Subaru Impreza STI Isle of Man TT lap record
British Rally Champion Mark Higgins sets off on a record-breaking lap of the Isle of Man TT course. A few seconds later, he has arguably the scariest moment ever seen in a motor car. Henry Catchpole was there
This is the scariest thing I have ever done.’ These are the words with which Mark Higgins greets me when we first meet in the TT paddock. The 40-year-old is as cheery as ever, but when a rally driver as good as Mark looks you in the eyes and says something like that, you sit up and take notice. He goes on to tell me that the scariest part of the scariest thing he’s ever done is the corner at the bottom of Bray Hill. ‘Everyone said beforehand that it was flat, and I did take it flat but it was such a relief to get it out the way.’ What Mark doesn’t know at this point is that Bray Hill is going to get a whole lot scarier later this very afternoon…
It’s the second Thursday of the TT fortnight. In between bike races, Higgins and the team from Subaru America are attempting to set a new four-wheeled lap record. The record they’re here to beat – an average lap speed of 102mph – was set by legendary moustachioed rally driver Tony Pond in a ‘standard’ Rover 827 Vitesse in 1990 and recorded for posterity on VHS. But that was over 20 years ago, so why has no-one tried to beat it since? Plenty have tried to organise an attempt (including yours truly) but it’s not easy to get permission. In fact that’s a massive understatement. To give you an idea, when someone from Subaru America first contacted a government minister on the island, he was apparently stopped mid-pitch and told ‘The answer’s no. Now f*%k off’, followed by the phone being put down.
Somehow, though, Subaru eventually managed to persuade the authorities to let them have a crack at it. They’d have to organise their own clerk of the course for each ‘demonstration run’ and the roads would have to be meticulously shut down and opened up quite separately to the TT races going on either side. Effectively they would be running a separate event.
‘When Pondy had his second attempt in 1990, that was actually the last time I was here for the TT,’ Higgins tells me. ‘It’s been a dream of mine to do the TT course in a car ever since. I’ve been trying very hard for the last ten years and I’ve actually had three manufacturers on board and willing, but they just couldn’t get the go-ahead. Amazingly Subaru has managed to get it and here we are!’
On Monday, despite it being the first time he’d driven the course in anger, Mark set a new lap record straight out of the box. Even though the brakes started fading badly towards the end of the lap, he still recorded an astonishing average of 113mph for the 37-mile lap.
The Impreza (it’s still called that across the pond) WRX STI that he’s using is under an awning in the paddock so I have a poke around. There’s a full roll-cage and the standard Recaro front seats have been replaced, but otherwise everything looks remarkably intact – it’s certainly no stripped-out special. The brake pads and fluid have been changed, but the discs and calipers are standard. The biggest change is to the suspension, with a set of Tein springs and dampers. They’re still off-the-shelf items, though, as are the tyres – a set of Pirelli Trofeo trackday tyres. Oh, and it’s got a straight-through exhaust – a special request from the authorities so that people can hear Higgins coming.
And before anyone starts getting slightly huffy about the car’s spec, it should be remembered that Tony Pond’s Rover was far from the standard car it might have appeared. For a start it was running on slicks, but the changes went further… ‘I spoke to Dave Appleby [mechanic for Pond’s car] quite a bit,’ says Higgins. ‘He’s a great guy and he said they were going back and forth tyre-testing at MIRA all the time with the car. The first time they came over they went nowhere near the targeted 100mph average. But the car weighed 1160kg when they’d finished with it and that was the key to making it go fast.’
Before Higgins gets his second attempt, there’s the small matter of the Supersport 2 race. Sitting up in the grandstand on the main start/finish straight in Douglas, as the riders line up to be released at ten-second intervals, there’s an atmosphere unlike any other sporting event. It’s eerily still. The PA system broadcasts the odd interview and some speculation about the coming laps, but other than that there is almost complete silence. There’s no chattering amongst the spectators and it’s easy to hear a blackbird singing on the other side of the road. I can only think that this tense hush comes from a collective understanding of how serious is the challenge the riders are about to undertake. Without in any way wishing to be sensationalist, there is a very real chance that at least one of them will die today. I can’t think of another sporting event where there is such palpable threat, and it shows.
An hour and a half later, everyone is back safely, Gary Johnson having taken a popular maiden TT win. It’s time for the Subaru lap.
