Join Date: May 2010
Location: The Dungeon....
2010 Legacy GT
2011 STI sedan on the 'Ring
Car and Driver - 2011 STI sedan around the 'Ring.
The Nürburgring. You may have heard of it. It’s a popular place of late, with industry test periods filling the schedule Tuesdays through Thursdays—providing ample fodder for spy-photo junkies—and sanctioned racing on weekends. And then there are the secretive private sessions, out of which come that trendiest of bragging rights, the manufacturer-generated, unofficial Nordschleife lap record. This is the story of one of those records.
First things first, here’s what you want to know: Subaru got an STI sedan to lap the ’Ring—helmed by rallying legend and four-time-in-a-row WRC title holder Tommi Mäkinen—in 7 minutes and 55 seconds. That’s quicker than the quickest production sedan to date, Porsche’s Panamera Turbo, which clocked a (still-unofficial) 7:56 lap, which in turn is quicker than the CTS-V, which posted a 7:59.32.
Not So Fast, But It’s Fast
The stickler is that the Subaru in question wasn’t a production car, it was, in the words of the company, a 2011 Impreza WRX STI prototype. The car is basically the bastard child of two JDM-only models with some extra bespoke aero bits thrown in for slipperiness and high-speed stability.
The car starts with the suspension from the improved-for-2011 WRX STI—it’s 5 mm lower than the 2010 model, with 1-mm-thicker front and rear anti-roll bars, higher-rate springs all around, stiffer rear-subframe bushings, and new front-suspension pillow-ball bushings. The engine is the Japanese-market STI Spec C’s, a 2.0-liter turbocharged boxer-four that’s been given the larger turbo from the R205, another Japanese special-edition STI model. It’s now putting out a claimed 320 hp, which makes the time that much more impressive when compared to the Panamera’s 500 turbocharged ponies (although the Porsche is surely carrying around a few hundred extra pounds). The R205 also donates six-piston front brakes and a front strut-tower brace; it features a flexible center portion that allows vertical motion but maintains lateral stiffness. Weight is saved through the use of an aluminum hood from the Spec C, unique aluminum front fenders, the Spec C’s smaller battery, and the deletion of the radio as in the R205 and Spec C. Extra aero parts specific to this car include a full undertray, a front-lip extension tacked onto the R205’s lower spoiler, and a Gurney flap added—taped, really—to the rear at Mäkinen’s request. (The car was getting a bit out of shape without it in the high-speed sections.) A full roll cage and race buckets fitted with a five-point harness for the driver and a four-point for the passenger make things safe.
Taken for a Ride
A month after Subaru set its time, and just days after the Nürburgring 24-hour race, we were invited to meet with Mäkinen and the STI team to have a look at the car and for to experience what a record-setting lap feels like. And we did, for the most part. There was a narrow window early on a Tuesday morning, which only allowed track time for two flying laps. The first was interrupted by a truck that snuck onto the track—no joke, watch the video—which reminded me why you should always pack an extra pair of boxers, and the second was a flying, full-speed blitz, at least until the end when Mäkinen realized we were running out of fuel.
But the ride was no less of a thrill. Flying over German hill and dale, all of which looks the same—Armco, very green trees, graffiti—but every twist and kink of which is unique, learning the intricacies of the ‘Ring, let alone getting comfortable hurtling through at eye-popping speeds, is no small feat. Muscles ached from attempting to keep planted in the seat, eyes hurt from scanning the graffiti-plastered pavement, and we weren’t even driving. Afterward, when we asked how much time Mäkinen had on the track before the record run, one of the Subaru guys laughed. “We asked him to learn the circuit on PlayStation, but he never did it.” The Finn’s response: “I wanted to, but it was the Japanese version.” A certain Herr Schmidt, a German member of the STI development team who is very familiar with the ‘Ring, took Mäkinen out the first time he was at the track and showed him around. He told me that a normal person needs about 50 laps to improve their time. Mäkinen did so in maybe five. “He ran unbelievably quickly.”
Mäkinen says that, as a rally driver, he’s developed good “road memory” and didn’t need to run the track too many times. He said he viewed it like any rally stage, except without any pace notes, and shrugged it off by saying the hardest part for him was adjusting to the car’s right-hand-drive setup.
Why Bring a Prototype to the ‘Ring?
Subaru brought this prototype to the Nürburgring because that’s what it has done with past models. The automaker first lapped a non-STI WRX prototype in 1992, posting a time of 8:28.93. It then returned in 1996 with a prototype of the version III WRX STI, and turned in an 8:10.75. The heavier second-gen WRX STI, which bowed for 2000, posted a lap that “did not meet our expectations” (Needless to say, we didn’t learn that car’s time.) A 2002 STI prototype picked up the baton, setting a lap time of 8:06.59. Most recently, a 2004 prototype got down in the 7s with a 7:59.41. Subaru contends that time spent on ‘Ring times is a very helpful R&D exercise for the development team, providing an opportunity to try out new parts that can and sometimes are applied to future models. (We don’t expect to see a full undertray on an STI any time soon, however.) With this year’s car, STI project boss Hiroshi Mori aimed to create “the fastest WRX STI ever,” but he was quick to mention that fast doesn’t necessarily come from maximum speed and engine output.
Indeed, the ‘Ring offers a little bit of everything, and—more than any other track—it offers a simulation of real-world roads. Altitude varies by about 1000 feet, and there are loads of blind corners. Pictures don’t do the elevation changes justice; the deceleration from a few of the more drastic uphill portions had us wondering if the harness would hold. Blind corners appear and disappear, but luckily we didn’t have enough time to process them, or the thought that there might perhaps be another utility truck just past the apex.
You’re probably wondering, like we were, what any of this has to do with reality. Well, besides this particular car’s tenuous R&D connection, vanquishing the Panamera Turbo was a point of pride among the Subaru delegation. However, if Porsche wanted to build something analogous to this amalgamated STI, a ‘Ring-specific Panamera Turbo, we have no doubt that the Stuttgart boys would have their mark back in a heartbeat. What the Subie’s time really proves, though, is that the STI continues to be enhanced, iteratively. Plus, the PR machine loves to be fed.
The latest prototype is easily “the fastest WRX STI ever,” at least among those built by Subaru. You just can’t buy one, which is kind of a bummer. Our ride in the prototype does, however, have us a little more excited to experience the 2011 hatchback and sedan, which we’ll get to drive soon enough.