Saturday, March 3, 2012

It’s a Six-Pack for Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino at Rally in the 100 Acre Wood --Chris Duplessis Takes Yet Another 2WD Victory

Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino make their return to Rally In the 100 Acre Wood, much to the delight of the large crown of fans in attendance. Photo: Neil McDaid
Salem, Missouri.  Ken Block and Ford took a commanding overall victory at round two of the 2012 Rally America Championship.  Ford would also enjoy success in 2WD class with Chris Duplessis bringing home his R2 Fiesta in first after a tough battle over the two day rally.
This was Block’s first stage rally in the USA since 2010, as he and co-driver Alex Gelsomino had been contesting in the WRC throughout 2011. It was also a first outing for the 2012 Monster World Rally Team’s Ford Fiesta, a car that is closely based on the most current WRC technology.
The stages for running of the 2012 Rally in the 100 Acre Wood [100AW] were quite possibly in the best condition they have been in years. Stages at 100AW typically feature a considerable amount of marble sized gravel, but for the most part they are very smooth and flowing, not unlike conditions in Rally Finland. With limited spring rains the normally bubbling brooks that cross many of the stage were low to nonexistent. But, put a wheel off the line and cut too deep in the corners, drivers would find themselves encountering larger rocks more than capable of claiming a tire.
The many regulars competing at this year 100AW rally were joined by Polish and European Rally Champion, Krzysztof Holowczyc. Unfortunately for the wildly popular Polish driver his U.S. rally debut would get off to a rather tough start with a blown engine in this hired Mitsubishi during testing. Despite the setback the team worked through the night and had the car through scrutiny just in time for the first stage.  Holowczyc would also have the challenging task of running first on the road, thus clearing a path for Subaru driver David Higgins, Antoine L’Estage and then Block, charging hard behind.
The standard 2 minute window was granted to the first 5 cars on the stage, but with the dry conditions leading up to the rally and barely a breeze, the fine white dust that can be notorious in this event would eventfully factor.
It was quickly obvious that despite the best effort in getting the car running for Holowczyc by his crew, the Evo did not have the grunt it had prior to the failure.  At 10.51 miles, SS1 “Ollie” was the longest stage in the rally and is one of the fastest stages in the rally, if not the championship.
Coming into the rally, Ken Block made no bones about his intentions on making this number six in the win column in his favorite rally. Not only did Block smash the stage record on SS1, he bettered his nearest rival, Subaru Team driver David Higgins, by a whopping 12.9 seconds.
Perhaps carrying a little too much momentum into the slightly tighter stage 2, Block would have what he described as a “sixth gear moment” resulting in a high speed spin. In an instant Ken went from being up by nearly 13 seconds after the first stage, to being down by 10, and back to third, at the end of the second stage.  But Block would charge back on SS3 and regain the lead.  Heading into the first service of the rally Block had a mere 3 second advantage of 2011 100AW winner Antoine L’Estage who held a 1 second advantage over Higgins in third.
After service, the crews would repeat the first three stages in reverse direction, with a slight modification on SS5 and SS6. SS4 would be the end of the line for the Rockstar Energy sponsored Mitsubishi of Antoine L’Estage and co-driver Nathalie Richard with transmission issues. Block would go on to take stage victories on SS4-6.  At the close of day one after 6 stages, Block had opened an 18 second lead on Higgins.  With the departure of L’Estage, Krzysztof Holowczyc would move to third, a distant 3 minutes adrift of Block. In 2WD Chris Duplessis was on pace to repeat his top podium finish for Ford in his R2 Fiesta. Duplessis took stage victories on 5 of the 6 stages, only losing out on SS5 to fellow Team O’Neill driver Edward McNelly in another R2 Fiesta.
With the overnight reseed Block headed into day two now running first on the road. Typically this would be seen as a disadvantage on loose gravel stages like those seen on this year’s 100AW, but Block charged ahead and stunned Higgins by taking the first stage victory by 15 seconds. Much like day one, Block would face his challenge on the second test of the day, SS8. Ken would pick up a left front puncture about half way through the 10.36 stage and opt to drive through rather than stopping and changing the wheel. Again Block’s lead was erased.
Down by 8.4 seconds heading into SS9, again Block would mount a full attach over SS9 and 10. As they stopped for the first service on day two, Block had edged ahead of Higgins by 0.1 seconds.  Chris Duplessis would see some early pressure on day two from Scion driver Andrew Comrie-Picard (ACP). Andrew would take 2WD stage victories on 3 of the 4 stages before the mid-day halt. Despite the push by ACP, Duplessis still held a commanding lead.

