I’m sitting next to America’s fastest rally driver in America’s fastest rally car. That’s cool. Less cool… I think I’m sitting on my glasses.
Brandon Semenuk’s looking all swish and Subaru next to me, putting his belts on, doing his thing. I’m aware, however, that he’s aware of my angst. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see me fidgeting.
America’s fastest co-driver Keaton Williams also notices. He gets it. And gets them.
“They’re here,” he laughs, passing my glasses off the roof.
Splendid. Suddenly I see.
This is very much an unexpected treat. I’ve been in Kentucky for the last couple of days, learning lots about the all-new Subaru WRX which Vermont SportsCar has been building for the last 18 months.
There’s so much significance in the chassis labelled 23R. It’s the first truly new Subaru for years – the biggest since the shift from hatchback to sedan at the top of 2015. The car Semenuk has used to dominate this year’s American Rally Association National championship is an evolution of that car that landed eight years ago.
That was David Higgins’ car.
The new one? All Semenuk.
Talking to the defending champion earlier in the season, the test-and-development process – the here and now – was one of the things he was most excited about. Only a handful of drivers anywhere in the world have the opportunity to work hand in glove with a manufacturer to dial a factory rally car down to what they want.
And Subaru couldn’t have hoped for a better driver to work with.
Williams has seen up close what Semenuk’s all about.
“His attention to detail is off the charts,” said the Englishman. “It’s a continuation of what he’s been doing for years on bikes. He’s sensitive to the smallest of changes in the car, he understands what the engineers are doing and how it impacts on the chassis or the suspension or the engine.
“He’s so analytical and so detailed in everything he does. And… he’s bloody fast.”
Semenuk’s story is one written and ridden on two wheels. Until now.
Across the world of mountain biking he’s a legend. He’s a Canadian back-flipping, bar-spinning, tail-whipping God. But when he closed the front door on British Colombia, his thoughts would drift between his latest trick and rallying.
He did his own thing, drove his own car for a decade until Subaru Motorsports USA signed him for the 2020 season. He’s been there ever since. He won his first event and finished on the podium every time in his rookie year in a VSC car. Two years on he edged American rallying royalty Ken Block and his Subaru team-mate Travis Pastrana to the 2022 crown.
This year, he’s won everything in sight.
Which begs the question of why the new car? It’s simple. Subaru’s WRX STI no longer exists in the showroom. It’s all about the new WRX. New road car equals new rally car.
And new rally car equals me standing in a place called Turkey Foot listening with increasing concern to the lady who’s just provided lunch.
“This rain keeps coming, you watch yourself,” she said. “Don’t you go walking too far from the road. Them Copperheads, they’re mighty p****d at this time of the year. This what we call the dog days around here.”
It’s a thing? It’s not just a Florence and the Machine song about them being over?
“Oh yeah, honey, it’s a thing. The snakes shed their skin in this hot, humid weather and if they don’t shed properly, it covers their eyes and makes them blind. That makes ’em real aggressive. They’ll come on the road and they’ll go for you. Especially when it’s wet.”
Seeking shelter from the pouring rain, Brandon and I watch the lady head back to her truck.
I get the feeling Semenuk’s as chuffed as I am at the amount of cold blood apparently staring out from the bushes.
“Sweet,” he half-smiles.
Treading carefully, I take my sandwich back to the car.
This is the third and final test week for the new car. With just a couple of days’ running to go before a debut at the Ojibwe Forest Rally, Semenuk’s a happy man.
“It’s not 100% yet, but the balance in this car is just amazing. It’s so much more nimble than its predecessor.”
The engine is basically the same, but there are big changes in the aero and the suspension. ARA regulations have quite literally clipped the wings of these Open class cars and damping now comes courtesy of British-based firm R53.
With another run done, I’m busy catching up with Vermont owner Lance Smith when Semenuk catches my eye and nods at the car’s right side.
“Your turn now…”
Engaging a chap as Smith is, he can’t compete with a ride in the car his immensely successful firm has just created.
Glasses debacle done, I’m strapped in to what feels very much like a Rally2 car from the inside. The level of in-car tech is comparable to Rally1, with Cosworth-sourced electro-loveliness for driver and co-driver, but the sense of space stands this apart from the pinnacle of the WRC.
Like Rally2 cars, the WRX is a converted production chassis, while Rally1 is an entirely purpose-built spaceframe offering very little room for anything other than the absolute essentials.
Backing the car out of service, I offer a polite warning to my driver – not to be alarmed if I start panting. He laughs. He thinks I’m joking. I am.
Launch deployed, in second gear, four soft Yokohamas claw Kentucky’s softened gravel in search of forward motion.
Gone. Second to third almost immediately. Square-left coming quickly, but there’s no conventional braking to speak of, Brandon rotates the car on the handbrake with the throttle feathered. Then pinned.
