What you don’t know about Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca can kill you – and even navigating all the turns without incident can still kill a race driver’s career.
Just ask Bryan Herta. In 1996, leading on the last lap of a CART race he believed was in the bag, Alex Zanardi executed “The Pass” in The Corkscrew with a crazy, off-track move that sent dirt flying and ate up 137 metres of track in the 5.5-storey drop. Herta never expected Zanardi to try an off-pavement move in a hard-left, hard-right section with an 18-per-cent drop.
Herta lost the race and some said he effectively lost the greatest promise of his career. Herta went on to modest success, but he was expected to make the jump to F1 and never did. Some said he was shaken to his boots by the swashbuckling Zanardi.
I have done at least 200 laps on a dozen occasions on this road course and every single time I think about Herta and Zanardi as I execute the demanding Corkscrew. It is a great test of bravado and skill, as well as the capabilities of the car – its ability to set and stick to a line without getting all squirrelly and out of sorts.
Today that car is the 2015 Subaru WRX STI. This one is not a race car, but as close as you can get for $45,000, as equipped. You get a fully dressed street-legal beast with low-profile rubber, Brembo performance brakes, quick steering, 305 turbocharged horses and all-wheel drive.
I am sticking to a conservative Herta plan of attack, though that hardly does justice to him and it overstates my case. I mean, Herta did win four races in open-wheel Indy cars, including two victories at Laguna Seca. Insiders say he should have won more. Herta now runs his own racing team and won the 2011 Indy 500 as team owner with the late Dan Wheldon behind the wheel. Wheldon was killed in a horrendous crash months later at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
This all matters because my own limits come face to face with a sense of mortality whenever I am privileged to road test a hot car at Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen in New York or the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. The challenge is to balance the need to stretch a WRX STI, or whatever, to its limits without going past mine and ending up part of a wall. All the while, dancing way back in the recesses of my brain, are images of the Hertas and Zinardis doing their skillful thing.
What bubbles up from this stew of action – mental, physical and emotional – is the impression that the updated WRX STI is something special. Even as it is, modestly priced, the car is a match for the 11 up-and-down turns – even the off-camber, uphill Turn 5, which demands a flat, composed chassis. Mess up Turn 5 and the car will be thrown off the track to the right. All this stretched out over 3.6 km in California’s beautiful central coast minutes from Monterey.
The big engineering news is the stiffer, more agile chassis with a bit of new electronic wizardry called Active Torque Vectoring. Subaru has also loaded up a driver-controlled centre differential with six locking levels; AWD that can shift torque front to rear and back, as needed; and even a TORSEN torque-sensing limited-slip rear differential to control side-to-side torque at the rear.
There are sensors everywhere – steering angle, throttle position, engine speed, lateral-g, yaw, brake, ABS and wheel speed. Subaru engineers have done their best to put torque where the driver needs it, when needed.
All of this is invisible to the driver. Good thing. Laguna Seca is essentially a two-part course: Turns 4, 5, 6 and 7 take you up, then 8, 8A, 9, 10, 11, 1, 2 and 3 all to varying degrees take you down and around.
The WRX STI passed like Zanardi with Herta in his sights. The electronic aids come into play, but the whens and hows of them are mostly a mystery. The steering is perfect – weighted just as heavily as needed at speed, and precise.
And the brakes. The long, straight stretch from Turns 9 to 10 demand heavy braking before taking the big right-hander, then it’s more power and back to hard on the binders before the Turn 11 hard left-hander. The Brembos aren’t willing to overheat and get squishy; that’s good.
On the other hand, the 2.5-litre flat-four turbo snaps into high-power mode with a jolt if you smash the throttle recklessly. Patience pays; impatience upsets the car.
As for the little details, Subaru’s stylists have updated the exterior with an eye-to-weight reduction. The hood, wide fenders, doors and quarters, bumpers, headlight and taillight clusters are made of aluminum.
But honestly, who cares? What matters is the car’s track-worthiness and it’s there in bold, living colour. Laguna Seca is capable of devouring drivers, but it can’t eat up this WRX STI.
2015 Subaru WRX STI
Type: Compact performance sedan
Base price: $37,995
Gas engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged
Output (horsepower/torque): 305/290 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): N/A, but premium fuel required.
Alternatives: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Volkswagen Golf R, Volvo S60 T6 R-Design Platinum, Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG AWD.
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