Manx man sets a new benchmark. By David Evans IS KING OF THE ISLAND
he jokes have stopped. Nobody’s laughing now. Mark Higgins has slipped from view. The time for selfies and signatures has past. He’s sitting, back against a wall in a state of deep concentration.
I’ve never seen him like this before. I’ve known Higgy for a lot of years and I’ve never seen him so focused.
The wall he’s leaning against is the Creg-ny-baa pub. Just the other side of the Prodrive van which is shading him from sun and spectators sits a genuine modern-day Group B car in asphalt trim.
If rallying’s regulations had grown unfettered since the Eighties, this is where they would likely have brought us: 600bhp, 800Nm of torque, tricky diff, ultra-low friction dampers and DRS.
The Subaru WRX STI TT Attack car sits on axle stands. Ready.
Around the corner from man and machine are 37.73 miles of worldrenowned, hero-making Tarmac: the Snaefell Mountain course.
In 1990, Tony Pond captured the first recorded lap in a road car at an average speed of more than 100mph. His Rover 827 Vitesse stopped the clock in 22m9.1s. Out on the course, a teenage Higgins watched in awe. Pondy had always been Higgins’ hero; four Manx International Rally wins between 1978 and 1986 captured his imagination long before the 827 came along.
So when Higgins got the chance to do the lap in a road car in 2011, he jumped at it. And, that moment at the bottom of Bray Hill aside, loved every second. He cut Pond’s best to 19m56.67s in a Subaru. Three years later, he bested that one in another Subaru. The new record was 19m15.88s, which was an average speed of 117.510mph. And that, looked to be that. Until Subaru USA fancied another shot. But this time, it wanted the ultimate WRX STI. Prodrive was called and Banbury built a monster.
The running gear comes from the last Impreza WRC, codenamed S14, ever built. The two-litre engine has been treated to a bigger turbo, the crank’s been changed to take the strain of spending so long on the limiter in top gear… and that’s about it.
“We could have started working on something brand new,” says Prodrive senior engineer Richard Thompson, “but we had everything we needed. Obviously we put a lot of work – like 1400 hours – into the new shell, but underneath this is the last World Rally Car we built.
“The engine’s obviously giving a lot more. Up until 4250rpm the rally car had more torque, but above that this thing’s in another league. And it’ll go to 7750rpm, whereas the shift light was at 6700rpm in the rally car. Like I said, we could have done more, but we’re walking before we’re running here.”
Higgins is still sitting, deep within himself. There’s a tap on the shoulder. It’s time. The Subaru has been moved out of the TT paddock and up to the Creg to give Higgins the last couple of miles to bed himself in before he hits the start-finish straight at a 150mph rolling start.
We’re here for his second flying lap. Two days before, he’d obliterated his own lap record in an astonishing 17m49.75s. That’s a 126.971mph average lap.
In theory, the pressure was off. Standing up and walking towards the car, nothing could have been further from the truth.
A crowd has been gathering around the car for the last hour. There’s no tape around the car, no marshals keeping spectators at arm’s length, no airs, no graces. This three-quarter of a millionpound rocketship sits between a wheelie bin and a traffic cone.
Higgins starts to get a bit agitated. There’s been a minor fuel-pressure issue discovered in the last half-hour.
“I feel more wound up today,” he says to Tomo. Part of the problem is the waiting. Higgy’s spent his life knowing exactly what time he’s going to start a stage, his minute-byminute preparations have remained the same throughout a career which teetered on a full world championship drive for a few seasons.
Now though, he’s a bit-part player in a much bigger story. This is TT week, a bike race. Bizarrely, in terms of preparation, this is more like the stunt work he does on James Bond films. His green light comes at somebody’s say-so.
“I’m worried about the fuel pressure,” he says to Tomo.
Tomo leans into the car and delivers commonsense in broad Yorkshire. “Get out there and enjoy yourself.” With that, a marshal puts his hand over his ear, listens briefly, points at the Subaru and twirls his finger. “Time to go, boys,” Higgins says. The car fires and immediately reminds you of a fabulously powerful, 1993-spec Legacy RS. He’s gone.
The Dunlop slicks were already at 66 degrees when they went on the car, but there’s more energy and heat put into them as the green flag approaches.
He’s away. Holds his breath and gets brave down Bray Hill and out towards the villages: Glen Vine, Crosby, turn right off the A1 onto the A3 at Ballacraine; into Kirk Michael; on to Ramsey. And then the mountain.
Between the hedges, on the first half of the lap, the speed’s mindblowing. Every 30mph zone’s blitzed at five times the usuall legal limit. These are the days we dream of.
Onto the moors and past the foot of Snaefell, fresh air replaces front rooms for run-off. Every corner has a story. He’s through every one. The squeak and a squeal from the tyres is accompanied by the chirruping wastegate.
Cars simply don’t come much better than this. From a blank canvas, Prodrive and Higgy are creating a masterpiece. Done. Breathe. Quicker again. This time… Monday’s time? A 17m35.139s. That’s 128.730mph.that’s compared to Michael Dunlop’s twowheel average of 133.962mph...
The relief is everywhere. Higgy’s back in the paddock, smiling.
“I’ve spent my life driving through those places at 30mph,” he says, “I can’t tell you what it’s to drive a full factory World Rally Car with 600bhp around this place. It’s… it’s a dream.”
There is concern, though. “I was going through Kirk Michael,” says Higgins, “and I saw something out of the corner of my eye. There was this old boy in a chair next to the road. As I passed, I saw him fall out of it backwards. Hope he’s ok…”
That kind of car. That kind of driver. That kind of day. ■