The art of WRX-ing in the rain
A wet Nurburgring is a challenge for both our scribe and Subaru's pro driver.
There it is again, the quiver of the STi's blue rear spoiler. I noticed it yesterday on the Autobahn north of Frankfurt. Although the speed limit was 120 kilometers per hour, I was cruising in sixth gear around 200 kph when the STi's signature rear appendage began to dance in my rear view mirror.
Now I'm redlining fifth gear on the front straight of the legendary Nurburgring's north loop and it's back. Only this time the quivering blade is in a deluge of water coming off the Subaru's 18-inch Dunlops. It's a rooster tail worthy of Miss Budweiser and it's a constant and sobering reminder that I'm lapping the 13-mile long Nordschleife in a freezing and unrelenting rain.
I'm driving a 2017 German-spec Subaru WRX STi, not the updated 2018 version that'll get revised front end styling, tweaked suspension tuning, larger Brembo brakes and 19-inch wheels and tires.
At 240 kph, close to the 2.5-liter boxer four's 6,700 rpm redline, I shift up to sixth gear and change lanes to avoid the standing water on the left side of the track. It's my third lap. I'm getting over-confident. The all-wheel drive WRX STI is dealing well with the tricky conditions and the Ringmeisters of the past that tamed this track since it was first built in 1929 - Ascari, Fangio, Clark, Caraccioala, Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Chiron, and Ickx - are talking to me inside my head. And they're egging me on. Pushing me to go faster.
I'm sticking to wet line and staying off the tall curbing that marks most apexes. Bounce the Subi off a curb and I'm sure to star in the next Nurburgring crash video to hit YouTube. I'm also desperately trying to stay off of the new pavement, which dots the circuit and has a coefficient of friction in the wet similar to snot.
Then I make a huge mistake on the entrance to Bergwerk, a tight right hand corner that comes up quickly after a long, fast section and the left hand kink that Nicki Lauda got so wrong in the 1976 Grand Prix.
The Nordschleife has 160 corners. Most are blind. Many are off camber. All are lined with walls and Armco barriers. Even the straights are kinked and crowned. And there are two very fast downhill compressions and three jumps that max out a car's suspension travel. There's no runoff room. No margin for error. And remembering the course in this weather in just a few laps is impossible, I don't care how much Gran Turismo you've played.
Entering Bergwerk I miss my braking marker and carry too much speed into the corner, screw up the line and get all four tires on the new pavement, which is like black ice in this cold rain. The front end loses bite first and the car pushes across the track. Foolishly I lift, sending weight forward which rotates the car. With a quick counter steer, I get back on the gas hard so the all-wheel drive system can straighten us out and claw our way onto the following short straight.
It sounds like I know what I was doing. But it's the car. The WRX just saved my ass. And it isn't the first time. Or the last.
I realize you have to drive the Subaru like a Porsche 911. If you're in too deep you have to force yourself to get back on the gas so the all-wheel drive system and 305 horspower can pull the car out of a slide. You have to let the car figure it out. Don't lift. Don't wait. Stay in it. And if you're sliding across the grass and you're going to hit the wall, remember to take your hands off the steering wheel. I learned that last part from watching Dario Franchitti on TV.
I'm not the only one struggling with the conditions. Next month New Zealander Richie Stanaway will drive the Prodrive Aston Martin in the 24 hours of LeMans. Today he's driving a Prodrive-built and prepared WRX in an attempt to set the four-door lap record around the north loop. This guy knows the track, he's competed in two Nurburgring 24 hours, and he's a world class driver with victories in GP3, GP2 and the World Endurance Championship.
Last year the same car, then driven by Mark Higgins, set the four-wheel lap record around the Isle of Man TT course. Now modified for the longer and faster Nurburgring, the carbon-fiber-bodied 600 hp WRX has received improved aero, including a massive rear diffuser that sticks out like a tail feathers of a Bald Eagle, a wet sump oiling system and a higher, 8,500 rpm, redline. Lower friction roller bearing dampers have also been added to deal with the rough surface of the German track. According to Richard Thompson, Prodrive's Senior Engineer on the project, the only parts left unchanged from a stock WRX are the headlights, the roof strips, the front door handles, the hood scoop and the windshield wiper arms and blades.
Then I notice the STi Type RA badge on the decklid, which was lifted from the special edition that will come soon. The name is a rerun from a 2003 version that never made it to the United States. This time the RA should be the hottest STi ever sold in America. Updates include a carbon fiber real wing, Bilstein dampers, gold 19-inch BBS, revised gearing, engine upgrades and to lower the sedan's center of gravity, a carbon fiber roof just like the one on the Prodrive car.
But even with all that technology and talent the conditions are just too treacherous. After a few sighting laps and one meager attempt the Prodrive team is putting the car back on the truck. It's just too cold. Too wet. After a few laps the Dunlop Sport Blu Response tires are still at ambient temperature. "I can't get any heat in the tires," a disappointed Stanaway tells me, "It's like driving a shifter cart in the rain on slicks. There's just no grip. If I push any harder I'm putting the car at serious risk."
I can see the disappointment on his face. I can hear it in his voice. For a few moments we stand in the track's small pit area, the one next to the Devil's Diner restaurant, and watch the cigarette butts float down the gutter.
The next morning we awake to blue skies and a bright sun, but the track is no longer ours. It's shut down for the Fisherman's Friend Strongmanrun, a muddy obstacle course with over 10,000 participants from all over the world. I'm not one of them. With a flight to catch I'm back on the Autobahn, hammer down, watching the STi's rear spoiler quiver.