And pinned for the next half-minute. This surprises me.
Earlier in the day, I’d been through the stage and built a picture of what sort of speed the Subaru would be holding from corner to corner. I was wrong. By some distance.
I’d expected at least a shift down one cog for a fast left into fast left and certainly a punch of the middle pedal for the following right which included a compression at the apex.
Flat. Flat. And flat.
I’ve been fortunate to ride in a few cars, but this was the first time in a while I’d stepped aboard something completely new and had no real idea of what to expect.
The combination of reduced aero, suspension I knew nothing about and a wheelman I wasn’t 100% familiar with played on my mind as we hurtled into that first left. Semenuk nibbled, but didn’t commit to a cut. The car stuck. And again.
Here’s that dip… and we’re still on the limiter. Slight increase in the audible stone clatterage, but no change of attitude in the car whatsoever. First braking point was a slower fifth-gear (I’d mentally marked it down for fourth, but… whatever) right-hander. Bang on the brakes, down a cog, hard on the throttle.
Semenuk’s the real deal. And so’s his motor.
Without a doubt, this is the best part of the job. Wednesday afternoon at work and here I am scudding through the woods with one of the world’s best drivers.
What really impressed me about Semenuk was his precision in every aspect. He braked once and no more and he kept the car completely in line. The natural balance in the car was beautiful.
There was no show, no overt flamboyance. As we wound our way towards a fairly open junction-left, I’d expected him to back us in a little bit. There was room. I would have done. He didn’t. He broke traction on the brakes, used the inertia to point the car to the right, scrubbed more speed as he went down the gears, then got back on the throttle at precisely the right point to flick the car into the middle of the corner. Pulled a gear and we were gone.
In the quick stuff, the torque in the engine is super-impressive. But it’s now, now we’ve turned onto a smaller road, that we’re going to see the smaller side of this big car.
Tearing up the wider road, I’d imagined we’d be paying the price when we went into a single-width section of the stage. Not a bit of it. The increased nimbleness he’d talked about was obvious immediately.
We were down to second, third and fourth-gear corners and the change of direction was both savage and smooth. Remarkable. Every corner was on point and while Semenuk worked the WRX hard, the input was as efficient as it was minimal.
Right towards the end there was a jump with a corner after it. Shame about the corner, would have been nice to catch some air there and with the turning point straight afterwards, flying on the return journey wouldn’t be an option.
Ballistic both times.
I think we actually flew through the corner first time and so comprehensive was the mechanical and compound grip on the drying road on the route back we were already in fifth by the time we took off. The line included a slight kicker which disturbed the car on take-off, but it settled immediately on landing. Bless you Roger Estrada and your sublime R53 dampers.
The final section was top-gear quick and properly in the trees. In a couple of places the outbound journey had disturbed a rock or a log. Instinctively, Brandon tweaked the angle of attack, turning out of the corner at big speed. He was as unconcerned as the car was completely composed.
Honestly, it was impressive. As impressive as anything I’ve experienced with world champions and Rally1 cars? Surely.
Granted, there’s not the same monster shove you get from the current hybrid cars, but the parity of mechanical transmission and similarly limited aero asks more questions of the chassis. And 23R had an answer for everything.
Semenuk’s not the kind of guy who offers an answer for everything. He’s the quiet, unassuming type who just gets in and drives. Ott Tänak, Sébastien Ogier, Kalle Rovanperä, Brandon Semenuk, they’re a type. They operate on a different level.
What tree? What rock? It’s not in the notes, it’s not worth talking about. Semenuk’s serenity behind the wheel was right up there. By his own admission, he knew the road and he was pressing on in places but not once did the car get loose or look slightly out of shape.
It’s his car.
Am I really surprised by Semenuk? I’ll be honest, the sheer speed did surprise me a wee bit. Like I said, first time alongside him. The millisecond dexterity, ice-cool calm and sheer bravery? Not at all. I’ve watched Semenuk win Red Bull Rampage a record four times down the years. It’s just those attributes that underpin arguably the world’s finest and most fearless mountain biker.
The one nagging question I had, however, was of the bobble hat. How much does rallying really mean to him?
Driving a Subaru, a works Subaru, for example. That’s a big deal, right?
“Look at the drivers who have been in the blue-and-yellow,” he said. “It’s an amazing honor – this is a one-in-a-million experience for me. Maybe once in your career this happens, but normally never.
“The history and the background and the legacy of Subaru is so important and to be the only one carrying that forward this year…”
The voice quietens. He’s searching the right word, but he doesn’t need it. The glint in the eye says it all. The headgear might be Red Bull-branded, but he’s all bobble hat.
While I feel I’ve got under the skin of the Subaru, I sense there’s more to the Semenuk story. Much as I want to understand the earlier chapters, there’s plenty still to be written in this particular book.