HIG­GINS

Manx man sets a new bench­mark. By David Evans IS KING OF THE IS­LAND

Motor Sport News - - Tt Circuit Challenge -

T

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. ■

Hig­gins took just over 17m30s for the cir­cuit

High speeds meant the en­gine had to have mod­i­fi­ca­tions

Prodrive built up the spe­cial Subaru WRX STI at­tack car

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