line through the kink before Ballaugh Bridge and fatally smashed into the Raven pub.
When it’s WFO, things heat up a little
Higgins had taken a practice run on Saturday, May 31. The results shocked Andrew Carr, the engineer from TechSport Racing who had overseen the preparation of the 2015 Subaru WRX STI.
Carr told me that he wanted to review the data for throttle position, but he thought that so much running at wide-open throttle was making heat buildup in the engine a real threat to ultimate performance. “I’d be surprised if there’s any sport-saloon production car with a price this side of £200,000 that could sustain this kind of punishment,” Carr said. “It’s very difficult.”
Making things worse during the practice run, the fuel load had been improperly calculated. The engine first sputtered because of low fuel pressure after Creg-ny-Baa, the hard right-hander about three miles from the finish. Higgins had been on pace for a lap over 116 mph, faster than the first TT sidecar race winner of the week, which had averaged 113.9 mph over four laps. (A Honda CBR1000RR holds the absolute race average record at 131.6 mph.) Given enough fuel, the 2015 WRX STI looked good to beat the 2011 Subaru mark of 115.3 mph.
This time it’s for real
On Wednesday, June 4, the morning of his first official attempt, Higgins took our group of six reporters around the Mountain Course. Standing in the stairwell of the Ford Transit van’s left sliding door, he spoke in relaxed tones with the vernacular of the usual British racer. “It‘s flat out through here,” he would say matter-of-factly, “but it gets a bit dodgy at the hairpin.” Over and over, he revealed ways to gain a few tenths in one corner or a full second in another.
In order to properly warm the 2015 Subaru WRX STI’s tires and brakes before the car hit the starting line, the late-morning run went off from Creg-ny-Baa, giving Higgins a flying start. The big challenge of Bray Hill came up moments after he crossed the starting line. At Bray’s bottom, the suspension is fully compressed, and in 2011, Higgins’s famous Big Moment happened here. (The commentary, anything but relaxed, can be heard on the YouTube video.) Today, he figured that by not sliding sideways at 150 mph, he could save a few more ticks of the clock.
Higgins, now age 43, had begun in motorsports as an eight-year-old in motorcycle trials. “I was never very good on two wheels,” he said. Establishing himself in rallying, he first tried the Mountain Course in 2001 at the helm of a Hyundai rally car. That attempt ended from power steering and turbocharger issues. “I just sat there and cried,” he recalled.
This time a different kind of emotion would register, as we could see in the data from the heart-rate monitor Higgins wore during his run. His normal resting rate of 50 bpm spiked to 150 bpm when the car was negotiating the twisties. But after Higgins rounded Creg-ny-Baa on the way in toward the finish line, it spiked again. He was angry with himself and the car, as he overshot Signpost Corner just before the finish, though craftily saving the day with the handbrake. But his palpitations were also attributable to the Subaru’s smoldering engine and smoking brakes.
Lived through another one
“It’s been a long struggle,” Andrew Carr said. “To do it with such a standard car? I can’t believe it, to be honest.”
Having done his job, Higgins uncorked a magnum of champagne. “I made a couple of mistakes,” he would soon tell me. “I could pick up another five seconds, maybe another mile per hour, or two.” Sure enough, he took out the 2015 Subaru WRX STI again on Friday, June 6, recording a lap of 19:15 for an average of 117.5 mph.
Of course, BMW, Chevrolet, Nissan, Porsche and the other competitors for the lap record at the Nurburgring Nordschleife might like a piece of the record at the Isle of Man. But, sorry, the Mountain Course is closed. Subaru has shrewdly locked up the exclusive car partnership with the Isle of Man TT through 2016. After then, we’ll find out how many manufacturers are willing to take up this challenge. It’ll take some cash and some course cars for the TT, but it’ll also take a fast car and a brave driver.