Ken Block and Andreas Bakkerud take the fight to the world in the hot hatch
By Steve Turner
Pop. Bang. Pop. Bang. The turbocharged 2.0-liter dances off the two-step rev limiter. As the start light goes green the car launches. Its all-wheel-drive system and Cooper tires claw for traction trying to plant the 600-plus horsepower to the tarmac. It accelerates from 0-60 in around 2 seconds as the car hurtles toward the first turn leading up to its first jump into the dirt.
“The launch is practically everything. If you can get out ahead, it’s hard for people to get around, so the launch is one of the biggest parts of the entire racing element,” Ken Block enthused. “Honestly, every time I launch and go through the gears there is a big smile on my face, because it is so much fun. The zero to 60 is roughly 2 seconds depending on grip level, so it really makes this sort of racing fun.”
That’s right. This is no drag car. It is the all-new Ford Performance Focus RS RX. It competes in the FIA World Rallycross Championship under the Hoonigan Racing Division banner with support from UK speed merchants M-Sport. Behind the wheel are the Gymkhana superstar and his first-year teammate Andreas Bakkerud.
If you aren’t familiar with this version of rallycross it is largely a European sensation, but World RX is a dynamic, quick motorsport that combines several different disciplines. It is so intensely demanding on drivers and teams that Andreas likens it to mixed martial arts.
“To give you an idea of perspective from another sport, Rallycross is really like fighting. You do rounds and it is a battle,” he said. “You need to stay sharp. You have to challenge the field, and you have door-to-door contact. You need to be on it. You need to be fighting.”
Part of what makes this form of racing so challenging—and entertaining—is that the rules on the hardware are relatively loose. Though the Focus RS RX provides some of the basis for the race car, the limitations on the Supercar class it runs in are few. A minimum weight of 2,866 pounds with driver, manual transmissions (five- or six-speed) a 102-octane spec fuel and 45mm turbocharger restrictors are some of the minimal restrictions.
“There’s the Focus RS that you can buy isn’t so dissimilar from the shape of this body (points to the RS RX). It’s also a 2.0-liter engine, which is on the showroom floor and an all-wheel drive system. Of course ours is a race car, but still you can’t go buy a Formula 1 car on any sort of showroom floor,” Ken said. “…I think that’s really the big difference between a lot of the racing that is out there versus rally and rallycross. That’s what I have always enjoyed about it the most, that I can see this production car and see the race car next to it and they are very similar in the look and the things that they do.”
Because teams are liberated to exercise their engineering skills on these cars, the personnel and equipment supporting the two Hoonigan cars is quite impressive. Aside from team itself there are engineers from both Ford Performance and M-sport at the racetrack to help make the most of these cars and that is still work in process as the team is only midway through the car’s first season in competition after only a 9-month gestation period.
“…This car was built so fast that we did a lot of in the beginning about what we wanted. Then M-Sport and Ford went off and did what they could to get it done in time. It was done right before we started racing this season, so all of our testing and development has literally been at the racetrack. Overall it has turned out really, really good, but, unfortunately when it is done in such a quick time period, it’s hard to make it perfect,” Ken explained. “For me this is a long-term program. I have committed to at least three years racing here, so this year we look at as a development year and we have two years to really get that championship. So the fact that Andreas is third overall in the championship and won races is far beyond what we expected…”
For a race car developed in the same timeframe as a baby, this newborn has definitely exceeded expectations, especially when you consider it was developed completely inside a computer. As is common these days, engineers used computational fluid dynamics to develop a body with just the right amount of slippery lines and grip-building downforce. Building a race car like this in such a short span couldn’t be done without the computing power of a big company like Ford. For example, the rear wing—which began as M-Sports rallycross Fiesta wing—underwent over 500 simulations, before Aerodynamics Engineer Nolan Halliday finally made the call on one of three designs based on its production viability.
Your scribe was one of a few members of the media invited to join the Hoonigan team as it debuted the new Focus racer in North America at Round 7 of the World Rallycross Championship season in Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Canada. This crash course in top-level rallycross introduced us to the fascinating challenges and strategy presented by a race that transitions from pavement to dirt to air and back again.
Imagine launching something that gets going quicker than a Formula 1 car, tossing it into a turn, jumping it over hills, and sliding it through dirt. Setting a car up to handle all these disciplines through a series of short qualifiers and races and doing so with only eight tires at your disposal pushes the teams to not only dial in a car, but engage in important strategic decisions. Even the track itself presents strategy, as all drivers must take a longer section called The Joker in at least one lap of a session or be penalized.
Under the Hoonigan tent there’s a command center of laptops, engineers, mechanics, tools and more. The number of people poring over data on screens made it seem like a small scale rocket launch, and if there’s any indication that Ford Performance is committed to all of its racing teams, as engineers Brian Novak (Motorsport Supervisor, Rallycross) and Han Kim (General Program Engineer) were on hand helping refine the performance of the two RS RX racers.
“The drivers go drive it and if you are fast you are fast,” Brian said. “If you are slow, you better get faster.”
