Subaru and the Isle of Man

Mark Higgins may be credited with some of the most thrilling driving sequences of the last pair of Bond films, but he’s far more than just a stunt driver. The Manxman has won the British Rally Championship three times and has some of the quickest reflexes of any driver on the planet. Above all that, though, Higgins is Subaru’s designated slugger behind the wheel of a WRX STI, especially around his home circuit on the Isle of Man.
Since 2011, Subaru has been a title sponsor of the IOM TT (Tourist Trophy) races, one of the oldest and most dangerous motorcycle competitions. For over a century, motorcycle riders have risked life and limb traversing a 37.5-mile loop (large enough to fit dozens of the world’s most famous race circuits within it) at maximum speeds.
So where does Subaru and Higgins fit in? The short answer is: from the outside looking in. For the last few years, Subaru has sent a lightly modified WRX STI around the TT circuit in an attempt to break the four-wheeled lap record. Each year, Higgins bests the record, and each year, he and Subaru draw both cheers and sneers from spectators. While the vast majority of fans love to watch Higgins manhandle a Subie around the course, some traditionalists hate the fact that a vehicle is allowed on hallowed two-wheeler terrain. Despite a lack of respect from these purists and some TT race officials, the Japanese automaker and its driving ace continue to push the envelope.
This year, it’s a whole new ballgame. Instead of returning with yet another stock STI, Subaru teamed up with Prodrive to build a dedicated rally car and send Higgins around the 200-plus turn course faster than he’s ever gone before. Not only did I get up close and personal with this new, monstrously quick machine, but Higgins was kind enough to take me for a couple laps of the IOM TT circuit in a stock 2016 WRX STI.

That Prodrive Pump
2016 Isle of Man TT-61
The genetic make-up of this year’s rally car is of the most precision-engineered quality. Improving upon the stock STI’s 305 horsepower, 5.0-second sprint to 60 mph, and 159 mph top speed, the race-prepped iteration turns up the heat to 600hp, 590 lb-ft of torque, and boasts a top speed somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 mph. This transformation was all thanks to the efforts of Prodrive, a UK-based tuning house that has designed and developed vehicles across a range of competitive segments and enlists top engineering talent to extract maximum performance. I was personally convinced of Prodrive’s talent and attention to detail approximately 30 seconds into an engineer’s one-hour download on pressure rings that sense when they’re lifting the cylinder heads (he could have continued for another three days provided sufficient food and water).
2016 Isle of Man TT-36
In addition to swapping the STI’s 2.5-liter turbo four-cylinder with a Garrett turbocharged 2.0-liter unit, Prodrive stripped out about 850 pounds before getting busy on the car’s hardware. The suspension system was overhauled to mimic World Rally Championship (WRC) specifications, the front and rear axles incorporated limited-slip differentials, a sequential six-speed gearbox replaced the manual unit, a full FIA-spec roll cage was added, active aerodynamics were installed, and six-piston ventilated disc brakes with massive 355mm calipers were applied. Oh, and TT officials demanded that the car be loud enough to hear coming a ways off, so Subaru happily obliged. Where the stock STI had left seconds on each lap, especially in the extended flat-out sections, Higgins could now inhale the road surface in his race machine.
Higgins The Hero
2016 Isle of Man TT-70
I’ve been fortunate to ride shotgun with some incredible drivers over the years. Factory drivers and development engineers spend a whole lot of time behind the wheel, and when it comes to performance machines, hundreds of hours at the track. When one of these individuals takes you out for a lap, it’s impressive. But Higgins is on a different level.
2016 Isle of Man TT-15
My first exposure to the mad Manx’s skill behind the wheel was in the back seat of an STI, clinging painfully to the grab handle as he flung the car around the TT course. Perhaps I wanted him to look focused when we were hurtling between buildings at 100 mph, but his overly casual demeanor in the driver’s seat was astounding to me. When he wasn’t fiddling with the A/C or chatting with track officials on the radio while his right foot was pressed flat to the floor, Higgins was waving at spectators mid-drift. All the while, Higgins chatted through each corner of the lap, describing flat-out sections (most of them), braking points, and shifting strategies.
2016 Isle of Man TT-45
My second experience was possibly more awe-inspiring. In between TT race days, Subaru escorted Higgins and I to a closed section of road along the Barbary Coast, with a lightly modified Subaru BRZ in tow.  The two of us strapped into the caged coupe (though our safety precautions would likely be pointless if we took a 100-foot plunge off the side of the cliff) and set along down the winding tarmac. Wheels sliding around each bend, I felt an eerie sense of calm with Higgins in charge. Perhaps his vehicular manipulation was too impressive to imagine error, or maybe I was just having too much fun.
Records Broken, Opportunities Squandered
2016 Isle of Man TT-16
The day before I arrived on the Isle of Man, Higgins set a new lap record of 17 minutes 35 seconds, beating his previous attempts by a large margin and coming just 31 seconds off the pace of the fastest-ever motorcycle lap. For many, that benchmark would have been enough, but Prodrive, Subaru, and Higgins demanded more. According to the team, the hotter-than-usual temperatures of the record day had restricted the car’s performance a bit, and all parties estimated a faster lap was possible.
Preparations began for another attempt two days later, on the Friday of the Seniors TT race. After witnessing his talent, I couldn’t wait to watch Higgins break a new IOM barrier.
Alas, the day of the race brought thick fog – too think for rescue helicopters to see through. Instead of pushing the race day’s events back in order (Higgins was scheduled to drive at 11am), TT coordinators bumped Subaru to the end of the day. Still, there was hope that Subaru’s car would run before the day’s close.
But the record attempt never took place. A fatal crash on the last lap of the Seniors GP race closed down the circuit. Not only was the loss of life (one of seven total deaths at this year’s TT) terribly sad, the knowledge that Subaru, Prodrive, and Higgins wouldn’t get another lap for a year or longer was woeful.
2016 Isle of Man TT-11
Ultimately, the Tourist Trophy is a motorcycle race. Neither Subaru nor any other automaker will attempt to change that out of respect for the historic display of courage and engineering. Sadly, though, efforts by automotive brands to support the competition stage and expand the TT’s fan base have yet to receive equal backing from TT officials and enthusiasts. The door has been opened, but it may take quite a long time to step through the portal.

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  1. engineerd Avatar

    Prodrive may be a house full of mad geniuses and/or sorcerers. They build some incredible machines and are enjoying success in virtually every racing arena they are involved in. It helps that Higgins is quite possibly a robot and not human.