Following a rather sports car heavy Geneva Motor Show, it was hard to imagine a better way to leave the city than by jumping into Subaru STIs and heading straight to Italy and then for the Alps.
There are multiple benefits to drive through Italy to get to the Swiss Alps: the Italians' love of speed, their gas station food, having time to fantasize about Alfa Romeos in the traffic jams around Milan, counting first-generation Fiat Pandas on the road, and most importantly, Lake Como. It becomes instantly clear why most famous people have a crib around this pond. It's a remarkable place, complete with its own historic motorbike factory.
After crossing the border once again, the mountain pass to Europe's most expensive ski resort demands many shifts down to first. Most people in St. Moritz never have to experience that. Either because they drive Bentleys with sufficient torque figures, or because their means of transportation involve jet propulsion. The Samedan Airport just three miles outside the town is a busy one, welcoming private planes of all shapes and sizes.
But Subaru didn't go "to the top of the world" to ski down the 10,026 foot high Piz Nair peak with a Crosstrek, nor to find out how the Impreza's next facelift would resonate with the high rollers if it came with a Rolex glued into it's dash. Subaru went for the St. Moritz-Celerina Olympic bob run, the world's oldest and only remaining natural ice track.
The Olympia bob run started out with a bunch of rich and moderately intoxicated Brits sliding down using two sleds they just welded together in 1890. In 1904, it became the first official bobsled track on the planet, helping St. Moritz win the bid to host the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948.
The track itself starts at 6,076 feet, dropping down some 426 feet on its 1.07 mile course. In their best moments, competition bobsleighs can reach 83mph here, while the largest of the Olympia's 14 bends throws a force of 4.5 g at the human body.
That's tough, but not as tough as driving down it using a two-year-old Impreza STI.
Such childish ideas rarely make it further than the last call of the hotel bar. This one did because Jeremy, the video producer who came up with the concept knew Mark Higgins, and Mark Higgins knew Subaru people had a tendency to throw away their medicine from time to time.
At the L.A. Auto Show in November, Subaru USA's Head of Marketing decided it was a great idea. The mayor of St. Moritz was supportive, Prodrive wanted to do it as well, and so after the project got the official green light just before Christmas, Subaru shipped one of the two Isle of Man TT STIs to the UK. The chosen one has been gathering dust at their museum in New Jersey for two years.
Prodrive had two weeks to come up with a stock-looking STI that stays reasonably intact while bouncing down the run. To get there, they used additional steel bracing all around as well as extra rubber bumpers lifted straight off a bobsleigh. The spring rates were dialed up to extremely stiff levels at both ends, with adjustable shocks attached to overinflated 135mm WRC tires, complete with 400 7mm tall tungsten carbide studs in each. This car had to deal with quick load transitions like it was on rails to give Mark a fighting chance of keeping it under control despite the inevitable hits.
The attempt had to happen in St. Moritz because the Olympia run is the only one that it still being built by a bunch of Italians every year. They turn some four million gallons of snow and water into the world's largest ice structure. That means there are no concrete barriers, so once the Italians went home at the end of the season just ten days ago, nobody could stop Subaru from shaving off enough ice to make the track wide enough for a car. Theoretically.
One car, one driver, and only two days to shoot. There was a strong chance that this whole thing just won't work out. Partly because the now much thinner ice walls were literally melting away by the second, which became clear to everybody when Mark hit the wall just in front of Anthony Cullen, the guy who took that great photo we used at the top:
Because of a narrow bridge further down, Subaru could only use the top section of the run, and conquering the 98 foot long bend known as the Horse Shoe was the tipping point. He had to hit that curve at a minimum of 29 mph, but no faster than 34.
If you think Mark Higgins was relaxed about it, let's just say he is a professional. He's a triple British Rally Champion, a stunt driver you did not see working on Bond movies, the Fast and Furious franchise and the BBC's Sherlock, an Isle of Man lap record holder. But humans still have hard-wired survival instincts, and hitting a tiny fluorescent dot sprayed very high up on a curved wall of ice in order to have a better chance of getting through the vertical drop at the end is something the brain will always protest against. Vigorously.
"Mark, it's not like it's your first stunt!"
"Yeah, but it feels like it."
From the safety of where we were standing, I couldn't see everything. All I know is that after losing some momentum due to pinballing between the walls, Mark hit the gas hard to reach the needed entry speed, after which he drove around this 2.5 G curve on the dot, leaving a cloud of snow and wood chips behind as he landed on the driver's side once gravity took over.
I guess luck had a lot of do with it, which is part of this business. What's for sure is that after landing on its side, the Subaru hit the wall on the left with its roof, bouncing back enough for the tires to the ground again and let Mark do his magic to get back on four wheels.
He left enough Subaru debris behind for everybody to grab a piece, but the car remained driveable, making another run up at a slower pace to give the crew some additional footage. It could have not gone better.
St. Moritz's Horse Shoe is right by the road where the locals commute using bendy buses. After the first day, word got out that Subaru was doing something the Alps have not seen before. On Saturday, a local STI drove up to have a look around. But just ten minutes after the film crew finished their work, a bulldozer crashed through the ice walls of Olympia to make sure nobody could hurt themselves. The bobsleigh season has been over for six days anyway.
Sunday morning at 6 AM, a team of Swiss teenagers felt the need to say hi to the Americans in the big winged car. Despite having nearly finished wine bottles in their hands, they were kind and offered us a fat joint for the ride to Zurich Airport. Thoughtful. Discovering that St. Moritz had a younger side to it was surprising, but not as surprising as seeing Mark Higgins drive down a bobsleigh track in the High Alps. And all this just so that he could have a new profile picture.