A record, a road, and a rally car are a delicious combination.
What could you do in 41 minutes? Me? I could take a nap. Manx rally ace Mark Higgins is not like me, and on July 11, he spent 41 minutes – 40 minutes, 58.8 seconds, to be precise – slicing and dicing along Romania's stunning Transfăgărășan Highway, setting a record over a 52.4-mile stretch of the legendary pavement that Top Gear introduced to the world.
Thanks to Britain's most famous televisual export (sorry Flying Circus), enthusiasts know the Transfăgărășan as the best driving road… in the world. But as I found out while (futilely) attempting to chase Higgins down, it's a crucible for performance vehicles. This road takes all the best parts of the Nürburgring; adds rougher, more uneven pavement; dozens of switchback turns; sheer drops; and enough distance to be physically and mentally demanding for anyone foolish enough to tackle it at speed. It's heaven with the right car.
And despite what Top Gear would have you believe, the right car can be as simple as a Subaru WRX STI with a more aggressive set of brake pads. Or, you could go in Higgins' direction and attack the road with a 600-horsepower WRX STI hand-built by the high-performance henchmen at Prodrive. The 600-hp version is fun if you have a spare rally driver handy, but if not, the stock model will do.
Subaru is not new to this record-setting business. It's been barnstorming across Europe for years using a heavily modified WRX STI to break its own record for cars at the traditionally bikes-only Isle of Man TT, followed by a very wet run at the Nürburgring to claim the title of fastest four-door sedan, a third-place finish at the Goodwood Festival of Speed hill climb – only a Group C Le Mans car and a Penske-Chevrolet Indy Car were faster – and then just for giggles, it went down a bobsled run in Switzerland.
The Transfăgărășan blends all of those challenges into one monumental fight, 624 turns long and with a mile of elevation change. This road is as dangerous (arguably more so, considering its isolation) as the Snaefell Mountain Course on the Isle of Man that’s claimed multiple lives over the years, as technically challenging as the Nürburgring, as intense as Goodwood, and thanks to the wild array of changing road surfaces, occasionally as slippery as a Swiss bobsled run.
With that in mind, Subaru made a number of changes and rechristened Higgins' car as the WRX STI Time Attack Romania. To help cover the distance, Prodrive added a fuel tank that can handle 26.4 gallons of petrol, 10.5 gallons more than a stock WRX. There's a new first gear to deal with the TH's many switchbacks – of the road's 624 turns, there are a disproportionate number of hairpins – while a new barometric sensor helps keep the 600-hp flat-four humming as it covers the mile of vertical elevation change.
Since weather is unpredictable, the Time Attack Romania has working headlights, a weather-sealed body, and fans and a heating element to keep the windshield from fogging (it didn't work). And of course, this STI now has a passenger seat. Ostensibly for Welsh co-driver Darren Garrod, I suspect the spare chair is so Higgins can scare the bejeesus out of me and my fellow car writers, after we drive ourselves up and down the mountain.
The Transfăgărășan Highway (TH) starts innocently enough on its north end, where I set off as the middle STI in a five-car convoy. Our leader, in an older WRX STI, is a local professional rally driver. Complete with an equally talented co-driver passing along pace notes, this World Rally Blue blob-eye STI takes us on the most intense lead-follow session imaginable, showing us the correct line along the closed Transfăgărășan. The second car, piloted by an English amateur rallyist and the head of Subaru's on-location event team, sets the speed.
If having a cruise control with a northern English accent is weird, flying up the Transfăgărășan without regard for oncoming traffic is even stranger. As it turns out, closing 52 miles of famously scenic road during tourist season is no easy feat.
Subaru first started scouting for this run in 2015, and eventually had to rope in local rally organizers, the regional government in Sibiu, the national government in Bucharest, and a former employee of the U.S. State Department to make it all happen. Hundreds of volunteers are on hand to keep track of things as the TH closes for hours over our two days there.
The high-speed dash of lazy bends passes through farmland and by the traditional Romanian buildings and hotels that cater to the cyclists, motorcycle riders, and driving enthusiasts that flock to the road during the summer months, when the higher elevations become passable again. It's a relaxing drive.
Until it isn't.
Almost without warning, the Transfăgărășan starts to climb and the gentle bends give way to the occasional switchback turn. The STI still feels at home here. The steering is delightful in its feedback and weight, offering just enough speed to make this compact sedan feel as sharp and pointy as smaller cars.