Higgins starts out of sight, up at the far end of Glencrutchery Road, in order to get a flying start. The first indication that he’s on his way is when the drumming sound of the television helicopter’s rotor-blades starts moving towards us. The Subaru’s flat-four blares loudly through its open pipe as it breaks the speed trap in front of the famous leaderboard at 113mph. That’s about 8mph down on Monday’s run and the first indication of the effect of the extra weight of a passenger (an American photographer) and a lot of video cameras. The second indication comes just out of sight, down at the bottom of Bray Hill.
If you’re not familiar with Bray Hill, it is almost inconceivably daunting. Think Brands Hatch's Paddock Hill at twice the speed and you’re still not close. The run in certainly doesn’t look straight from behind the wheel (or handlebars) but that’s how you treat it. Then you approach a lip and you can only judge how steeply the road drops away on the other side by the way the roofs of the houses on the right descend. Over the top and you get stomach-lightening gravity-fed acceleration to add to a pinned throttle as you free-fall towards a right-hand corner at the bottom that every fibre of your being tells you to brake for. The accepted line is close to the kerb on the right. The exit is uphill but run-off only amounts to the width of a pavement while Armco is replaced by a wooden garden fence.
If you haven’t seen the video yet, Higgins hits the corner at 150mph and the car promptly goes into the mother and father of all tank-slappers. Inside the car, he then spends the next seven seconds throwing corrective lock at it, literally for all his life is worth. Spectators run into a driveway and it’s only after Ago’s Leap that he finally has everything back under control and the throttle wide open again with just 36 miles of the lap left… It has to be one of the greatest saves of all time.
‘You alright fella?’ says the mechanic opening the door as Higgins switches off the ignition back in the paddock. ‘We heard about it! Someone was on the phone straight away… [pause] You alright?’
‘Yeah, yeah…’ says Mark slightly distantly. His hair is soaked with sweat and he looks like a man who is only just realising how close he’s walked with death. ‘That was 150mph and she just went bang, bang [motions bouncing across the road]. It went one way [miming opposite lock] then she went this way, then it went this way. It was nearly all over, I nearly gave up.’
His son and daughter both appear and he gives them a big hug before kissing his wife. He does some radio interviews, and the story is repeated several more times. He jokes that he should have had one of those steering wheel knobs you find on a fork-lift. The run clearly wasn’t as fast as on Monday, but after a change of fluid the brakes had remained fade-free this time and over the Mountain section he’d actually been faster. And besides, a 110mph average is hardly slow.
Then someone unexpected turns up for a chat – John McGuinness, the man with 17 TT wins to his name and who holds the outright lap record on a bike at an incredible average speed of 131.57mph.
It turns out that the two lap-record- holders did some filming together a few years ago and have been friends since. Just as McGuinness is about to leave, I ask him if he’d given Mark any advice? ‘I’ve told him the line through the bottom of Bray Hill [McGuinness takes a line about 8ft to the left of the kerb, which avoids the big compression and, he reckons, isn’t as stressful on the bike] but I think I’m a bit late,’ he says with a toothy grin.
Early next morning, I’m standing outside the hotel when Higgins pulls up in a black, German-registered WRX STI that’s being used as a course car during the week. He’s kindly agreed to talk me round a lap of the course while it’s quiet, although obviously not at record pace.
As a Manxman, presumably he knew the circuit a certain amount already? ‘I knew where it all went, but it wasn’t until I kept driving round and round and round that I really started to learn all the corners. I’ve been watching the Tony Pond video on and off for the last ten years just in case this did happen – when I was in the gym I would just put it on. But you’ve got to be here to actually see it.’
As we go through Bray Hill at just 30mph it seems to take an eternity to drive from the compression where the slide started to where the last of the skid-marks ends, hundreds of yards later.
‘The guys talk to me about the bike lines,’ says Higgins, ‘but car lines and bike lines are different. I mean, it was interesting what John [McGuinness] was saying about the line at the bottom of Bray Hill, and that’s a good tip to have, but I just don’t know if there’s the width. There’s only one way to find out I suppose… but I don’t want it to be like yesterday.’
‘You ride bikes don’t you?’
‘Yeah, I borrowed a new Fazer here last week. I did a couple of laps on it just purely so I could get through the traffic and get a decent run around the circuit. I was getting a bit excited going over the mountain, but I didn’t get passed by anybody, which was good. I know I’d get a bit lairy on a bike if I owned one, though – I know what a car does if it gets sideways, but if a bike goes sideways I crash.’
‘What road car have you got?’
‘I’ve got a 535d… with a diff... and a little bit of mapping.’
