There was a sense of déjà vu in Subaru Motorsports USA’s service tent on Friday at the 100 Acre Wood Rally.
Twelve months earlier the team and its two drivers – Travis Pastrana and Brandon Semenuk – had been scratching their heads as to how to repel the advances of Barry McKenna’s new Ford Fiesta WRC. Twelve months later, with McKenna seemingly taken care of, Ken Block and his new Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC have renewed those fears.
The level has been upped yet again.
Block had driven his Hyundai for just 15 miles before the second round of the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National championship got underway. But truthfully it was only Semenuk that could claim to be somewhat comfortable as Pastrana hadn’t rallied since his BASE jumping accident and McKenna’s last event was all the way back in July.
Despite one round on the ice of Sno*Drift already in the books, it’s this weekend’s 100AW Rally that effectively kick starts the championship chase. None of the likely contenders have any points on the board, but they all have points to prove.
And the first batch of stages pointed to an epic contest. Pastrana drew first blood before Block hit back and claimed the lead after stage two, only for Pastrana to retake it as the pair headed to first service. Just 0.2 seconds split the two rivals. Game on.
Pastrana was cautiously optimistic: “I think Ken when he figures out that car it’s going to be very, very difficult to keep up, but right now we’re hitting all our marks, we’ve done our homework and we’re going to push him,” he told DirtFish with his typically boyish charm.
“He hasn’t really experienced what that car can do, he doesn’t know the boundaries yet.”
But that grin was soon erased from Pastrana’s face. As he surmised: “As the rain came down my skill went out the window.”
The reigning champion’s cause was blunted by a puncture on the middle stage of the loop that robbed him of the minute, but the writing was already on the wall before then. Block was 9.2s quicker than Pastrana on SS4 and 11s faster on SS6, so would’ve been at least 20s to the good anyway without Pastrana’s misfortune.
“First loop I was just learning the car still, it was basically a big test, the second loop I just had more confidence,” Block told DirtFish.
“When we repeat stages I remember what I did wrong the first time and where we can carry more speed, that sort of thing, so then the second loop I really pushed it a bit harder and had confidence and knew where I could go a bit quicker. It felt good.
(1/2) Day 1 is complete, and we are leading!!! @AlexGelsomino and I had a really good first day in our Hyundai WRC race car here at the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, getting more confident and quick over every mile. pic.twitter.com/xeUtdgaDhK
— Ken Block (@kblock43) March 19, 2022
“These are the stages I love, this is the rally that I really enjoy and the car just worked perfectly for me today. Every mile I got more and more confident. I still made little mistakes as I don’t know it completely but it works, it works well for me.
“I’ve been in this sort of chassis for a long time so getting back into it now with a great team that’s put this together for us, it’s really good.”
Really good for Block, really not so good for his rivals. This may be Block territory – he’s won the rally a record seven times – but for him to be this far ahead on his first day with a new car will have given his rivals more than just a little fright.
Pastrana: “Ken just flogged us. We were pretty close to Brandon and McKenna, those guys are phenomenal in the mud, but it’s kind of what we had expected, it just took Ken a little time to get used to that car. He’s always fast here but it’s not looking good for us for the rest of it for sure.”
It’s not done. We’re at the end of just one day on the second round of a long nine-round season. And Saturday is believed to be brutal – described by Pastrana as “like Rally Argentina” in places, “one of the gnarliest days of rallying of the whole season”.
But – and it’s a big but – Block has laid down a marker that even he couldn’t have dreamed of setting quite so early on.
For all of his experience and superstar prowess, Block has never won the US rallying title. The Hyundai was an expensive ticket for the game, but it’s already proving worthwhile.