Ken Block is a comfortable one minute clear of the rest after the first day of Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally, perfectly poised to make hay in the race to become American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National champion following chief rival Brandon Semenuk’s crash.
Semenuk led Block by four points heading into STPR, and yet another epic battle between the pair was anticipated – particularly when Block’s Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC was just 0.5 seconds quicker than Semenuk’s Subaru WRX STI on the first stage.
But the complexion of the rally, and potentially even the championship, would take a dramatic twist when Semenuk put his car off the road four miles on SS2, caught out by a slick left-hand turn.
That mistake immediately handed Block a commanding 37.8s advantage over Semenuk’s team-mate and likely outgoing ARA champion Travis Pastrana, which he duly extended to just north of a minute after Friday’s eight stages.
Block can’t win the championship this weekend, but if he can fully capitalize on Semenuk’s mistake and take victory, he can place his rival firmly on the back foot heading into the Lake Superior Performance Rally season finale.
“It’s been a wild day!” Block told DirtFish.
“On the first stage Brandon and I were only half a second apart but second stage he went off on what I’d call the most dangerous corner of this entire rally.
“We have it called out as a ‘danger’ which is our highest level of caution and I had the whole section there called out as ‘danger’. Unfortunate that our battle went for the overall and the championship to him being out of this rally, all within two stages.
“The rest of the day I’ve driven well, Travis didn’t seem to be driving all that aggressively so we’ve got a minute lead on him. We’ve had one little tire issue with the car but other than that it’s been perfect.”
But, even if Semenuk can return under super-rally rules as he hopes to on Saturday, Block isn’t going to be lured into an all-out powerstage attack.
“The overall goal here is to win this rally and walk away with as many points as possible, so I don’t want to lose sight of that to go for one or two more points in the powerstage,” he said. “We’ll go quick on it but got to be smart about it.”
Pastrana, who has openly admitted STPR is his worst rally of the ARA season, hasn’t had an answer for Block, or even Semenuk’s, raw pace throughout the first day, but did pick up a pair of stage wins on the repeat runs of the Ridge and Dewey stages as Block began to shift to conservation mode.
But Pastrana, uncharacteristically, is adopting a safe and cautious approach this weekend on a rally he’s failed to finish more times than he’s made the end of over the years.
However, he has also placed an onus on winning the powerstage as any points he can take from Block would help his team-mate Semenuk’s title prospects.
Competing for the first time since the Oregon Trail Rally in May, Tom Williams is in third place overnight and leading the RC2 class in his Ford Fiesta Rally2 – a perfect birthday present for co-driver Ross Whittock.
Williams’ pace relative to the Open 4WD cars has been impressive though, as he got within 10s of stage winner Block on Friday’s final test – Waste Management 2.
Dave Carapetyan is a lonely fourth in his Subaru but had had Klim Fedoff’s Mitsubishi chasing him down for most of the day, only for Fedoff’s rally to take a turn for the worse on SS8 after he went wide and hit a massive rock.
A similar fate befell Pat Gruszka too. The Mitsubishi Mirage driver had been tucked less than 10s behind Fedoff but was also caught out by the Waste Management stage.
Misfortune for his rivals has allowed Allen Dobasu to creep into the top five on his first event in the older generation Fiesta R5+, having used a Rally2 version last time out in Ojibwe.
Despite blowing a motor last week and having a new one fitted to his Volkswagen Golf in the lead up to STPR, Micah Nickelsen is an incredible sixth and leads Open 2WD, over a minute clear of Seamus Burke’s Ford Escort Mk2.
Dave Wallingford is eighth in an R5 Fiesta ahead of the unfortunate Dylan Murcott who lost a rear driveshaft, which meant he also lost the center diff of his Subaru.
He therefore tackled the lion’s share of the afternoon loop with just one-wheel-drive, but clings onto ninth overall ahead of Lucy Block and DirtFish instructor Michelle Miller who complete the overnight top 10 in their Ford Fiesta Rally3.
Sno*Drift winner Mark Piatkowski’s hopes of a strong result meanwhile were thwarted when a fuel pump broke on his Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS on the very first stage.
Roberto Yglesias joined Piatkowski on the retirement list. It had been an eventful lead up to the rally for Yglesias who was left without a car before finding a Porsche 944 to compete in – a far different beast to his usual Ford Fiesta.
But his rally ended on SS4 with a mechanical problem.