Ken Block must feel terrible. He flew into Heathrow from the US last night and then drove to the hotel inside Milton Keynes Stadium for a kip, only to discover that there was a football match on.
Early this morning, he’s already in the Silverstone paddock, hoodie up, cap and sunglasses on and can of energy drink in hand.“I think it’s about three in the morning,” he says.
This wouldn’t be a good time to talk to most racing drivers, but Ken Block isn’t most racing drivers. His hood and sunglasses frame a face that beams a broad smile, a silver tooth shining. Even if you’re as tired as hell, if you’re Ken Block, showing us how best to muck about in a drift car producing well over 800bhp is not going to make for a bad day.
How do you know Block? From his Gymkhana videos? Probably. There have been seven of them, each more ambitious than the one before and featuring Block performing extraordinary drifts and slides in increasingly ludicrous cars and landscapes.
More than 27 million people have seen the latest one. In all, these videos have been watched 160 million times, and they’re great value for sponsors like DC Shoes, which Block co-founded.
Gymkhana is like a regular motorsport event in its own right – although without the potential racing pitfalls of crashing, breaking down or not being shown on the telly much. In the same way that Red Bull runs its own air race and soap box events, Gymkhana is not just great to watch but also a great marketing exercise.
To suggest that’s why Block drives cars, though, would be to misunderstand him. Competition is what inspired him and today’s drifting scene “all stems from rallying”, he says, eyes widening as he talks about the reasons why he started driving competitively in the first place – first in Rally America, later in the World Rally Championship and now in Global Rallycross. Colin McRae was a year younger than Block, but McRae’s driving is how Block has ended up where he is today.
Today, that’s driving a one-off Ford Mustang called the Hoonicorn around a circuit that he has never seen before. The Mustang began life as a 1965 notchback, but there isn’t much left of that. It now has a whomping V8 in the front, driving through a 50/50 four-wheel drive system like that of the rally cars Block is more accustomed to, so it isn’t without similar driving characteristics.
Where it differs is that it’s set up softly so that Block can transfer the weight around more easily on asphalt to alter the car’s handling balance. It’s also longer, which makes the “all-wheel-drive drifts or powerslides” that Block specialises in more benign and spectacular.
Block is keen to emphasise the ‘all-wheel drive’ part of this, because the drifting scene has kind of taken custody of the word ‘drift’ to mean something preserved for rear-wheel-drive cars. That’s not what Block does, although, good lad that he is, he does have a Mk2 Ford Escort, which he “keeps breaking because it was built for asphalt”, so he would quite like another one that he could better use on dirt.
Block pops out for a sighting lap of Silverstone’s national circuit, which begins on the old start-finish straight and runs through the fast right-hander at Copse before heading down to the Maggots/Becketts complex, where it turns sharp right off the GP circuit, cutting back straight up to the slow Brooklands/Luffield section, from where the lap begins again.
The best section for pulling massive slides will be the left at Brooklands and into the more than 180deg Luffield right-hander. This means I’ll get to see Block initiate a slide through one corner, transition to a right-hander and then see how he gathers it up on the exit. Which, when all is said and done, are the main things to know. So I strap in next to him.