Reaching for the Peak – Mark Higgins and his Prodrive Impreza WRX STi

09th July 2017
Ed Foster

Mark Higgins managed a 128.73mph lap of the Isle of Man TT course in Prodrive’s Subaru WRX STi, and finished third in the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard timed shootout, but the biggest challenge is yet to come.

Watching a 133.962mph lap around the Isle of Man TT is astonishing. Michael Dunlop managed just that in 2016 and the footage is enough to make most amateurs retire from racing. The 37.7-mile course threads its way between houses, stone walls, lampposts and thick hedges – the sun casting dappled light on the narrow strip of asphalt making visibility on many parts of the track even more difficult. As we said, a 133mph average on a motorcycle is astonishing.

What about in a car, though? Surely it’s an easier prospect? As my father used to say, “you can’t fall off a car”. It’s a different challenge but not exactly easier. Over the past few years, rally driver Mark Higgins and the team at Prodrive have been taking a Subaru to the Isle of Man during TT week to keep lowering their previous records. It started off with a fairly standard car, but recently, attempts have got more and more serious. And faster. Their latest attempt, in 2016 onboard a highly modified WRX STi, ended with a 128.73mph lap that took a mere 17 minutes and 35.139 seconds. Watch the onboard footage below and you’ll get an idea how narrow the road is.

“The road being so narrow is a problem because I am having to make a corner when the ‘bikes are going straight,” Higgins tells me. “There are a lot of slight corners which they can take straight. There are bumps for them that aren’t there for me and visa versa. Bray Hill is a good example: The ‘bikes are on the inside so miss the bump on the outside.” Higgins hit that exact bump on his 2011 attempt and nearly had one of the largest crashes any Subaru has faced (Colin McRae included). He had a passenger on board – who was so relaxed during the violent tank slapper that some questioned his sanity – and the extra weight increased the impact of the bump quite considerably. “I think the passenger had watched some rallying and thought that was going to happen on every corner,” Higgins adds. “He was disappointed for the next 36 miles.” 

The Subaru recently finished third overall in the Festival of Speed timed shootout behind Justin Law in a Jaguar XJR12D and Jeremy Smith in an ex-Fittipaldi Penske PC22, but up until the last few runs, it looked like it might win the Shootout outright. While the 2-litre boxer engine is producing a whopping 570bhp and 800Nm of torque, the car is far from the perfect hillclimb machine. Based on a World Rally Championship tub – from one of the last Subaru rally cars, the car has been clothed in the most-recent model’s bodywork. It’s got a rear wing that Higgins can manually stall (adding 40mph) and it also has wider slicks on it.

However, the problem comes with the gearbox. The WRC cars are only geared to 125/130mph because every FIA stage is limited to 130kph. Engineers, unsurprisingly, then made the gearbox as small as possible around those reduced gears. All fine until you go to the TT with the car and want to hit speeds of 180mph. The only option was to fit a larger fourth, fifth and sixth gears which then meant Prodrive needed to totally change the characteristics of the engine. For the WRC it needed to have plenty of low-down power, but this car needed more at the top in order to bridge the gap between the long gears. It works well on the TT course, but not so well on the Goodwood Hillclimb.


There were further problems with the engine – not only did they need to squeeze nearly 600bhp out of the 2-litres, but they then had to do the TT track with it and sit on full throttle for 75% of the 17-minute lap. The lateral g also meant a dry sump has had to be fitted. The wet sump was right on the limit through Barregarrow where the car comes through at over 150mph, with the sidewalls of the tyres fully deflected.

“The reason we went for this car,” says Higgins, “is that it’s a proven product having raced in the WRC. You’re not going to get anything stronger or safer than that. It’s like a Tarmac rally car to drive, but lower and more precise. You almost think the car round the corner rather than steer it. There are very minimal inputs. We have a bit of aero, but we can’t have too much because on a course like the TT aero is also drag. We’re after top speed all the time and that’s why DRS came in with the active rear spoiler. 

“The plan was to take the car back to the TT this year because we only ever did two laps around there. There was definitely a 130mph in it. We had some glitches, but to think that this car was built and it did two laps. That is a bigger achievement than anything else, what the guys did… We had no practice and off we went.”

The car was recently spotted at the Nordschleife, but bad weather thwarted any attempt at a record. Surely another visit to the TT is on the cards to break that 130mph barrier. Most interestingly is a potential Pikes Peak run that Prodrive alluded to when I was chatting. 

The company has the knowledge up to 9,000ft, through Rallies Mexico and Argentina, but the 3,000ft on top of that is new territory. I doubt the team that lapped the TT course at 128.73mph in a saloon and sent a Subaru down a bobsleigh run will shy away from it.

Photography by Drew Gibson and Nigel Harniman

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