Sitting in a Subaru WRX STI at the St Ninian’s crossroad, I still wasn’t really prepared for what was coming.
Mark Higgins - who this week has set a new benchmark for a car around the Isle of Man TT course - grins as the stragglers in the first Supersport Race flew past.
Stragglers? Apologies. No such thing. Every one of those 90-odd riders were absolute heroes as they wound their 600cc bikes towards full throttle, threading the needle that would lead them onto Bray Hill.
Bray Hill… Higgy’s nemesis. The place he came closer than ever to stacking a Subaru at 150mph five years ago.
A Subaru not dissimilar to the WRX STI we are sitting in now. The bikes done, the road is ours.
Mentally, I'm still not even in the ballpark. “How quick will we be going?” I ask Higgins.
“We’ll have a go in places, but we’ve got to be sensible…” comes the reply.
I’ve been sensible with Higgy a few times before. When it comes to sensible, he and I are a few pages apart.
“Bray Hill, yeeehaaaa!” We haven’t come across the start-finish straight, it’s too complicated to get the train of Subarus taking guests on a flying lap onto the circuit there.
Instead, we’ve dodged the barriers and road closed signs and turned left at the crossroads of the A2 and Ballanard Road. Better known as St Ninian’s. Even better known as, ‘the top of Bray Hill.’
I’m getting it now; exclamation done, Higgins keeps us pinned through the gears and that compression and super-quick right are upon us in no time.
I’ve stopped trying to think of a smart comment about not dropping it on the exit and I’m now wedging my right leg against the door and left leg against the transmission tunnel.
Waist down, I’ve assumed the brace position. Waist up, I’m determined not to show even the slightest doubt in my three-time British Rally Champion pilot. Higgins ability is beyond question, especially here in his own back yard.
Still, I’m grateful to be going down the gears into Quarterbridge. That right-hander followed by the left-right S at Braddan Bridge settle me in for what’s coming. This is a special stage in a road car. A daylight road rally. A 37-mile selective. Crack on.
We do. I’m so focused I don’t even notice we’ve just passed McDonalds.
The next section is A-road quick between the hedges. Ballagarey comes and goes – the right-hander where Guy Martin had a horribly fiery shunt is no drama for the Subaru. Not even with four people on board on road tyres with the track temperature rising to tar-melting levels.
The right-hander into Crosby is on another level. I don't bother trying to compute how close we are to the barrier on the left at the exit.
Anyway, my eyes are too busy trying explain our 110mph entry to a 30mph zone on a Monday lunchtime. My brain laughs at my eyes.
On the exit of the village Higgins offers: “This one’s a bit of an iffy corner…”
Iffy or not, it’s nearly flat in fifth, tyres chirruping towards the pavement.
No matter: there’s a rather splendid house with a weird, rampart-style roof for run-off.
There’s no let-off. “Now it’s quick,” says Higgins. “I think we lift once in the next minute or so.”
In fairness, he’s talking as though he’s in the Prodrive-built 600bhp Time Attack WRX STI. We’re not. We’re in the £30k roadgoing equivalent – which is remarkable value for money by comparison. It’s got half the horsepower of the racecar, for a fraction of the price.
The shoutier Subaru Higgins is using to lap at an average of 128mph comes in somewhere between half and three-quarters of a million, depending who you ask.
Today, sensible for Higgins means keeping us below 120mph, leaving a good 30 untouched. Works for me.
Especially in Gorse Lea, an unexpectedly tricky right-hander on the way down to the junction at Ballacraine.
Turning right, again, the car runs to within what feels – and probably is – an inch or two of the barriers. Hard on the gas we’re past mile eight and through the left-hander which ended Milky Quayle’s career nine years ago.
“This is where I can make up some time on the bikes,” says Higgins.
It’s not hard to see why: it’s quick, bumpy and presumably a complete nightmare on a bike. Just before the village of Kirk Michael, Higgy points out the wall where Joey Dunlop used to leave a trail of paint from his crash helmet.