In the most famous switchback on this early portion of the road – a tight, uphill left – we pass a small hotel at the Bâlea Cascadă and some shops offering traditional Romanian street food. I could have smelled ears of corn and Kürtőskalács, a delicious, doughy confection, cooking out in the open if I'd had the windows down.
I do not have the windows down, because the weather is foul.
The STI feels at home as we climb and encounter occasional switchbacks.
Like so many mountain ranges Mother Nature throws the normal rules of weather out the window in the rocky shadows and up towards the stony peaks of the Transfăgărășan. Driving rain, cool temperatures, and the sudden appearance of fog hamper our run up the mountain. But being able to see is for the weak, and our guidance is good.
After passing the Bâlea Cascadă, speeds pick up. The TH is at its most varied at this point, offering sweeping bends and hairpins in almost equal measure, making for an opportunity to test both our STI's 310-hp flat-four and its Brembo brakes. Upgraded with a set of race pads to better handle two hours of almost constant hard work, these brakes are remarkable in their sure-footedness. While I experience a lot of shuddering they warm – it’s so bad I think the front rotors are warped – I only encounter brake fade once.
A few more minutes of whipping through the forest and under artificial overhangs that protect from falling rocks, and I'm above the treeline. If you've seen any footage this is the part of the Transfăgărășan, it will have been this section. Unfortunately, we can’t. By this point in the run, fog is becoming a real issue, causing my convoy to back off, lest we mistake our corner exit and fly off a cliff.
It isn’t until we climb even further up the hill that we’re above the fog and stopped at an overlook. I'd love to tell you that the view is stunning up here, as sheep cling to the mountainside, mindlessly grazing away, but all we can see is fog ebbing and flowing in the valley below. And then we hear Higgins.
The Time Attack Romania sounds like a proper rally car.
The STI Time Attack Romania doesn't make the delightful flat-four growl you can hear anywhere Subaru enthusiasts gather – instead, it sounds like a proper rally car, a relentless mix of exhaust, anti-lag, and the blow-off valve from the 2.0-liter engine. That blow-off valve sounds like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, a whistly, sputtery thing that somehow reverberates more through the mountains than the near-constant howl from the exhaust.
I can only hear Higgins as he rushes through the fog with the kind of reckless abandon it takes to be a world-class rally driver. As he negotiates one last hairpin, he streaks past us, a blue-and-gold blur. With the Time Attack Romania out of the way, I hop back into my STI and set off in pursuit.
The road climbs aggressively as it approaches the mountain's peak, where a lone hotel and cable car station sit. In the winter, this is the only way to the top of the Transfăgărășan. I imagine it's more peaceful than my ham-fisted attempts to catch Higgins.
The STI's six-speed manual gearbox is a pleasure to operate when pushing hard. On city streets, the gates are notchy, but when driving for effect they become easier to manage. The pedal placement is ideal for the constant heel-toeing required at each hairpin. Three to two. Three to two. Three to two. Rev-matched downshifts and the Transfăgărășan go together like Kürtőskalács and cinnamon, each element an instant injection of dopamine that leaves the animal brain craving for more.
Three to two. Three to two. Three to two.
We reach the peak, where onlookers line the barricaded road. I feel like a rally driver for the first time in my life. I indulge the sensation for only a moment as we enter the tunnel from hell – my name for it. Bumpy, narrow, and uneven, this cave-like passage cuts through the mountain, ending in a deceptively sharp, left-hand kink at its exit – headlights are, for some reason, useless in here. The turn approaches quickly, and we negotiate it, bursting through to the other side to make the trek down the mountain.
With gravity working as a frenemy, I begin truly exercising the Brembo brakes. They shudder and shake the steering wheel, having cooled following the stop at the overlook. It's a fast descent and before long the convoy is back in the forest. We're off the mountain, but there's still another 40 minutes of driving ahead, with even more hairpins and curves.
While the road has been bumpy and uneven for our entire run at the mountain, it starts becoming punishing – year-round dripping from the leafy canopy, owing to the rains of summer and snows of winter, and wildly fluctuating temperatures common in mountain ranges, take their toll on the poorly maintained road surface. I'm thankful for the closed road, as some of the bigger imperfections force me into the other lane – others I can't dodge in time, and they deliver a Tyson-like blow to the suspension. Through it all, the STI maintains its composure. I'm certain that by the end, all of our cars will need new shocks.
The bumps I can't miss all seem to be in the braking zones after the longest straights and into the sharpest turns – the front suspension, already loaded from hard braking, doesn't feel like it can absorb even another inch of vertical travel. It's a disconcerting feeling, as the ABS pulses into a turn, coping with the suspension's sudden inability to absorb bumps and keep the tires in contact with the road.
