Lapping the TT, Higgins style

Consult ye olde book of 101 Things Every PHer Should Do Before They Turn 50 and you'll find the Isle of Man TT as one of the first chapters. It is to two wheels what Le Mans is to car fans; on Monday it was my turn to do the TT.

As I arrive at the airport I already know Mark Higgins has annihilated the previous lap record, but his promise of 'a bit more to come' only serves to heighten my excitement as I make the short drive to Douglas. Word on the street is that Higgins is set to go even faster - his 17min 49.75sec lap time a mere prelude to something even more astonishing. We said the 120mph target was pessimistic - the 126.971mph average speed proves we were right. Question is, just how much faster can he go?

Higgins is feeling relaxed. Asked if he intends to beat the time, the Manxman tells me "Um, yeah, by a little bit. The early 128s would be good." In other words, just over 1mph around the entire 37.73-mile course. Small margins, significant results.

Searching for every last bit of speed!
Searching for every last bit of speed!
Harder, faster, better
Meanwhile, outside in the paddock, the Prodrive team have been working tirelessly to squeeze every last ounce of potential out of the heavily-modified Subaru WRX STI. "We've changed the set up quite dramatically overnight," Higgins tells me. "I've gone a lot harder with the car. We've done a few tweaks to the dampers... to the camber... we're learning all the time."

The team doesn't have a great deal of data to work with, mind. "There's nowhere in the world you can test for this place," he explains. "Until your first run out you've got no idea what the car's doing."

He's typically modest about his achievements, but his calmness belies what is an astonishingly brave thing to do. You won't have forgotten his famous 'tank slapper' of 2011 and you can be sure as hell he hasn't. "It's me getting the balls to go faster through the corners now," he says, in a manner in which you might describe a climbing a flight of stairs or taking a sip of tea.

Mark heads off to do some VIP laps of the course, leaving me to inspect the record-breaking Subaru. Some of the changes being made are surprisingly rudimentary, with one engineer drilling additional holes in the grille to provide extra cooling.

This is what we mean about rudimentary
This is what we mean about rudimentary
I can see clearly
The team has also installed a wash-wipe system, designed to ensure there are no flies blocking Higgins' view. Over coffee, the three-time British Rally Championship winner explains that flies on the screen are a huge issue. "When you come back up the mountain you're looking into the sun and the screen on the car is so slanted... I think that's the right [corner]. Which is OK at 100mph but at 150mph it's a bit different."

Of course it is. So for today's run, the Provide team will send a text message to the car's display, telling Higgins when to press the wash-wipe button. Just another thing to consider when you're doing 170mph on what is essentially a British B-road. The Subaru will also be treated to a fresh set of Dunlop Sport Maxx slicks, with Higgins complaining of a "little movement" with five miles to go. All things being equal, the car should be perfectly set up for another lap record. Higgins just needs to bring his balls...

But first, my own hot lap of the famous TT circuit. I won't pretend that I wasn't a little disappointed to be informed I wouldn't be one of the fortunate three to ride with Higgins, even with images from that video fresh in my mind. Turns out I needn't have worried. My driver would be Adrian Kermode, another Manxman and the kind of guy you would love to meet. He owns a Porsche 911 and is a former Mini rally driver. Like many residents of the Isle of Man, he was riding a motorcycle within hours of learning to walk.

Because red ones are fastest, right?
Because red ones are fastest, right?
Lap of the gods
If the Mark Higgins time attack was the main course, this had to be the dessert. Riding 'four up' in a Subaru WRX STI road car along the entire Isle of Man circuit. A proper pinch yourself moment. There were half a dozen Scoobies on the track, with Higgins leading the pack. Kermode asks if we'd mind if he brings up the rear, as it means he can hold back and get some proper speed up. We said you'd like him!

Nothing can prepare you for the Isle of Man. You might think passenger laps are a bit 'meh', but this is no ordinary ride along. The fact that these are left-hand drive cars, shipped over by Subaru USA, only serves to heighten the sense of surrealism. It takes me a while to stop reaching for the non-existent pedals.

Hurtling through 30mph zones and villages at 120mph feels so wrong. Tackling the mountain section at 140mph feels so right. Adrian is having fun. He points to sections where the sidecars clip the kerb and provides a simple demonstration.

Imagine explaining the TT to your average American
Imagine explaining the TT to your average American
Air time
He pulls back from the pack to gather enough speed to get air over a humpback bridge. Meanwhile, life goes on. One chap continues to build a garden wall as a pack of screaming Scoobies pass within a few feet of his builder's bum. Children play in front gardens. I just pray a cat doesn't wander into the road.

The lap is high on theatre, but low on drama. The sheer amount of grip and complete absence of body roll means I never feel like I'm about to encounter a stone wall or village pub. The best experience of 2016? Without a doubt.

Later that day, Mark Higgins sets another lap record, finishing in a time of 17min 35.139sec: an average speed of 128.730mph. If I'm honest, it was never in doubt and there's a sense of inevitability as the slammed and wide-arched Scooby crosses the finish line. I had averaged 80-90mph on 'my' hot lap, so goodness knows what it must be like to ride with Higgins when he's properly on it. I'm not entirely sure I want to find out.

I return to the airport with a renewed sense of respect for the TT riders and even more appreciation of Higgins' talents. Put aside any qualms over Subaru's lack of competition or the modified nature of the car and simply marvel in what they have achieved.

And stay tuned for another lap record, later this week.

Watch the video here.











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Comments (27) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Jerry Can 08 Jun 2016

    if FISA hadn't banned group B in the 80's, this is a close approximation of what rallying might be like to day. Splendid!

  • jimed 09 Jun 2016

    Nice to see the car in action however it looks as if whoever edited the video had not been to the IoM as the clips are in all sorts of order. He went through the Creg before he had gone almost anywhere else then did Ballaugh Bridge twice with other bits seemingly shown in random order. So as a video showing a lap of any sort it was not much good.

  • LeapingDeere 09 Jun 2016

    Would love to see a lap done by a Porsche 918. If a driver and an owner is brave enough!

  • rhinochopig 09 Jun 2016

    Jerry Can said:
    if FISA hadn't banned group B in the 80's, this is a close approximation of what rallying might be like to day. Splendid!
    More like this I suspect...

  • Jerry Can 09 Jun 2016

    actually more like this

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