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.
Because the Hoonicorn weighs, I’m guessing, about 1500kg, I’m expecting it to be fast. What I’m not expecting is the noise, which is stupid of me, because it’s a 6.7-litre V8 on throttle bodies, makes 845bhp, is barely silenced and revs to 8300rpm. Of course it’s loud, to the extent that, even through a helmet, the air pressure makes your ears hurt.
The acceleration is similarly startling. The V8 idles at around 1500rpm, and Block uses about 3000rpm to pull away, slipping the clutch gently. From then on, he’s flat and pulls through the gears without troubling the clutch. Because this car uses cross-country rally gearing, it’s relatively short geared and soon approaching the limiter in sixth.
Because the car makes 120dB, Block can’t tell me what he’s doing, so I watch. He left-foot brakes towards the left-hander at Brooklands, taking what at first appears to be a fairly conventional line, if a bit wide of the approaching apex. He trails the brakes in, shifting down to third, at which point things are still fairly smooth. There’s no speedo, but I’d guess we’re travelling at 50mph or so.
But then he reaches for the tall handbrake and gives it a quick yank, which squeals the back end wide. I look out of the side window as we pass the apex and see the upcoming Luffield right-hander in the distance, at about 45deg from straight ahead.
Even though I’ve seen a few drifts and slides being pulled for Autocar, I reckon Kenneth has overcooked this and that we’ll spin. But already he’s on full noise and full ‘oppo’ and the Mustang is busy pulling itself straight.
There are a couple of seconds of this, the angle of attack gradually reducing, before a throttle lift unsettles the car again and plants the nose, which grips and causes the rear’s slide to go from one direction to the other in a perfect left-right transition. Or what would be a massive fishtail if you didn’t get it right.
Block does get it right. He’s already back on the throttle again, feathering it more carefully now through the longer corner (full throttle would just make us pull straight; off the throttle, the car would spin).
Block keeps the chassis deftly poised between the two, while his adjustments on the steering wheel have the Mustang on opposite lock, neutral lock and occasionally positive lock, at which point he’ll lift to unsettle the rear again and increase the angle of attack. But at all times, the tyres are beyond the point of adhesion, both laterally and under power.
About 10 seconds after it all started, we’re out of the corner and accelerating until the car has seamlessly pulled straight, and only then does Block ease off. You can call it what you like, but by my reckoning that’s a drift, and that I’ve never sat alongside anybody who does them better. And Block? He’s still smiling.
The legend of the Hoonicorn
Block’s earliest Gymkhana videos were run in Subarus, but when he became sponsored by Ford and rallied those, he moved on to near-WRC-spec Fiestas. But 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, and that called for something special. So, over a period of two years, his team created the Hoonicorn, using a 1965 Mustang as a base.
Look at the roof and bits of the rear wings and you’ll see that some of it still exists, but the rest is pretty much bespoke. There’s a full cage, which gives all the strength, and a Roush-Yates 410 engine sits well back in the engine bay, behind the fabricated independent suspension.
The rear suspension is similarly exquisite and sits near a fuel tank that needs replenishing every two laps of Silverstone. The propshaft and halfshafts are all bespoke, to mate the Sadev six-speed transmission — designed for a Dakar rally raid car and the only thing strong enough to cope with the punishment - to the wheels.
They’re 19in items shod with Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres, in a ‘Ken Block’ compound. Pirelli doesn’t make a drift tyre but does supply Block with a harder-wearing compound than a standard tyre, which would otherwise melt into the road within a few short runs.
Ken block grew up on a skateboard in Long Beach but found rallying with Colin McRae’s help. “I’d always watched rallying, especially Colin, on TV,” Block says. “I decided to have a go and found that I had a bit of natural talent for it.”
Block, 47, didn’t start competing until he was well into his 30s, but he has won plenty of individual rallies in America and scored well on World Rally Championship rounds. However, the nature of what he does prohibits a single-minded, focused assault on Rally America or the WRC.
“My sponsors want me to do a lot of different stuff,” he says. “Last year we did Global and some World Rallycross, some Rally America, a WRC round, my Gymkhana Grid events and Gym 7.
“It would be good to focus on one thing, and winning Rally America is something I would love to do before I stop competing.”
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