The record attempt did not go well.
The run's finishing point is atop the dam the Top Gear team camped near the bottom of. We cross it symbolically, then turn back and head to the Hotel Posada Vidraru, where Mark and Darren have staged their 600-hp weapon to the delight of a tour bus stopped on the side of the road.
The record attempt did not go well.
Riding with Higgins
Aside from the fog on the north end of the run and the driving rain on the south end, the Time Attack Romania has a wonky turbocharger that isn’t spooling properly, costing Higgins and Garrod precious minutes over the 52.4-mile run. Fortunately for me, the turbocharger isn’t so wonky that Higgins can’t take the assembled media on short blasts up the mountain.
Cramming my six-foot, one-inch self into a rally car seat with a five-point harness is soothing and pleasant compared to what is about to come. Higgins fires up the Time Attack Romania, takes me to the start line, and launches ahead. Straight-cut gears scream as the G forces push me into the unforgiving hug of the carbon-fiber-backed Racetech seat, while each bump punishes my hips. There are many bumps, and the biggest is when Mark finally stands on the Time Attack Romania's AP brakes.
I imagine the violence of Vlad the Impaler – whose castle ruins sit high above the southernmost part of the Transfăgărășan – doing his trademark impaling with Romanian villagers being similar to Mark Higgins hitting the brakes. Higgins, suddenly and without remorse, brings the Time Attack Romania down to a speed that still seems too high for the first bend. He continues this up the road, stabbing the brakes, flipping the wheel left or right, and then burying the throttle. I am but a puny human in the presence of a god.
Higgins reacts to body motions before I can even perceive them. Despite the rain beating on the windshield, despite the vibrations and impacts, despite the sheer sensory overload of everything, he goes faster. And then faster. And just for a change of pace, he goes faster still. And then the windshield starts fogging.
I am but a puny human in the presence of a god.
Higgins has been dealing with fog during his run. The heat of the powertrain and the cool rain easily overwhelm the new systems Prodrive designed to prevent the issue. I hear the annoyance in his voice as he complains about the state of his windshield, but I can’t feel him relent in his run up the mountain.
“It's fogging right in front of me, but it's fine on your side,” Higgins says.
It is – I can, for better or worse, see as far in front of me as the fog and rain outside the car allow, which isn’t much. I (half-jokingly) tell Mark that my side isn’t fogging because I’m not breathing. He laughs, then asks why I’m not barking pace notes at him. I figure he doesn’t really need help. The tail steps out, Mark tidily corrects, and we burst above the tree line, a fogged-up windshield still hampering his vision. As I said, being able to see is for the weak.
After completing our run up the hill, a couple of Prodrive minders wipe the driver's side of the windshield down so we can go back down the mountain. Mark, always the joker, decides to start drifting around the switchbacks as we descend.
“Gotta give the photographers something to look at,” he said.
But as we enter the trees, the rain and fog return, with the latter appearing both inside and outside the cabin. It’s intense, blanketing fog, and for the first time, I feel Mark back off. And by back off, I still mean go far faster than any normal driver could in such conditions. We complete our run with a flourish, as Mark yanks the handbrake to reorient the Subaru to take his next victim up the hill.
To the delight of Subaru and Prodrive, the sun returns the next day. The other thing that returns? My dinner from the night prior – I'm hit with a brutal case of food poisoning. While the team prepares the Time Attack Romania for yet another attempt, I’m on all fours in the parking lot of base camp, wishing Vlad the Impaler would appear and offer me the sweet embrace of death.
I'd love to tell you that I tough it out and stand on the side of the mountain while Mark makes a full run and sets the first real record on the Transfăgărășan, but I got a lift back to Sibiu, where I pray to all the gods I know, porcelain and otherwise, for a swift recovery. I make it out that evening, not because I want to, but because I need to know how the attempt ended.
Despite a bad alternator that ruins the morning attempt, Mark and Darren manage a full run, recording a sub-41-minute time. It's the fastest, and aside from a potentially apocryphal story of a timed Ferrari, perhaps only recorded attempt up the whole of the Transfăgărășan.
That Higgins and Garrod complete the run in such a stunning time, against the weather, against mechanical adversity, against the sheer brutality of the Transfăgărășan is a testament to what Subaru and Prodrive have built with the WRX STI Time Attack Romania. It's a remarkable car piloted by remarkable men. You and I are not remarkable. We'll never set a record on the Transfăgărășan. But you can get a taste, an inkling, a morsel of the experience. All you need is a trip to Romania and the right wheels. I promise, it's worth it.