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It might seem incomprehensible that a car could all but match the speed of the top superbikes around the Isle of Man TT course, but it’s happened. We ride a lap with the man who did it: Mark Higgins

by HENRY CATCHPOLE  |  PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT


by HENRY CATCHPOLE
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT

It might seem incomprehensible that a car could all but match the speed of the top superbikes around the Isle of Man TT course, but it’s happened. We ride a lap with the man who did it: Mark Higgins

lways wave to the naked man on the caravan,’ says Higgins. Sure enough, there he is, starkers on top of his white Whirlwind 3000 or Pacey 200 or whatever. I imagine you don’t really need that sort of distraction, given that you’re barrelling towards the three corners that make up Glen Helen. The first one’s flat according to Higgins, although it looks anything but. Then down a gear for the second (whatever he does, you can be sure Higgins won’t be hitting the Subaru sponsor hoarding on the outside…), then down again for the late entry into the third.

‘This is a ballsy corner,’ says Higgins a mile later, pointing towards the end of the Cronk-y-Voddy straight. ‘This is one of those where I’m having a little lift at the moment, but I’m building up to taking it flat. You’re right in where people’s feet are, which is crazy, but you have to be there.’ Sure enough, as we line up the fast, cresting right-hander of Molyneux at something over 100mph with dozens of people sitting on the grass, mere inches from the car, we’re so close we could run over an errant shoelace. One man is applying sun cream to his reddening back, and I can actually see a bit he’s missed.

A

This is just a taste, albeit a very privileged taste, of what it’s like to lap arguably the greatest circuit in the world. I’m in a standard, road-going Subaru WRX STI with Mark Higgins just a couple of hours before he will attempt to break the four-wheel lap record in his Prodrive-built, 600bhp version of this car. The roads are closed and the spectators are all out, lining the sunny banks and warm walls having enjoyed this Monday morning’s Supersport motorcycle race and now waiting for the sidecars qualifying session.

We plunge down towards the bottom of Barregarrow (pronounced ‘B’garrow’). I’ve driven the Isle of Man TT course plenty of times but never fast enough to realise why this is one of the scariest places on the circuit for Higgins. Taken at normal speed, you don’t notice anything other than the white wall on your left. Taken at today’s speed, my spine registers a compression so violent I accidently turn off the camera I’m trying to record with. At race speeds sparks will fly from under the car and it represents the outer limits of what the tyres can cope with. As Higgins says, some people wonder what makes this such a great circuit, but you have to drive flat-out to make it come alive. Things that are easy at 100mph look very different at 170mph and I’m only just realising quite how much of it is flat-out. Higgins says he is on the drag-reduction system for a massive 40 per cent of the lap.

At 37.7 miles long, the Snaefell Mountain Course dwarfs everything else used today. I remember seeing a poster that had 94 circuits, including giants such as the Circuit de la Sarthe and the Nordschleife, contained within the ‘infield’ of the TT course. It’s not just the size of the TT course, either. The average speed of the lap record around here stands at a whisker under 134mph. The time of 16min 58.25sec was set by Michael Dunlop on a BMW S1000 RR during the Senior TT this year, and it wasn’t even a flying lap, as he pulled into the pits for a tyre change and a refuel at the end. He said that if he’d known he was that close to 134mph he would have pushed a bit harder…

Then there is the danger. The TT course is the motor racing of which Hemingway famously said: ‘There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.’ To watch the TT is to watch men dancing with death in a way that was perhaps commonplace in the past, but is very rarely seen these days. They know the risks, the spectators understand the risks, and consequently the atmosphere amongst the crowds is one of reverent breath-holding. It’s quite eerie once you notice it. No one chatters. Certainly no one dares critique.

Don’t for a moment think that watching is some ghoulish pastime. The reason for standing on Bray Hill or in Crosby or at Cronk-y-Voddy is to feel and try to comprehend at close quarters just a smidgen of the speed and skill of those going past. It’s when you’re galloping alongside Death’s pale horse that you feel most alive.

‘Let’s get a good run through Kirk Michael,’ says Higgins. ‘I’ve spent my life going through here at 30mph!’ Pinned from some way before the speed-limit signs, we hurtle down the narrow street, the claustrophobic proximity of garden gates making 110mph feel more like 210mph. You can imagine a front window left open and antimacassars on the back of a sofa being ruffled by the Subaru’s wake.

The vanishing point grows suddenly closer as the road begins to snake, but Higgins doesn’t lift. Instead he calmly points out that you go from double yellow line on the left to double yellow on the right, then back again, threading the needle between the pavements before heading straight for a hedge as we pop out of the village considerably faster than a cork leaving a bottle (they only reach about 50mph, apparently).

Mark Higgins, three-time winner of the British Rally Championship, was born on the Isle of Man almost exactly 45 years ago. A taxi driver on the way from the airport told me that he used to employ a young Higgins in his ice-cream shop and Mark was always asking for weekends off so that he could go to the kart track at Peel. Higgins moved to Wales more than 20 years ago, where he owns a rally school with his father and brother, so he’s not quite local anymore.

