Thompson and team board a flight for Sibiu, Romania, to analyze, pick apart, and distill every curve in the road like the grapes growing in the nearby backyards.
Each turn is measured for radius and surface quality, Thompson says. The measurements will not only inform engineers how to set up the car’s damping, but also its ride height and gearing.
Starting from the 6-speed, semi-automated transmission used for the Nürburgring attempt, Prodrive shortened the 4th, 5th, and 6th gears from the top-speed-ready ‘Ring run to a hairpin-intensive ‘box built for the Transfăgărășan.
At 8,500 rpm, Higgins will hit just over 165 mph in 6th gear, down from the configuration prepared for Germany.
The transmission takes a week to configure. Thompson takes three more days to assemble the shift hydraulics, active center differential, and mechanical front and rear differentials that the Subaru will need.
To spot-check the critical electrical systems, Prodrive sends 400 volts through each wire—high voltage, but low current—to ferret out any corroded pins, connectors, harnesses, and broken wires in the Subaru that weighs just over 2,400 pounds.
“A car is made fast on the drawing board,” says Thompson. “It’s a level of checking those systems that gives us the confidence to tell Mark he’s getting into a safe car.”
Safety is crucial. More than 40 percent of Higgins’ run will be at wide-open throttle, as fast as the car can manage, barreling down skinny Romanian roads at more than 100 mph in many places—sometimes in clear daylight, or sometimes into a wall of soupy fog feet from the car’s face.
“I’ve never seen anything like this weather, in the way it can change,” Higgins says.
Higgins winds his developing Subaru race car around small corners near the east coast of England on a sunny day. It’s relatively cool at Cadwell Park circuit, near Lincolnshire—only in the 60s, and the coolest day of the week—but the direct sunlight and ambient temperature help engineers tune the engine for maximum performance.
Thompson wants the surface temperature at Cadwell to be nearly identical to forecasts in Romania, which predict a road temperature of about 86 degrees. Even small variations in the surface temperature can impact how the engine powers through the track in the UK—and on the windy road in Romania.
The 2.2-mile circuit in England is unique among test tracks because the low-speed corners will help Higgins better gauge the balance of his car’s chassis, setting a stiffer rear end for oversteer through the corners. Thompson selects the circuit because it closely mimics the narrow track, tight hairpins, and surface condition he observed in Romania just a month ago.
But Cadwell Park is a far cry from the 50-mile gauntlet waiting in Romania.
Higgins has relied on Thompson and Prodrive to prepare and adjust his race cars for decades, from the Isle of Man record run to rallies in China.
“Thirty years of experience from the World Rally Championship series means we have a broad spectrum of data,” Thompson says.
From that long history and data collected at Cadwell, Thompson and team finish their setup of the Subaru and prepare the car to ship to Romania. The attention to detail pays off.
“It’s fantastic. It’s how I remember the car,” Higgins would say later after practice runs.
“A happy driver on the wrong setup is happier than an unhappy driver on the right setup,” Thompson says.
Both car and driver sound and feel right for a run.