The Buccaneer S2B first flew in 1958 and went into service in 1962. A subsonic fighter, it was designed to be able to carry a nuclear bomb below radar coverage. It may be nearly 60 years old and has been retired for more than 20 years, but it still looks modern.
This one is sitting at England's Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome. It used to be a British Air Force base, but is now a private owned airport that is home to a sort of airplane graveyard. It's also home to some very long runways that host top speed runs and vehicle testing.
Today, the runways are being taken over by Prodrive and Subaru America, but it's not a rally car. Not close. This is what you'd call the ultimate road racing WRX STI. And it's been built to dominate the Isle of Man.
Every year, Subaru of America has a little fun with Mark Higgins and a WRX STI during the Isle of Man TT. For the last few years, a very lightly prepped STI with Higgins at the wheel has set new records for cars on the legendary lap of the Island. You may remember the time when our own Chris Cantle somehow managed to not ruin his pants when you've ever seen while driving the course. They're really going for it. Last year, Higgins did the lap in 19:15 at an average speed of 117 mph.
That's pretty fast, but Subaru thought they could go faster. Way faster. Motorcycle fast. So instead of running something off the shelf on the island, they decided to make something special for it. The Subaru WRX STI TT Attack is that car.
The body shell is a WRX, but the rest is vastly different. Under the hood is a 2.0 liter WRC engine producing 550 horsepower and 405 lb-ft of torque. That's linked to a sequential rally gearbox with new ratios. The interior is totally stripped out, just a digital dash, two seats, and a shift lever. It runs on slick tires. And out back there is a giant wing that'd be the envy of Subaru enthusiasts everywhere.
That wing also has a little trick: It's active. At the push of a button, the wing can stall, removing downforce from the rear of the car and increasing speed on long straights. That's because the goal is to make this thing fast enough to go around the Isle of Man as fast as a motorcycle.
Yeah. It's that crazy.
But today it's on the wide open runways of Bruntingthorpe for a shakedown test. The car is just black and white—no livery yet—which gives it the aura of a storm trooper's weekend racer. There's basically nothing to hit here, which is good, since I'll be driving the car.
Before this test, the car had only had one other proper test and was driven just a handful of times at it. That said, it was hitting top speeds near 175 on the long runways. It's fast.
I squeeze into the car. Literally squeeze, since the seat is fixed, the wheel isn't removable, and Mark Higgins doesn't have as much of an affinity for burritos as me. Higgins hops into the passenger seat and Prodrive's ace engineer Richard Thompson shows me the way around the controls. The sequential gearbox has one lever, pull back for up, push forward for down. Higgins prefers it.
"I always know where to go to shift, no matter where my hands are," he says. "Paddles can get confusing."
It's also a rather innovative gearbox. It's not a true sequential box, but rather an h-pattern unit with hydraulic actuators. Thompson says this setup is ideal because it still allows for random access, like immediate engagement of first after a spin which can save crucial seconds on a rally stage.
Thompson tells me to let it heat up, and once it's warm, Higgins selects first gear on the center console and tells me we're good to go. There's some apprehension about the racing clutch, but it ends up being very easy and forgiving, and then we're on our way.
As we pull onto the track, I start getting used to the car and the track. I'm short shifting as we start out since I have no clue where we're going and I want to show Mark Higgins that I care about his baby. But when I put it into fifth, it suddenly bounces out of gear. And then we hear a substantial clunk. And then we could smell burning. Burning never smells good. I stop the car and we both climb out.
A short jog back to where we heard the clunk reveals what happened: Fifth gear split in half and fired out of the gearbox. Instead of taking laps in the car, we ride back to the paddock in a Vauxhall Astra. Day over.
David Lapworth and Richard Taylor, both of Subaru WRC fame, meet us when we return. They're convinced it's a technical failure. I'm convinced I somehow ruined their lovely car.
The next day at Prodrive, Richard Thompson tells me that it wasn't my fault. New ratios were made for gears four, five, and six that were of a different design than the rally ratios in first through third. They had wider teeth for strength, but the inner portion was narrower. That's what failed, shattering the gear in half and leaving a hole that appears to be a small meteor strike in the side of the gearbox casing.
"That's why you test," Richard Taylor says. "Better to happen now than at the Isle of Man. Maybe not better for you!"
But he was right. It's always better to have this happen in a test. And that's because they have high goals for the car at the Isle of Man. They believe it can hit 180 mph where the old car could top out at 166 mph and get to that speed quicker. It'll be faster in the corners since it has slicks and real downforce. The idea is that it can go around the course in the same time as a motorcycle, which means something like a 130 mph average. Even from my short drive, I know this car is capable of that sort of time.
After this test the car went to the Isle of Man and to Bicester for two more shakedowns, where it performed flawlessly. The fix to the gearing worked and they're ready to run at the Isle of Man.
Subaru will be gunning for the record next week.