After clearing Ballaugh Bridge with a nice bit of air under all four wheels (how many race cars have to be set up to deal with 180mph and a humpback bridge?!), he explains that the next section of the circuit in particular has taken quite some learning. ‘I’ve had to work really hard from Ginger Hall to Ramsey, because it’s somewhere we never drove when I was young. You’d go over the top of Tholt-e-Will because it was a rally road.’ Tholt-e-Will, in case you’re unfamiliar, is the scene of Ari Vatanen’s ‘Oh dear god’ moment in an Opel Manta 400.

The section just after Ginger Hall is perhaps the bumpiest on the whole circuit, and Higgins demonstrates, at speed, how the car bounces across the road thanks to a bump mid-corner. On the Sulby Straight he mentions that we’re just passing the place where Paul Shoesmith sadly died two days earlier after his front tyre blew out. Higgins will be doing over 170mph at this point but the bikers can hit 200mph. On the way into Ramsey, Mark shows how to use a bus stop as extra road on the exit of one corner.

Higgins’ hero growing up was Tony Pond, and he cites one of his greatest achievements as overtaking Pond’s record number of Manx Rally wins. It’s fitting, and no coincidence, that the last person before Higgins to set a four-wheeled TT record was Pond in a Rover 827 Vitesse in 1990. For a long time Higgins thought that record – an average speed of 102mph – would stand for time immemorial, because despite his best efforts, the authorities seemed resolute that there would never be another attempt. It took the perseverance of Subaru of America to change that. It had to carry out a full risk assessment (the mind boggles) and run it as a separate event within the TT timetable with its own clerk of the course.

Higgins says they could never have come to the island with this 500bhp car back in 2011, when he first broke Pond’s record. It’s taken years of building trust to get to this point. Subaru sponsoring the TT no doubt helps, too. I like the fact that they did the record with a lightly fettled road car first, because apart from anything else its 115mph average gives context to the speed of the current car. The events of that first year did Higgins’ profile no harm whatsoever, either. I still hold my breath every time I see the video footage of the car slewing sideways at 155mph at the bottom of Bray Hill and Higgins’ subsequent fight to regain control. He admits that there was luck in saving it and I remember seeing him white as a sheet when he came back into the paddock, but he says everywhere he goes in the world, people might not know him, but they know that moment.

He still doesn’t look forward to Bray Hill. The other bits that scare him are the nearly flat corners. A few times during our lap he says that he wants to concentrate on a particular corner, commenting, ‘I’m having a little lift at the moment, but I think I can take it flat if I get my balls in order.’ That’s the trouble with 170mph corners here – you have to build up to them carefully, because if you get it wrong… Well, you’re probably only going to get it wrong once.

The other trouble, and something I hadn’t expected, is that so much of the circuit looks the same. Yes, there are landmarks, but there are also stretches where one green, tree-lined corner looks very much like several others.

One section that stands out is the run from the Gooseneck to Hillberry across The Mountain. Despite being the bit he knows best, Higgins says he’s not enjoying it as much as he thought he would, struggling to get a few bits right. We have an interesting moment at Brandywell; taken at 90mph in the stock STI, we pick up a bit of understeer mid-corner and use all of the exit. All of it. It would have been a bit of a drop, and the accident would have lasted some time, but all things considered it wouldn’t have been the worst place to go off. Nervous laughter (Higgins’ as well as mine) breaks the silence.

Higgins takes a bit of grass at the apex of Brandish, there’s another huge bump through Hillberry, then it’s about getting it stopped for the slow corners at the end, because judging slow speeds when you’ve been travelling so fast is extremely difficult. ‘This [The Nook] is hard,’ says Higgins. ‘You’ve done all that lap, all that work and then a lot of people overshoot here.’

That afternoon Higgins starts up at Creg-ny-Baa, the famous pub as you come down off The Mountain. They used to start at the end of the start-finish straight, but he’s grateful for the few miles to not only warm the tyres but also gather himself. I watch him go past on Glencrutchery Road and then the wait begins. For the next seventeen or so minutes he will be battling all those bumps and compressions, trying to distinguish the entries to 70mph corners from similar looking 170mph corners, judging whether to have a little lift as the pale horse gallops alongside. And waving at naked men.

I spotted Michael Dunlop chatting to Higgins for a long time yesterday evening, fascinated by the car. Plenty of riders are gathered on the paddock wall now, waiting, fascinated and very respectful of what Higgins is doing. I ask Kiwi TT veteran Bruce Anstey what he thinks of it all.

‘When I heard he’d done a 126mph lap on Saturday I was like, “Bloody hell that’s impressive,”’ he replies. ‘It’s crazy.’ That from a man who has done a 132mph lap on two wheels.

