“It’s surprised me, in a good way, how precise he is,” is the considered reply.
“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.”
Keaton Williams isn’t short of nice things to say about his driver. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the pair won last year’s American Rally Association National title in an against the odds finale with the late Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino.
But it’s clear that, if he wanted it to be, the American title is far from the summit of this driver’s career achievements.
Travis Pastrana had been saying it for years: watch out for this guy, because he’s super talented. And the signs had been there before, but 2022 was the making of him.
It wasn’t just his speed; it was how he was able to marry that raw pace with ruthless consistency and learn things at such a rate that he was able to win what many believe to be one of the most competitive seasons of US rallying ever in terms of the level of competition.
And rallying isn’t even his go-to sport – that honor’s reserved for mountain biking.
The odds of Brandon Semenuk giving up his bread and butter to chase the rallying dream full-time are incredibly slim, but should he ever make that switch he would be more than up to the task.
So good in fact that this writer believes he could do a job not just in America but also in the World Rally Championship.
And Williams, who briefly worked with Toyota and Takamoto Katsuta before a family emergency forced him to abandon rallying for a few months, agrees.
“I think if he got into WRC, he’d be pretty comfortable,” he told DirtFish in an interview last year before the passing of Ken Block.
“He’d take a little bit of time to get used to the car, R5 and such, just trying to get to grips with that, but he’s shown what he can do in the Subaru and the Subaru’s closer to a World car than it is R5, so if you can drive that on the stages then an R5 is going to be a little easier.
“But I think the talent’s there. He deserves to be up there, just to show a bit more what he can do.
“We’ve conquered America so let’s see if we can get to WRC – that would be the aim anyway.”
Although the level of the ARA is rapidly increasing, it is, at the end of the day, still a national championship so showing well in ARA doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in WRC.
But the devil is in the detail.
Take Semenuk’s performance on the title-clinching Lake Superior Performance Rally, for example. While his rival Block had won it three times before prior to 2022, Semenuk had never even taken it on before. And yet he just got stuck in and gave Block a good race before the Hyundai driver’s crash.
“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,” Williams explains.
“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.
“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,” Williams adds.
“I think that mindset comes from other sport as well.”
Semenuk drove his first rally over 10 years ago in his native Canada, but things have progressed rapidly since – particularly in the last three years when he was signed by Subaru Motorsports USA.
His first season in a WRX STI was impressive with a breakthrough win and a podium on all four of his starts, but 2021 was a trickier sophomore affair where the speed was still there but misfortune or driver error disrupted his season.
A win to close out the year on Oregon Trail Rally was, in hindsight, a real sign of things to come at the end of a season that was dominated by Semenuk’s team-mate Pastrana.
Sno*Drift this year, where the pair were leading by over eight minutes before technical trouble struck on the second-to-last stage, was Williams’ first event alongside Semenuk, so how has he improved over the course of last year and what has Williams been able to teach him?
“His notes are incredible given it’s his hobby at the end of the day. They’re as good as any other driver I’ve sat with, they’re super accurate, so it makes my job a lot easier when that box has already been ticked,” Williams explains.
“But it’s been about managing the rally, because like I said his notes are pretty good. I can give my opinion on it, and we can get quicker but it’s more the setup changes between the stages, the tire choices and how to manage that, different scenarios and just trying to get the best out of us and the team.
“Just pushing it to its 100 if you like. John Hall is a great guy and an even better navigator, so Brandon was already in a good place, but I think my knowledge from the WRC definitley helped with that.
“Even being at Toyota for one rally and the six tests I did, I gained so much.
“If you’re willing to learn I think it makes it easier because then it all comes so naturally.”
A desire to learn and a bout of natural talent are two traits Semenuk has in abundance. Those that know already knew, but he’s perhaps been slept on by the wider rallying world until now.
This writer therefore believes he’s underrated, but Williams doesn’t quite see it that way.
“I wouldn’t say underrated, I think it’s just maybe his personality is not as out there as other people’s,” he argues.
“He likes to keep himself to himself, he likes to keep his head down and just do the job. He’s a massive rally fan – he follows the WRC, he follows ERC, I think it’s a good release for him as his job as a mountain biker.
“I wouldn’t say he was underrated but maybe overshadowed by his other rivals in the championship. People who know rally know that he’s a hell of a guy.”
So, what is genuinely next? An ARA title defense beckons for 2023 in an all-new car as the championship’s Open 4WD regulations have been pared back to be aligned with the global Rally2 ruleset, but is reaching the WRC in the future a realistic aim?
“It’s hard to say,” says Williams. “Winning the championship’s helped us a lot, and he’s got the right profile around him to do that, but as you know a lot of dominoes need to fall into place to get to the WRC.
“It’s easy to forget sometimes that he’s not just a rally driver, I’m literally on the phone to you now watching him jump off a 15ft drop on his bike.
“I don’t see why not, but we’ll just have to see what happens.”