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Goodwood FoS 2016

Driving Mark Higgins’ IOM TT car at Goodwood

"It’s like hopping in the ring with Anthony Joshua..."

Published: 30 Jun 2016

You join us in the holding paddock at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. In front is Mad Mike Whiddett in his 1000bhp quad-rotor MX-5 drift car; to the left is Ken Block in an 850bhp Fiesta; in the middle, me, in a 600bhp Prodrive-developed WRX STI fresh from its blistering lap record around the Isle of Man TT course. Spot the odd one out. The crowd politely point and wave, then realise I’m not Mark Higgins, their record-breaking rallyist hero, but some bloke in a Top Gear romper suit, and pull a confused face.

Trust me, I’m more confused than they are. How on earth one phone call several months ago has led me to this moment is beyond baffling. How Prodrive and Mark himself agreed to let a ham-fisted amateur like me drive their prizefighter – designed specifically, and at great expense, to obliterate Higgins’ own IOM benchmark - is more perplexing still. But here I am, time to man up. “Don’t stall, don’t crash. Don’t stall, don’t crash,” I repeat to myself. It’s all about confidence, see.

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And then it starts to rain. Big fat rain that, regardless of what Peter Kay thinks, definitely soaks you through. Oddly, this could play right into my Sparco gloves. Five days ago I had the chance to drive this ‘time attack’ WRX STI for a few familiarisation laps, with Higgins in the passenger seat. On that day the heavens also parted and turned an airfield into a large puddle, so I at least have a semblance of how this thing behaves in the wet.

Back to Goodwood and I’m queued up behind the start line, engine off to avoid boiling myself and the fluids. When the 1972 Ford Capri RS2600 ahead of me creeps forward it’s time to detonate the engine, and deafen everyone within 50 metres. The process goes like this: release the handbrake (this always come first to avoid any embarrassment), flick a switch to prime the fuel pump, turn on the digital display, dip the clutch and press the engine start button… Nearly there… With the clutch still down rotate the gearbox dial from neutral to stage mode, and twist the engine map switch to 0, 1, 2 or 3, depending on how brave, or stupid, you’re feeling. I’m feeling stupidly brave.

The clutch is a bit snatchy to say the least, so for low-speed trundling you roll it around on the biting point, no throttle required. Or at least that’s the idea. When it’s my turn to move up to the start line I promptly stall it in front of hundreds of hungry iPhone lenses. Great. Composure regained, launch sequence repeated and I rip down down the first straight with a disappointing lack of smoke and sideways – blame the ruthlessly efficient 50:50 torque split four-wheel drive system for that.

Once up and running the clutch pedal is redundant, you simply smash into a higher gear with a pull of the paddle to the right of the wheel, or smash down a gear by pushing it away with your fingertips. By the time I’ve rounded the first corner, managed to stay off the grass and find myself ripping past Goodwood house and under the pedestrian bridge, you can tell this is a car designed to exist at an average of 129mph: the harder I push it the more cohesive everything gets. While the turbo lag is significant at low revs, if you can keep it lit then the thrust is enormous and instant, but rarely intimidating, even in the wet. It’s like hopping in the ring with Anthony Joshua, only to find being punched by him feels fantastic.

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It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why this is – Lord March’s personal hillclimb is only 1.16-miles long, after all, and I’m a little busy trying to keep my $700,000 Subaru out the hay bales – but it’s partly down to the all-wheel-drive security blanket, partly the telepathic steering and partly the monstrous brakes that my puny legs aren’t extracting half the potential from. Ultimately, for something so intimidatingly focused – essentially a WRC car turned up to 11, with better aero and slicks – it’s a pleasure to drive from start to finish.

I’m sure of this because the moment I cross the line, I want to go again, convinced I can take chunks out of my time now I know the limits are so high and there’s so little to fear. But that’s not the way it works at Goodwood - it’s a big old tease.

What I do get, though, is the dubious honour of seeing my pathetic telemetry overlaid against data from Mark Higgins’ run the day before. You can see it yourself above. Firstly, my excuses: the track was wet for my run and not so wet for him, and, lest we forget, he’s had a lot more time in the car than me. Oh, and he’s a world-class rally driver, whereas I’m just a lucky guy who happens to write about cars for a living: that should just about explain the thirteen-second gap. Let’s just call it room for improvement.

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