And go faster they did. Andreas had more experience on this track and Ken was still dialing in his driving style to work with its combination of dirt and road surfaces, but in the end, the team owner qualified in the second spot and Andreas landed in 10th slot. That put both cars in the semi-finals at Trois Rivieres.
“Yeah, some of the past couple of races—Norway and Sweden—were both more tarmac, more commitment. Our cars do better there. That’s the thing about these championships. You can’t have a car that’s perfect on every track. They vary so much, from the amount of dirt to tarmac (ratio) to how tight the corners are,” Ken said. “The last two tracks favored us, and that’s why Andreas was able to win. This one, with the amount of gravel on it, we are not quite as quick. But that’s the give and take. We have a season to try and win, not just one race.”
One reason the Hoonigan team is doing so well with new hardware is the preparation it receives from kick-boxing champion and the team’s personal trainer Kit Cope, who specializes in biomechanics, sports nutrition and sports psychology.
“They are both predicated on split-second decision making with full commitment,” he said. Whether it is in Rallycross or fighting, you have to make a good decision and commit to that decision in a short amount of time.”
“When we first agreed to do this we decided to reach the goal in the middle you have to fill the whole balloon and I think adding Kit to the team is a great plus on our side,” Andreas added. “He comes up with good ideas on how to get better at reaction time.”
Besides adding mental and physical training to the mix, it was certainly prescient that Ken decided to add Andreas as a second member of the Hoonigan team this year with his own RS RX. The Norwegian wunderkind is a skilled and dedicated racer whose stock is on the rise and his value has already shown through.
While both drivers made it to the semi-finals, Ken got lost in a sea of dust and clipped the barrier with his car and broke the rear suspension, taking him out of the race. Andreas, on the other hand, fended off some tough competition to finish second and put his Focus RS RX on the podium for the third straight event. That also pushed him to third-place in the season points with half a season to go.
You can check out the highlights from the race here…
Or watch the full event here…
Sadly, after we got all pumped up about Ford’s FIA World Rallycross Championship in Canada, there are no more events in North America this season, but there seems to be hope that an event might be added in the United States next season and if it is we highly recommend checking it out.
“I really think Rallycross is one of the most growing motorsports in the world right now,” Andreas said. “It has the drivers. It’s shooting flames, racing door to door, bumpers flying off and we’ve got the jumps.”
The Hoonigans will return to World RX action at Round 8 on September 2-4.
The launch is crucial in the FIA World Rallycross Championship, as it can give the first-place driver enough of a lead to take The Joker and maintain the lead. “Launch is really the one time we get the most grip because it’s straight forward,” Ken Block said. “Once we get it get it turned—even the fast turn, which is fourth gear—I can still completely overwhelm the tires and that’s not the fastest way.”
Undoubtedly you know of Ken Block from his insanely popular Gymkhana video series where he slides cars around some amazing obstacles. He developed that sliding style in rally racing and it worked well with his Global Rallycross Fiesta. In World RX, however, the new Focus RS RX is more stable and it needs a smoother hand, so Ken is still adapting to the new ride because he thrives when things get loose.
Andreas Bakkerud is definitely headed in and upward trajectory. Ken Block wisely selected him as his first teammate to help field the new Focus racer in FIA World RX and he is proving his worth already with his third podium finish in a row.
“Ken is not only a teammate and a team boss but he has become a good friend,” Andreas told us. “It is cool for me to see what he has done with his career—both as a driver and a business man… Ken is one of the most hard-working people I have seen. I have raced against many drivers… and he is putting in hard work from the heart.”
Behind the scenes, Ford Performance’s engineers Brian Novak (Motorsport Supervisor, Rallycross) and Han Kim (General Program Engineer) work with their Hoonigan and M-Sport counterparts to analyze data from the vehicles and help make performance improvements for the given conditions.
The Focus RS was co-engineered by Ford Performance and M-Sport and built at the latter company’s facilities in the United Kingdom. It features a seam-welded body with an FIA-spec roll cage. Its engine is a 2.0-liter Ford boosted by a Garrett turbo and controlled via an M-Sport engine management system with port fuel injection. The transmission is a Sadev six-speed manual, while the suspension is a custom Short-Long-Arm setup with Reiger dampers.
The Hoonigan team not only hones the performance of its vehicles, but of its drivers too. Championship kick boxer Kit Cope (left) is the team’s trainer and coach. Not only does he work Ken out with kick boxing training, but he works on the drivers to improve their reaction times and concentration.
You might see Ken as the fun-loving Gymkhana star, but he is definitely series about rallycross racing. That’ not to say he doesn’t enjoy the racing, however. “I love the tracks. I love the high level of competition. The cars that we are running now are the highest level that these have been built and it continues to get better and better,” he said. “In general I enjoy it, but it’s been a bit of a struggle with this being a development year. Other than that, getting these cars up to speed and learning these tracks has been really fun.”
The datalogging is limited by the FIA in World RX with the primary intention to prevent the illegal use of traction control. The teams are able to log certain parameter from the engine management system and others from the Vbox onboard video, but the two cannot be combined into one stream. Of course, you can never have too much data, so Brian Novak records speed on the straights with a radar gun. That’s how involved the Ford Performance crew is with this racing effort.