Higgins crosses the line safely, pulls off the course at St Ninian’s and immediately gets stuck in traffic! He turns off the engine to stop it overheating, but it means they have to push the car back to the paddock. A curious way to return after a new record 128.73mph average lap.

That evening, after all the hubbub has died down, Higgins, with his easy smile and very faint lisp, says there is still more to come. A cooler day and the car will give more power, plus the setup could be refined. A 130mph lap looks on the cards for the last run on Friday, but Higgins says he can now see how a car could beat the bike record. He never thought it possible, but with enough power he thinks it could be done.

Something like Loeb’s Pikes Peak car would seem ideal, but even someone with his talents wouldn’t be able to just come to the island and take on the record. The complexity of the circuit simply wouldn’t allow it. Higgins has put a lot of time into this and be in no doubt that this is as much his record as the car’s.

In the end the weather puts the kybosh on the Friday run so the 128mph run stands. Thankfully David Richards, boss of Prodrive, had flown in to see the Monday run. I say to Mark that it was good to see Richards taking such an interest, and mention that he had been full of praise for Higgins. ‘Too late for me though isn’t it? If only I’d been in a Prodrive Subaru 20 years ago!’ he says with a big smile. What might have been indeed, but I think Higgins has cemented his place in the history books with his exploits around the Snaefell Mountain Course. It has to be one of the greatest laps ever driven.

how to build a
tt record breaker

ENGINE
‘It’s based on a 2-litre turbo, ’08-spec WRC engine. It’s capable of 600bhp and 600lb ft, but has been running around 500bhp to ensure total reliability. The shift point is about 8200rpm, but it revs to 8500. We needed that engine speed because we’re limited on packaging ratios. We’ve used the rally transmission casing and diff casing, and that means that we could only physically get a certain dimension ratio in there and we wanted to target 180mph, so you need to rev to 8500. In turn that dictates your crankshaft, piston and conrod design, your timing, turbo spec – all are specific to the car. The driver has a three-position “performance chooser” that targets different turbo speeds and response levels for anti-lag. We don’t have the old rocket-type anti-lag from the WRC that gives you very good response and torque, because this event is about top speed.’

BRAKES
‘Full WRC brakes with 372mm discs and eight-piston calipers. The pads have high cold-friction properties as on the straights you’re losing brake temperature all the time. You are then putting quite a thermal shock into the disc so you get a lot of expansion issues. We have to be careful monitoring for disc-fracture failures.’

DIFFerentialS
‘You want a lot of stability from the active centre differential and consistency for the driver without many variations. So, the centre-diff pressure control is quite simple, the diff maps are quite simple and there’s a lot of pressure in there. It’s the same with the front and rear diffs: they’re both mechanical with ramps and friction faces and then a static pre-load, so very simple.’

PHONES
‘There are two phones: a Nokia 6210, which has a strong output – it probably frazzles your brain now, but if any phone’s going to get a signal, this will. With the other one, the Stilo Verbacom, we’re in constant communication all the way round, so if he sees a flash on the screen he lets us know. Fuel-pressure, oil-pressure warning, something like that.’

AERO
‘We didn’t want the DRS fully active because it brings such a balance change in the car, so it’s better that the driver manages it. Get rid of the lateral force in the car and then you can start to think about dropping the wing. It is down to the driver, other than in emergency situations where we’ll take over and put the wing back up again. At V-max it’s about 35bhp, so it’s a worthwhile device.’

SUSPENSION
‘The dampers are four-way adjustable and made by EXE-TC. It’s all WRC tarmac with the kinematics of, say, Corsica. Static roll-stiffness distribution is quite similar to that kind of event, just a little more ride height and damping for the bumps and also for the aero – we’ve got a bit more downforce than on a normal WRC car.’

TYRES
‘We’re using nine-inch WTCC slicks, which generate more lateral G than an eight-inch rally tyre, so we’ve worked on damper valving and spring rate. No circuit has any compressions like Barregarrow, so we’ve compromised on pressure, run a little bit higher, and on contact patch to make sure that we don’t puncture from nipping the sidewall, because there’s evidence of getting close to that.’

GEARBOX
‘We have a six-speed semi-auto gearbox using Xtrac gears, but it’s our design for the boxer engine. It’s not sequential, it’s an H-pattern hydraulic. The beauty of an H-pattern ’box with a left-right and a front-back actuator is that if we wanted to we can come from sixth to neutral immediately. No sequential gearbox can do that. There is a slight level of complexity but because we’ve had such an evolution since the early ’90s, we’re very good now at all the shift hydraulics. We’ll have all the gearshift elements done within about 24 milliseconds and that’s far quicker than any mechanical sequential. We’re shifting very quickly and that’s good for the chassis balance. We had to work hard on the gearshift quality because the engine inertia changed with the heavier crankshaft. We’ve got a much bigger pin diameter, so we’ve got a bigger overlap on the main bearings and with that we had to revisit the timings and work on that to get the smooth shift back.’