Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ken Block Untouchable At Olympus Rally 2012

Ken Block's Monster World Rally Team, a force to be reckoned with heading into 2013 : Photo / MWRT
Olympia, Washington (September 23, 2012).  Ken Block and his co-driver Alex Gelsomino gave us a possible taste of things to come this past weekend as they charged to victory in the final round of the 2012 Rally America Championship.

Due to very dry conditions in the area, Olympus Rally organizers had to make some last minute changes to the schedule to reduce the fire risk. It would also mean that no spectators would be allowed on the Forest special stages, which was an obvious major disappointment to the many hard core rally fans in the Great Northwest.

The surfaces on the Olympus stages are somewhat unique in that they are covered in medium to large round stones that can make turning into a tight corner something of a challenge. With the dry conditions, dust was also going to be a major factor in the event. Road position would be critical, drivers in the draw had to gamble with selecting to first on the road and fight the very loose rolling surface, or look for the line through the dust.

When the straws were drawn, it was Canadian champion Pat Richard leading the charge in his Team Canada Subaru.  Ken Block was out second in his Monster World Rally Team Ford Fiesta. “Crazy” Leo Urlichich, Antoine L’Estage and the 2012 Rally America Champion David Higgins would round out the top five.

Despite catching the heavy dust from the much slower Richard, Ken Block would attack hard on the opening test, the very technical Dayton Peak stage. He bettered his nearest rival, David Higgins, by 8 seconds. Antoine L’Estage would find his way through the dust to claim third.

SS2 and, again, Block would crucify the field with another impressive stage win on Cougar Flats. L’Estage would better Higgins to claim second.  Block would continue to pile the pressure on SS3 “Pee Corner Long” while Higgins and L’Estage struggled to find an answer to Block’s pace.

David Higgins with his Championship Winning Subaru all dressed in white had no answer for Blocks pace as he charged through the night stages on day one. Photo: Subaru Rally Team
Pat Richard, running first on the road, and who was clearly struggling to make time as he swept away the loose gravel would eventually retire on SS4 “Nahwatzel” with mechanical issues. With Richard retiring on stage, Block would get a clear line of sight for part of the stage, but now he would have to deal with sweeping duties.  While Block pushed ahead to his fourth stage victory in as many stages, both L’Estage and Higgins would be plagued with punctures on the longest stage of the rally, slowing their pace. Antoine felt that he had a delimitation issue, while Higgins clipped a rock in his pursuit of Block.

With the high fire risk, all competition would be stopped for 8 hours during the hottest part of the day.

Competition would restart at 6:45pm with a quick charge around on the 1.94 miles of The Ridge Super Special Stage, the only stage in the rally where spectators were allowed. Block would again better Higgins by 4 seconds on the dust free high speed tarmac surface. 

From there it was onto the first of four scheduled night stages. Block would take full advantage of his road position pushing hard without the challenge of the night dust to take his 6th stage victory on day one.  On SS7 “Cloquallum 1” again it was all Block, throwing down a time some 36 seconds faster than L’Estage who claimed second.  SS8 would see the rally coming to a grinding halt when “Crazy Leo” had an off in his Subaru. Leo who had, for the most part, a trouble free day up until that point was holding down third overall when he went off. Both Leo and his co-driver were uninjured but organizers needed to cancel the last two stages because of time lost.

At the end of day one Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino had built over a four minute lead on Subaru team driver David Higgins. Antoine L’Estage moved to third with the departure of “Crazy Leo”.

With only one competitive stage to complete on day two, it was just matter of Block getting through the long 20 mile stage safely without taking any risks. David Higgins would claim his only stage victory of the rally on the last stage. 

“We really went out hard on those opening stages,” said Block “The plan was to try and get ahead of everyone else time-wise during the morning stages so that we’d be reseeded at the front of the pack for the night stages in an effort to try and stay out of the dust. It wasn’t easy, as the road conditions here were definitely extremely loose in many areas, but we managed to put down consistently fast stage times and then had some luck in padding out our lead when both David Higgins and Antoine L’Estage suffered punctures on the last stage of the morning.”

Although Block has not confirmed his rally plans for 2013 at this point, Ken has made it known that he would like to contest the Rally America Championship next year.  Block has contested three Rallies in the North America in 2012, in all three events he has claimed victory in dominating style. David Higgins, who claimed his 4th Rally America Championship in 2012, came into Olympus with a “gloves off approach,” but he had no answer for the pace of Block and his MWRT Ford Fiesta.

We did not expect to see a massive push from L’Estage at Olympus, with Higgins already having the 2012 Rally America Championship in the bag.  Antoine is now focused on yet another Canadian Rally Championship title.  Antoine and co-driver Nathalie Richard will try and seal the deal at The Pacific Forest Rally in Merrit, British Columbia in mid-October.

Hopefully we will see Block, Higgins, L’Estage and “Crazy Leo” and others back to tackle the 2013 Rally America Championship. Despite the experience and speed Block has gained on the WRC events it would be foolish to assume that the 2013 Rally America Championship would be a cake walk for Block, but there is no question that his Monster World Rally Team would be a force to be reckoned with.

In 2WD, Chris Duplessis in the R2 Ford Fiesta would wrap up a year that he will not soon forget. His victory in 2WD at Olympus sealed the deal to claim yet another 2WD Rally America Championship title.

 “It was a really, really good season and the Fiesta was awesome all year,” said Duplessis. “We won four national events and got a second so that’s a very good season and we got the championship. It kind of came down to the last stage, we really just had to finish Olympus but we finished with a win so it’s great.”

Ken Block’s team will transform his Fiesta from rally spec to RallyCross spec this week as Ken will be in action this weekend at Las Vegas Motor speedway as he tackles the penultimate round of the 2012 GRC Championship.
Report: Neil McDaid
Sources: MWRT / Rally America / Ford Racing /Subaru Rally Team