SHELSLEY WALSH, U.K. — Keep your foot down, I tell myself. Easier said than done in a 2019 Subaru WRX STI on the narrow and treacherous Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb. Right away, there’s a very hairy fast left sweeper the STI takes in third gear, leading into another left that requires even more bravery: lifting just before entry without braking. The STI’s all-wheel drive helps to pull us up and out of the corner, on the way to the fast straightaway up a steep hill.
Abrupt berms, vegetation and walls line the right side, while the left has a poor excuse for a guardrail and a long drop past that. The road itself is extremely narrow – only big enough for one STI at a time – but smooth, picturesque. The prototypical meandering British B-road. An obligatory herd of sheep mill about in the distance partway up the hill, and a few cows watch the STI careen over the finish line.
This is the essence of the British hillclimb, an archaic form of motorsport that has survived to this day. In this pastoral setting, Shelsley Walsh happens to be the oldest continuously running (well, save a break for two world wars) hill climb event in the world, with the first official event being held August 12, 1905. It is, like many British hillclimb courses, almost comically short – just over half a mile, so there’s not much to memorize. Cars from the early 1900s (when it was still paved with stone) struggled to even make it to the top. Part of that struggle can be attributed to the rule that you must race with a full car of passengers, no less than the number of seats available. Besides that, cars just weren’t very powerful back then, and Shelsley is a steep course. It peaks at a 16 percent grade.
The course record belongs to a Gould GR55 NME open-wheel single-seater racecar at just 22.58 seconds. I managed to break into the mid 37s for my fastest run in the STI, but there was still a fair bit of time to be had in the course. Car preservation was much more important than chasing lap records — it was an hour drive back to our lodging that night, and the STI was our ride.
There were two flavors of Subarus available to us for the hillclimb, and motoring around the British countryside after. One was the regular WRX STI, and the other was the shockingly expensive (and limited to 500 examples, long sold by now) Type RA. All the minor tweaks and upgrades made a tiny, tangible difference in my hill climb times. Each run I made with the Type RA resulted in a slightly quicker run than a similar pass in the regular STI — we made many passes throughout the day.
There’s no power differential, as both models produce 310 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque – for 2019, the Type RA’s power improvements (5 horsepower) and shorter third gear ratio carry over to the regular STI – but the handling upgrades are what make the difference. The inverted Bilstein shocks, lightweight BBS gold(!) wheels, and 68 fewer pounds in total provided more confidence around both the fast and slow corners. We’re assuming none of the added aero benefitted us too greatly in the short run, but it might have on a faster course – Subaru says it doesn’t produce measurable downforce until about 50 mph. We got up to about 80-85 mph at Shelsley Walsh, but that was only on the long final straightaway. The front splitter and rear bumper ducts work to reduce lift too. The slightly heavier clutch lost the vagueness from the regular STIs and helped with my launches from the starting line. Using the short-throw shifter is an absolute joy, as well. Everything about the Type RA is just a hair tighter and more precise, and that added up to a better time up the hill.
On top of being able to run Subaru’s cars up and down the hill all day, I also received a bit of tutelage from some instructors on how best to navigate a hill climb. With such a short distance to cover and a decent number of corners, it was of utmost importance for the exit out of one corner be the setup for the next. If you’ve been to many track days, you’ll know that’s exactly what is said there, too. But a longer race track allows for some margin of error in precise car placement, but a hillclimb like Shelsley Walsh offers no such luxury. My strategy and the route I took up the hill was easily the most important part of the entire ordeal. One little screwup means the time is ruined because the hill is too short to make it up anywhere else. One big screw up … and I would’ve been a victim of some unfortunate consequence. An instructor impressed upon us in the drivers’ briefing that there was absolutely nowhere to go if we went off. That’s no exaggeration.
Our American-spec STIs were an absolute delight to sling up the hill, delivering their power in a rush. We kept the center differential settings in auto, which sent enough power to the front wheels to avoid any massive oversteer scares, but there was one tight corner (the slowest on track) where the power split made the rear end feel lively. The STI has been criticized for using an older engine design, and sure it’s not as lag-free as more modern units, but on-boost it feels plenty potent. What both STIs could use is a more aggressive soundtrack to echo through the hills. The STI is rumbly and mean on startup from the outside, but it hardly sounds special under load from the driver’s seat. It’s no surprise everybody sticks huge exhausts on them right away. I think Subaru could step into something like this with an optional electronically-controlled adjustable exhaust from the factory. The technology is accepted in every sports car it’s offered in, and it’s a great way to appease everybody out there while also getting buyers to check an extra-cost box. Sounds like a win-win, Subaru.
Where the Type RA suspension gains on the hill climb, it loses on the street. The STI is already stiff, and so the RA’s firmer Bilsteins are much less forgiving. But the Type RA has a surprising advantage over the regular STI: rear visibility. Its carbon fiber rear wing is thinner and less obtrusive in the rear-view mirror than Subaru’s stock STI wing, and it looks cooler.
Hillclimbing, like many paved motorsports events, is a precise art. Even if the STI got its start in the rough and sideways world of rallying, Subaru has developed these cars in a way that they can be wielded like scalpels if they need to be. That’s especially true of the Type RA, an even sharper tool, that excelled on the technical, zero-error-margin Shelsley Walsh course. It highlights the versatility of this platform, a car that can be built to race a paved circuit, a frozen lake, a gravel-strewn rally stage, or a near-ancient hillclimb. We like to think of the RA as an STI plus. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel; the car retains the same character, but it is notably better. And the Type RA isn’t even the final sharpening of this tool – the S209, the first of the special S line of STIs that Americas will get – is on the way. We can’t wait to point it up a hill and see what it can do.