After Union Mills, Mark says, quite calmly, ‘It’s probably flat-out now for the next three miles without any lifting at all. There’s one corner that I’m currently just about lifting for… and that’s more because of what happened at the bottom of Bray Hill! I’m building up to taking it flat, but we’ll see…’ This is a recurring theme for the rest of the lap. I’ve driven around the course quite a few times but it’s never really occurred to me just how much of it is tackled flat-out. It’s a truly terrifying thought.
How does it compare with rallying, I wonder. ‘Obviously this is a much higher average speed than a rally stage [which has to average less than 80.7mph (130km/h)].Tarmac rallying when it’s dark and it’s wet, that’s a bit daunting. You don’t get scared, you get adrenalised, and it’s the same here, but I’m probably more nervous for this. You’re out there on a 37-mile stage and it’s closed off for you and you alone. It’s a helluva buzz really.’
We’re coming up to the corner where Irishman Derek Brien was killed on Monday. ‘It was just before our run,’ says Higgins, ‘which again makes you start to wonder what you’re doing. Even Pondy said there are sections where you’re flat-out doing 150 and you wonder why you’re doing this stunt.
‘This is the corner... he came into here… we don’t know what happened… but he’s ended up in the trees… up there.’ It’s not the last time Higgins points out the sight of a crash, and every time he does you realise that there’s just no room for mistakes. And then you think back to yesterday’s incident at Bray Hill and how close it was to having a very different ending.
Listening back to my Dictaphone a few days later, snippets of conversation stand out: ‘That’s a fifth-gear corner, just about. [Pause, nervous laughter.] That’s the trouble, most of them are “just about”… You just lift on the way in there. Often with the four-wheel-drive car you have to lift slightly to get the diff to open to get the car to turn in… Again this is all flat-knacker. There’s a couple of brick walls you look for as braking points… This is the bit that always gets the marshals because I come down here into Parliament Square braking on the pavement on the left hand side…
‘Already now we’re doing about 200kph [on the Mountain] and you can feel the car’s a different animal altogether. It’s just starting to float around. Every slight movement on the wheel gets quite a reaction…’
The rest of the day is spent waiting anxiously for Mark’s final ‘demonstration run’ in the Impreza. He’s going solo again, but there are fears for the engine after he over-revved it a little the day before, so no-one’s expecting more than a short-shifting publicity run.
Later I find Yorkshire-born Ian Hutchinson. He’s so softly spoken you would never ever pick him out of a crowd as a TT racer, yet he won a record five out of five races at the TT in 2010. He’s not racing this year because he’s still got external metalwork in his left leg after someone ran over it at Silverstone, although he did manage a 100mph parade lap earlier in the week…
‘I saw the footage of Mark sideways yesterday – he did well to catch that!’ says Hutchinson. ‘I’ve not had a sports car for a few years now, but I had a Mitsubishi Evo and a Carrera 4S. I went to the Nürburgring a few years ago in me Evo with a group of mates, had a bit of a laff round there.’ It strikes me that lapping the Nurburgring is not something that most people describe as ‘a bit of a laff’. So does Hutchinson himself fancy a crack at the TT lap record in a car?
‘Yeah I’d love to!’ he says, chuckling. ‘I don’t think I’d be safe enough, though. You’d have to get rid of all the crowd!’
As Mark breaks the speed trap on the start line at 122mph and disappears towards Bray Hill, we know that it won’t be a parade lap. Reports filter back that he’s clocked 162mph on the Sulby straight and, despite damp sections through Ramsey and up onto the Mountain, he’s still pushing on. Just 19 minutes and 33.47 seconds later he’s back across the line – an average of 115.356mph.
‘I knew straight away going off the start-line that the car was working better again,’ he says when I manage to grab a word with him. ‘I was very careful down Bray Hill [grins] and then just got into a nice rhythm. I just tried to really work on being neat and tidy for the rest of the lap – no sliding, use the road, be careful, but push hard at the same time. The biggest improvement was over the Mountain. I’ve improved over there all the time, and it’s surprising because that’s the bit I had more practice on with the roads being closed and one-way.
‘But everything came right. I know we could have gone quicker again with a slick on, but I’m just really, really happy for everyone. I had in my head a 115mph average, but that was before I realised that’s two-and-a-bit minutes faster than Tony Pond. If they’d told me that, I’d have said “no way”. So yeah, 115mph is amazing. I think we would have had the fastest lap in the sidecar race!’
‘And did you try the McGuinness line at Bray Hill?’ I ask. ‘No, I just braked for it – just knocking 10mph off made a big difference…’ So he was still taking it at 140mph. Scary stuff indeed. And now if you'll excuse me, I’m going to watch that video one more time.