When your trophy collection is as big as Subaru Motorsports USA’s, it’s quite the statement when somebody claims one of those successes to be the biggest ever.
But that’s exactly how Keaton Williams has described Subaru’s 2022 American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National championship win given what it had to overcome to secure it.
American rallying has basically belonged to Subaru for decades now. Since 2005, just Antoine L’Estage (2010) and Barry McKenna (2020) have defeated Subaru to the US’s premier rallying title.
So what is it about 2022 that really stands out?
“To win it against the Hyundai… we know David [Higgins] has done very well and Travis [Pastrana] has won a championship but I think up against a World Rally Car it was just probably the biggest win for Subaru I’d say in terms of the battles we faced.”
Williams has only been with Subaru Motorsports USA for one season, replacing John Hall as Brandon Semenuk’s co-driver at the beginning of the year, but Subaru Motorsports USA motorsport manager Bill Stokes adds even more weight to the thesis.
“This year really does rank up there because we’ve had to take these cars so far beyond the performance envelope they were originally designed to,” Stokes explained.
“To see them competing with a World Rally Car, I think personally for me it’s my favorite moment for these rally cars – to see what they were capable of in the hands of these drivers and with the engineering freedom that we’ve had the last 18 months or so to advance them.
“It’s been really remarkable to see what these engineers have accomplished both with the base chassis that we started from then the final form that they’ve reached at this point at the end of the 2022 season.”
It would be remiss to suggest that Subaru hasn’t ever had a credible title challenger before. Ken Block took Higgins to the final round in 2013 before going off, and McKenna had it extremely worried as reigning champion with his Ford Fiesta WRC – a challenge that only dissipated due to McKenna’s work commitments.
But it’s hard to disagree that 2022 was its toughest battle yet. There was no internal struggle like the fierce fight between Higgins and Pastrana in 2017 but instead a fierce rival in its way: Block and a 2C Compétition Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC.
As Stokes referenced, the pace of Block’s detuned World Rally Car forced Subaru to push harder than it ever had to build a car that could keep up – bringing a huge rear wing for New England Forest Rally and then an extended front splitter for the Ojibwe Forests Rally onwards.
Given the free choice of which car they’d prefer to drive, most would probably choose Block’s. But Semenuk gamely clung on in the championship race, profiting when Block went off on the Lake Superior Performance Rally finale to claim an extremely well-earned championship title.
“We’ve been up against it all year,” said Williams. “We’ve not been pushing seven tenths then 10 tenths, he’s been on it from the word go, and I think that kind of helps because you go into every rally with the same mindset – just doing what you can and that’s all we’ve done.
“It’s surprised me, in a good way, how precise he is. You’ll get within an inch of the line on every corner, and that’s just down to natural talent. It’s been pretty good to be in the car with him, put it that way.”
Semenuk and Williams’ first rally together ended in anguish as their Subaru developed a mechanical fault on the penultimate stage of the Sno*Drift Rally – giving up a dominant victory.
But lady luck repaid them on the 100 Acre Wood Rally when Block lost his lead on the final stage after hitting a deer, allowing Semenuk to sneak through. Another win on Olympus cemented Semenuk’s status as a title favorite, but then the Block steamroller really began.
It forced both driver and co-driver, as well as the Subaru team, to dig extra deep.
“My approach has been to try and give 100% on every note, every stage, every rally so like I said we were pushing flat out all year, so everything’s had to be on-point,” said Williams.
“You can’t have a bad rally, you can’t have even an off stage in places because you just lose too much. So the pressure’s been on us in that sense but I think we’ve dealt with it quite well.
When you look at it we had a crash at STPR, that never helps, but we never lost faithKeaton Williams
“It’s been tricky but in a good way, it hasn’t felt like we’ve been pushing ourselves too far but you know what I mean, it’s kept us focused.”
The pair’s New England Forest Rally win was marred in controversy as thick dust slowed Block and allowed Semenuk to steal another last-gasp victory. But then the Subaru crew threw Block a lifeline when they crashed on Susquehannock Performance Trail Rally.
The net result was that, heading into the finale, Block held the championship lead for the first time all year with a two-point advantage. On an event he’d done eight times and won thrice but neither Semenuk nor Williams had ever done before, they weren’t fancying their chances.
“I don’t think we did,” said Williams when asked if they ever believed they could win, “because when you look at it we had a crash at STPR, that never helps, but we never lost faith.
“Brandon was just so calm, everything was on-point and he was carrying so much speed on that rally. He’d never done the rally before so he didn’t have the knowledge to get into it.
“You see boys in WRC and they jump into a car on a rally they’ve done before and they go back the following year and the pace has doubled – but we couldn’t do that. It was literally one shot at the rally, and to be even a handful of seconds behind Ken after the first few stages was an achievement in itself.
“It didn’t take long for Brandon to settle in. We did the first two stages, the pace was good, but then he kind of understood the surface and the feeling of the rally and from there we just grew.
“That for me was pretty impressive, because it’s such a hard task to get on the pace.
“I remember the first message I ever sent to him,” Williams added.
“I said: ‘I’m free this year, I want to make you win the championship.’ I’d followed the ARA for a while so I could see that the pace was there and the talent, so if I would be able to join him it would be a great opportunity for me.
“But yeah, it’s just been incredible because this year it’s been whoever is the most consistent, and it was us this year. Travis wasn’t there in terms of speed and Ken had the speed but he didn’t have the consistency.
“But I think a lot of it comes from Brandon’s mindset: he’s a super-calm guy and he can just switch it on when he needs to.
“I think that mindset comes from other sport [as a mountain biker] as well. But it’s also a big credit to the work everyone like John Hall has done with him.”
2022 was a special season then for a clearly very special driver. And it’s a special partnership that will continue into next season.
“There’s nothing signed between anyone yet, we’re just kind of seeing what comes of it. There’s nothing to say on that front, but I will be with Brandon next year,” said Williams.
“I feel like it would be hard for me to go away from such a strong relationship that I’ve made, not just as a driver; he’s actually a good friend of mine as well.
“We’re only a small part of this journey in, so there’ll be plenty more to come.”