It’s the start of ‘Race Week’ at one of the most exciting motorsport events anywhere in the world: the infamous, incredible Isle of Man TT.
The island is buzzing with the zap of motorbike engines; its fields crammed full of the campers and tents of the thousands of spectators who make the trip here every year to watch so many riders put everything on the line.
And this year, not just riders. As you read these words, ex-British rally champion Mark Higgins may very well be on his way to becoming the fastest man to drive around the island’s spectacularly scary mountain road. Again. Higgins has just left the paddock in his 2014 Subaru WRX STi, with the intention of breaking his own lap record – set in 2011, in a different Subaru Impreza STI.
Very few drivers could be here today, trying what Manxman Higgins is trying. Three years ago, according to Subaru, the TT’s organisers had been told that Subaru’s run would be ‘demo only’: no timing involved. Apparently, they didn’t take the surprise very well. So since then, Higgins and Subaru have had a steep uphill struggle getting another timed attempt approved. Special measures have been taken to keep spectators, marshals and Higgins himself safe: grandstands moved, barriers reinforced.
“Both Lotus and Aston Martin have tried to convince the powers that be to allow them to run a car here since Tony Pond’s last run in 1990,” a Subaru insider whispered. “Both fell at the first hurdle. Having Mark onboard really swung the decision for us.”
Full-speed track time at the TT is like gold dust. Mark had two laps yesterday to get onto the pace; no time for practice today. His challenge is to go faster than the 113mph average over the TT’s 37 miles, beating the 19min 56.67sec laptime he set three years ago. If he does that, he’ll be running faster than the 140bhp, 400kg sidecars that ran yesterday – in a standard Subaru.
Well – mainly standard. “The car’s unchanged under the bonnet, but for the fact that we’ve removed the speed limiter – so we’re nudging 160mph in a couple of places,” Higgins told me. “The springs and dampers are different. The standard shocks would get very hot over the bumps around here, but the setup we’ve gone for is still soft enough to make the car more suited to the road than a lot of other stuff.”
“We’ve been having some trouble keeping the car cool at the sustained high speeds we’re pulling, so we’ve made some changes to the ducting behind the radiator grille. And there’s the usual competition stuff: Dunlop Direzza slick tyres, a full cage, extinguishers and bucket seats.”
Clocking the fresh rubber on the front wheels and scrubbed tyres on the rear, I ask if Higgins is tweaking cornering balance the old-fashioned way. “No – we’re just short on tyres!” he smiles. “But conditions are good. If the engine runs well, I think I can find some speed.”
More later on if – and how – he pulls it off. And while we wait, here's that attempt from 2011 to watch again.
UPDATE: Bad weather brought running to a close yesterday before Mark Higgins and Subaru could make a timed attempt at the TT lap record. Roads on the island are set to close at 11.30am this morning, before the first race of the day at 12.15pm. Higgins is scheduled for a run between 2pm and 3pm - and then again on Wednesday afternoon.