With yet another flat tire on SS8 “Crazy Leo” Urlichich charges through the water crossing only to retire on the next stage with a broken tie-rod. Photo: Neil McDaid
Deeper in the field, Canadian Rally Championship contender Leonid Urlichich, with co-driver Carl Williamson, broke a tie-rod on stage 9 to end their top 10 run. Chinese rally driver Rick Song, with co-driver Martin Brady, broke their engine on stage 8 leaving the race in the ninth overall position.
The rally would head east to Potosi for two back-to-back Super Specials. Up on one wheel at one point, Ken Block thrilled the large crowd on hand taking victories on both runs through the Super Special stages SS11 and SS12. Over stages 13-15 Block would continue his dominance and put more distance between himself and Higgins. As the team’s checked into the last service of the rally, Block was now 12.6 second up on Higgins.  Despite some pressure from series regulars Travis Hanson and Laughlin O’Sullivan, Krzysztof Holowczyc maintained his third place standing and final podium position heading into the final stages.
With maximum illumination mounted up front, it was into the night and the penultimate stage of the rally, SS16 Ollie’s Camel. There is no question that this stage is a favorite of Block’s.  With a gap of only 12.6 seconds, Block and Gelsomino could not let up and they did not disappoint. Block set a blistering pace through this blistering fast night stage.  Slowed by some of that notorious white dust, Higgins and Subaru had no answer for Block, dropping 14 second to the Fiesta. With a short jaunt over the 4.79 miles of SS17, it was victory number six for Ken Block at Rally in the 100 Acre Wood.  
“I’m stoked about winning my sixth Rally in the 100 Acre Wood,” said Block. “The battle against David Higgins was intense on every stage. He’s the current Rally America champ and one of the people who helped teach me how to race a rally car when I first got started, so to finally compete against him on this level was great. I really enjoyed it. I’m definitely looking forward to running against him again later this year in Olympus.”
A somewhat disappointed Higgins would have to settle for second for the second year in a row. A masterful drive by Krzysztof Holowczyc, in what was clearly an underpowered car, netted him the final spot on the podium.
 Lauchlin O’Sullivan and Scott Putnum won the Super Production Class coming from behind to snatch victory from current SP Class leaders Travis and Terry Hanson by 43.9 seconds. O’Sullivan overcame various car problems to overtake the Hansons when their car verged on the brink of overheating in the last few stages. The win is particularly sweet as the team is the only Mitsubishi EVO in the class.

Chris Duplessis and Karl Atkinson heading toward yet another podium finish in the R2 Fiesta. Photo Neil  McDaid
Chris Duplessis and Karl Atkinson in the Fiesta R2 repeated their 2WD Class success with another first-place finish after winning the season-opening Sno*Drift Rally in dominant fashion. Andrew Comrie-Picard and Brian O’Kane pushed hard on the second day to snatch second in class, besting third-place finishers Dillon Van Way and Jake Blattner by a narrow 2.8 seconds! Maybe one of the more remarkable drives in 2WD came from Edward McNelly in the Team O’Neill R2 Fiesta, in only his second outing on the national circuit,  McNally was in podium position several times throughout the rally.
Crews now head west for the third round of the Rally America National Championship which takes place at the Oregon Trail Rally May 4-6 in Portland, OR.
Report /Photos: Neil McDaid / Rally World News