In a 2015 Subaru WRX STI, Mark Higgins Conquers Isle of Man. Twice.
Mark Higgins Now Wants a Full-On Race Car
It could have been so different if three-time British Rally Champion Mark Higgins hadn’t summoned every ounce of skill, honed over a glittering 25-year career, as his Subaru WRX STI bucked sideways at 150 mph. A delay caused by a bike rider on the Isle of Man mountain course is one thing, but a holdup by a crumpled car would have seen Higgins banned from the track for life.
“The main thing was that if anything ever happened to the car we wouldn’t get a chance to do it again,” Higgins said. “Because I called it ‘my biggest moment’ they thought I meant I was out of control - but I wasn’t out of control; it was just a moment.”
If you’re unfamiliar with this “moment,” we suggest you fire up YouTube and enjoy the finest piece of car control you’re ever likely to see, as Higgins catches a tank-slapper of epic proportions with a wide-eyed journalist on board. That was back in 2011, when he powered to a four-wheeled time trial course record, averaging 115.36 mph for the 37.7-mile street circuit. Three years later, he’s back to topple his own mark, armed with the new WRX STI.
“The Bray hill incident in 2011 was good for publicity, but we learned an awful lot from it. Basically the back left suspension bottomed out briefly when I hit a bump – bikes can stay right and avoid the bump, but we couldn’t. There’s not enough room.
“I don’t know if my co-driver had been watching rally videos and thought that happened of every corner, because his reaction was a bit bizarre, I thought he’d be having a heart attack, because I was. He was told at the start don’t talk to Mark unless he talks to you, don’t move your hands, just sit there and do nothing and he did a fairly good job of that. I don’t think he realized how big a moment it was.
“I never timed how long it lasted, probably two seconds max. It was all a bit of a blur really. It started going sideways here and it was straight again, after it stopped going left and right, at this road,” he added, pointing at a junction 200 meters ahead. “All I was trying to do was stay focused and no matter what direction the car was pointing, keep the wheels pointing straight.”
Being able to block out heart-in-mouth moments is all part of the rally driver’s remit, but somehow Higgins seems cooler than most. Born on the Isle of Man, he lived here for 23 years, sharpening his reflexes on the very roads that make up the TT track. “Growing up it was great fun – I just left my house and went for a bit of a thrash around. My first car was an Opel Cadet 1250cc and then my auntie’s Fiesta. All I wanted to be at school was a rally driver or a fighter pilot, but I wasn’t clever enough to be a fighter pilot so rally driver it was.”
By his own admission, the challenge facing him now is quite different than his day job. “This is totally different to rallying – I know what’s going on at 120 mph, but at 140 mph it feels like it’s floating – and 37.7 miles of course isn’t easy to memorize at my age.”
The car this time around is a U.S.-spec 2015 Subaru WRX STI powered by a 305-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The only modifications are a rollcage in the back, new springs and dampers to cope with the immense forces, uprated brake pads, a racing seat (but no passenger seat), and a deafening straight-through exhaust at the organizer’s request.
“The chassis is 40 percent stiffer and the aero package is different, but we’ve got pretty much the same performance as the 2011 car,” Higgins tells us. “If I knew I was coming back three years later I would have gone slower and made my job here a whole lot easier.
“It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done – I’m hooked up to all sorts of biometric equipment and you see spikes in my heartbeat of 50 bpm. I’ve been rallying for 25 years, hanging off cliffs on gravel stages, but it’s the speed of this and trying to control 1.5 tons of mass that’s the challenge. You want to get it right first time, but you normally get to test a car 15-20 times; we’ve had 2-3 chances. It gives me such massive respect for the bikers.”
The lead-up to Higgins’ record attempt hasn’t been a smooth one. Three days previously he managed to set a time, but the car was plagued with problems and he fell short of his best from three years earlier. Following that the mountain course bared its teeth and claimed the lives of veteran racer Bob Price and 34-year old racer Karl Harris, postponing his attempt twice. He’s clearly saddened by the incidents, but at no point does Higgins lose his focus.
“For every mile per hour average it’s about 12 seconds per lap, so if I want to go from a 115 mph to a 116 mph I need to find another 10 or 15 seconds,” he explained. “The problem with a road car is there’s quite a big gap between fifth and sixth gear and that’s what you’re in all the time over here. It’s a bit of an eye-opener how fast it is.”
And then the call comes: Higgins is needed at the start line, three miles back from the start-finish straight. It’s enough distance for him to warm the brakes, tires, and fluids before cranking the car up to a 135 mph rolling start. As he screams off into the distance I jump in a minibus and make dash for the finish line, hoping to see him jump out of the car with his arms raised aloft.
A patchy radio signal and a presenter more intent on giving us the runners and rider for the next TT Supersport race than follow Higgins’ progress mean I’m none the wiser 20 minutes later. We leap out the side door and dash to the podium, just in time to see Higgins emerge beaming and a wreath placed around his neck. He’s done it, averaging 116.47 mph with a time of 19 minutes and 26 seconds, slashing 11 seconds from his previous best.
When we catch up with Mark he’s pleased with his performance but thirsty for more: “That was quite a wild lap, there’s definitely more time out there. I probably dropped about 10 seconds going over the mountain. The first two-thirds were perfect though. It’s a great feeling to break the record, but I want to break it by more. That’s always the way, the nature of the beast.”
Two days later, with a better understanding of the car and the course, he did just that, lapping in 19 minutes, 15.8 seconds.
It’s a time that will be tough to topple in another lightly fettled production car, but Higgins has other ideas. "I would love to build an out-and-out race car, with a 200-mph top speed. Maybe one day."