Block school: The tyre-slaying masterclass

Block school: The tyre-slaying masterclass

Ken Block must feel terrible. He flew into Heathrow from the US last night and then drove to the hotel inside Milton Keynes Stadium for a kip, only to discover a soccer match was on.

Early this morning, he’s already in the Silverstone paddock, hoodie up, cap and sunglasses on and can of energy drink in hand. “I think it’s about three in the morning,” he says.

This wouldn’t be a good time to talk to most racing drivers, but Ken Block isn’t most racing drivers. His hood and sunglasses frame a face that beams a broad smile. Even if you’re as tired as hell, if you’re Ken Block, showing us how best to muck about in a drift car producing well over 600kW is not going to make for a bad day.

How do you know Block? From his Gymkhana videos? There have been seven of them, each more ambitious than the one before and featuring Block performing extraordinary drifts and slides in increasingly ludicrous cars.

Block school 1In all, these videos have been watched 160 million times, and they’re great value for sponsors.

Gymkhana is like a regular motorsport event in its own right – although without the potential racing pitfalls of crashing, breaking down or not being shown on the telly much.

In the same way that Red Bull runs its own air race and soap-box events, Gymkhana is not just great to watch but also a great marketing exercise.

But to suggest that’s why Block drives cars would be to misunderstand him. Competition is what inspired him and today’s drifting scene “all stems from rallying”, he says, as he talks about the reasons why he started driving competitively – first in Rally America, later WRC and now in Global Rallycross. Colin McRae was a year younger than Block, but McRae’s driving is how Block ended up where he is.

Block school 2Today, that’s driving a one-off Mustang called the Hoonicorn around a circuit that he has never seen before. The Mustang began life as a 1965 notchback, but there isn’t much left of that. It now has a whomping V8 in the front, driving through a 50/50 four-wheel drive system like that of the rally cars Block is more accustomed to, so it isn’t without similar driving characteristics.

Where it differs is that it’s set up softly so that Block can transfer the weight around more easily on asphalt to alter the car’s handling balance. It’s also longer, which makes the all-wheel drive drifts or powerslides that Block specialises in more spectacular.

Block is keen to emphasise the ‘all-wheel drive’ part of this, because the drifting scene has kind of taken custody of the word ‘drift’ to mean something preserved for rear-wheel-drive cars!

Block school -reardriftBlock pops out for a sighting lap of Silverstone’s national circuit, which begins on the old start/finish straight and runs through the fast right-hander at Copse before heading down to the Maggots/Becketts complex, where it turns sharp right off the GP circuit, cutting back straight up to the slow Brooklands/Luffield section, from where the lap begins again.

The best section for pulling massive slides will be the left at Brooklands and into the more than 180-degree Luffield right-hander. This means I’ll get to see Block initiate a slide through one corner, transition to a right-hander and then see how he gathers it up on the exit. So I strap in next to him.

Because the Hoonicorn weighs about 1500kg, I’m expecting it to be fast. What I’m not expecting is the noise, which is stupid of me, because it’s a 6.7-litre V8 on throttle-bodies that makes 630kW and revs to 8300rpm. Of course it’s loud, to the extent that, even through a helmet, the air pressure hurts your ears.

Block school hoonicorn -engineThe acceleration is similarly startling. The V8 idles at around 1500rpm, and Block uses about 3000rpm to pull away, slipping the clutch gently. From then on, he’s flat and pulls through the gears without troubling the clutch. Because this car uses cross-country rally gearing, it’s relatively short-geared and soon approaches the limiter in sixth.

Thanks to the car’s 120dB, Block can’t tell me what he’s doing, so I watch. He left-foot brakes towards the left-hander at Brooklands, taking what at first appears to be a conventional line, if a bit wide of the approaching apex. He trails the brakes in, shifting down to third, at which point things are still fairly smooth. There’s no speedo, but I’d guess we’re travelling at about 80km/h.

Block school hoonicorn interiorBut then he reaches for the handbrake and gives it a yank, which squeals the back end wide. I look out the side window as we pass the apex and see the upcoming Luffield right-hander in the distance, at about 45-degrees from straight ahead.

I’ve seen a few drifts and slides before, and I reckon Ken's overcooked this and we’ll spin. But already he’s on full noise and full ‘oppo’ and the Mustang's busy pulling itself straight.

Block school drift 1There are a couple of seconds of this, the angle of attack gradually reducing, before a throttle lift unsettles the car again and plants the nose, which grips and causes the rear’s slide to go from one direction to the other in a perfect left-right transition. Or what would be a massive fishtail if you didn’t get it right.

Block does get it right. He’s already back on the throttle again, feathering it more carefully now through the longer corner (full throttle would just make us pull straight; off the throttle, the car would spin).

Block school hoonicorn frontBlock keeps the chassis deftly poised between the two, while his adjustments on the steering wheel have the Mustang on opposite lock, neutral lock and occasionally positive lock, at which point he’ll lift to unsettle the rear again and increase the angle of attack. But at all times, the tyres are beyond the point of adhesion, both laterally and under power.

Ten seconds after it all started, we’re out of the corner and accelerating until the car has pulled straight, and only then does Block ease off. Call it what you like, but by my reckoning that’s a drift, and I’ve never seen anybody do 'em better. Block? He’s still smiling.

Behind Block's mad 630kW Mustang

Block’s earliest Gymkhana vids were run in Subarus, but when he got sponsored by Ford and rallied those, he moved on to near-WRC-spec Fiestas. But 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, and that called for something special. So, over a period of two years, his team created the Hoonicorn, using a 1965 Mustang as a base.

Block school hoonicornLook at the roof and bits of the rear wings and you’ll see that some of it still exists, but the rest is pretty much bespoke. A Roush-Yates 410ci engine sits well back in the engine bay, behind the fabricated independent suspension.

The rear suspension is similarly exquisite and sits near a fuel tank that needs replenishing every two laps of Silverstone. The propshaft and halfshafts are all bespoke, to mate the Sadev six-speed transmission – designed for a Dakar rally raid car – to the wheels.

Block school hoonicorn rearThey’re 19-inch items shod with Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tyres, in a ‘Ken Block’ compound.

Pirelli doesn’t make a drift tyre but does supply Block with a harder-wearing compound than a standard tyre, which would otherwise melt into the road within a few short runs.

 

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