This really is the land of the legend.
“I’ll just back us up a little bit now,” says Mark, letting the Subarus (the ones driven by more normal folk who understand the true meaning of sensible) catch up.
“Come on!” he shouts, a grin spread wide across his face. “I’ve spent my life driving through here at 30mph. Not today.” Indeed.
Again, madness. The crowds are huge on either side of the road as we rocket past everyday houses on an everyday street.
Every now and then, Higgy sounds like he’s talking us around the corners. He’s not. He’s talking to himself.
“Three corners,” he says, “yellow line, yellow line, yellow line… good.”
Ballaugh Bridge is next. We catch some air, but not too much. Then Sulby. Straight. Very straight.
We’re into three figures. A couple of hours later, in the WRX STI Time Attack, he’s gunned at 168.6mph.
“The speed’s so high,” he says, “you have to be so careful you’re not carrying too much on the entry. It's trial and error; some of the time you’re backing off through the first corner to really nail the next one and take the speed onto the straight.”
For a lot of years, as a rally driver, Higgins wouldn’t have made the end of Sulby Straight, instead turning right onto the A14 at the crossroads.
“When I first came to do this in 2011, I really had to learn the section from Ginger Hall to Bungalow,” he says. Why? “Because I never really drove that road. When I was young we always went up over Tholt-e-Will because that was the road used on the car rally.”
But now he’s been through the road in and out of Ramsey a few times, he knows it well enough.
“This is one of the bumpiest sections of the circuit,” he says, “but there are some corners which are a bit more like the rally – you can throw the car in a bit here.”
Through the famous Ramsey Hairpin, up the hill and out through Gooseneck and we’re onto the mountain. The hedges have gone; replaced by fresh-air for run-off.
The Mountain Mile is dispatched in a moment, through the left at Casey’s and on past mile 29.
“I need to concentrate a bit here, I’m not happy with my line,” says Higgy. “This is where Conor Cummins went off…”
Verandah. Incredible. But that’s nothing to what’s coming.
We’re howling down the road, highest part of the track at 1300 feet, looking up at Snaefell.
“That’s the highest mountain on the Isle of Man, that is,” says Higgy, getting all Geography teacher. “Actually, it’s the only mountain,” he adds, rather spoiling the academic effect.
Bungalow’s done with a drift. Are the tyres starting to wobble a bit? Hope not.
Eyes down, this is a biggie: Brandywell. Remember the A14? The turning off Sulby Straight? The road over Tholt-e-Will? We’re approaching the other end of that road. But it’s a car park. The big attraction?
Bonkers, Brandywell. The car’s gone quiet. Aside from the Subaru beat, the only noise is tyre squeal. It’s getting louder.
We’re through. Higgy bursts out laughing. “I love those moments when it goes quiet.”
Keppel Gate and Kate’s Cottage are more straightforward in comparison with Brandywell. And they lead us onto one of the most recognisable stretches of road.
“Time for a pint at the Creg?” Higgy smiles, a reference to the Creg-Ny-Baa pub seen in so many TT photographs.
Once again, one of the most incredible things about the lap is the positioning of spectators. Setting the Subaru up for the right-hander outside the pub, anybody who’s forgotten to cut their toenails could be about to get them done, STI-fashion. We’re literally at their feet.
Higgins’ only genuine corner-cut comes at Brandish, where we get the left-hand side of the car on the grass, before things get a bit more familiar for the last mile and a bit.
“This is the only section we used on the car rally,” Higgins says, as we come down to Cronk-ny-Mona. There’s a brace of tight, tricky right-handers before the slowest corner: the first-gear hairpin-right into Governor’s Bridge.
This is the only place Higgy will tickle the handbrake when he's in the Time Attack car. After that it’s out of the trees and back out onto the A2, Glencrutchery Road, the start-finish straight.
Done. Higgy, you are a hero.