When Barry McKenna brought his Ford Fiesta WRC to the United States last year, there was nothing but fever and excitement for it from the fanbase.
Why wouldn’t there be? Here was the reigning American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National champion wielding a lightly-modified, current-spec WRC vehicle to a national series and taking the fight to Subaru Motorsports USA.
It was epic. But the challenge wasn’t quite sustained and Travis Pastrana eased his way to the title with a devastating string of victories at the top of the year.
This year the script looks broadly similar, albeit with some mild tweaks. It was Brandon Semenuk, not Pastrana, that was winning for fun on the early rounds and Ken Block, not McKenna, driving a World Rally Car – his a Hyundai instead of an M-Sport Ford.
But what couldn’t be more different are the audience reviews. While there was admiration and hype behind what McKenna was doing, Block has been jeered by several in online comments because there’s a belief his car is simply too good and therefore he ought to win.
I just don’t get it.
Both McKenna’s Fiesta and Block’s i20 have been adapted to comply with ARA technical regulations, and there was understandably bit of controversy when Block debuted his car as what he had to change differed from McKenna.
McKenna had to ditch the Fiesta’s paddle-shift gearbox in favor of a stick-shift system, but was allowed to install a two-liter engine (up from the 1600cc motor fitted to the homologated car used in the World Rally Championship).
For context, this is the same configuration as Subaru Motorsports USA’s setup in its WRX STIs.
But due to the way Hyundai Motorsport designed the transmission on its i20 Coupe WRC, the same operation was impossible to complete on Block’s car. He is allowed instead to run with a paddle-shift gearbox but is restricted to just a 1.6-liter engine.
Now what drivers say they would prefer – a bigger engine but slower gear shifts or quicker gear shifts but a smaller engine – will more than likely depend on what side of the coin they are on.
In other words, McKenna will tell you the paddle-shift makes a huge difference while Block will point to the power and torque disadvantages he faces.
Which configuration is ultimately superior, I’m not quite sure. I’m certainly no engineer. But the stage times prove there really is a marginal difference if any.
Now that everything’s on-song right now, Block has established a pace advantage over Subaru. But so had McKenna last year. The only difference is Block is converting that speed into results, while a variety of punctures, off-stage circumstances and mechanical trouble meant McKenna’s pace never quite manifested itself in the same dominant fashion.
Perhaps it’s all to do with reputation. A large section of people like to see Block fail – they’ll point to his Gymkhana videos and say it takes him several attempts to pull off his maneuvers. Or they’ll look at his WRC record and say he crashed a lot.
But a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC doesn’t drive itself. Rest assured, Subaru is pouring everything it can to develop its car to keep tabs on the Hyundai, and both Pastrana and Semenuk are seriously good rally drivers in a very good car.
If Block, from a pure driving talent point of view, wasn’t up to it, he wouldn’t be winning. It really is as simple as that.
The US rallying title has eluded Block for so long. Think back to the mid-late 2000s when battling with Pastrana in a pair of Imprezas – he was always quick but never quite managed to take the ultimate prize.
This year, it’s looking like it’s his time. The effort he and Alex Gelsomino are putting in before rallies is more rigorous than it’s ever been, and he’s maximizing everything he’s got to produce the results. It’s not simply a case of the car doing the job for him, Block is putting in the work.
And it would’ve been easy for him to crumble after his Olympus crash – the pressure was huge to deliver on Oregon Trail. But deliver he did, and he backed it up with a hugely significant win this weekend in Ohio.
Block deserves far more respect from the rallying fanbase than he’s currently getting for the run of form he’s begun to establish.
Plenty can see it and can appreciate it, but for those that can’t you may not like where this season is headed. You’d be quite brave to bet against Block for the title at this stage.