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31 October 2012

A ride with Ken Block

As Mr. Gymkhana was at TopGear Live, he decided to take us for a spin... Literally

Rowan Horncastle
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Having your jewels choked by a five-point harness isn't an enjoyable experience. But sometimes you've got to take a bit of pain for pleasure.

I'm currently sat in a pretty well-known Ford Fiesta. It's built by Olsberg Motorsports Evolution (the same people who built our boy Tanner's Rallycross car), and belongs to a certain Mr. K Block.

You may remember him from James' film, or if you're a regular on the Tubes of You. Right now he's sitting next to me, gripping a custom-machined, one-piece aluminium handbrake with his name engraved into it.

Ken's been for a cautious sighting lap for his one-off TopGear Live appearance and that's it. Now he wants to test the grip levels. He pulls back the milled chunk of aluminium like a pinball plunger, reels in his left foot and buries the throttle. The anti-lag kicks in (sounding like a firing squad suffering from attention deficit disorder), and from the outside, it looks like the ultimate hadouken fireball combination.

Letting go of the handbrake means 650hp starts scrabbling to find traction on a well-polished exhibition hall floor. With 895Nm at 4000rpm, in the right conditions, Ken's Fiesta can catapult from 0-100kph in under two seconds. But rendered speechless by the torque, I forget to count my Mississippis - all I know is that it's blimmin' rapid.

Two pulls of the carbon gear-paddle and we're into third and instantly at the other end of the NEC's Hall Five. As quickly as we've gone up the gears, Ken calmly flicks the carbon paddle back like he's discarding a fly from a pint of beer and goes into a massive drift, thanks to a quick tug on his metallic dori-stick.

Being an indoor circuit - one that's usually reserved for caravan conventions and dog shows - the NEC isn't the ideal race track, but that doesn't stop Ken from doing a figure of eight around a half-finished lighting rig.

The only Gymkhana I've done is a choreographed drift around the reduced croissants between Morrison's aisles six and seven, so I'm assuming that the NEC's lack of grip is a good thing.

"Slippery is good, but you want consistency" the Gymkhana guru reveals, "the car is built to lose grip on pretty intense surfaces. I was an airfield yesterday that had a brand new surface and had cuts put in it that were just eating up the tyres. That's what I'm used to, this is like driving on snow or ice."

Still, for someone who's not used to this surface, he's not doing a bad job as I go from looking out of the side window, then the rear-three quarter, and after a full Exorcist neck 180, I'm looking out the back while the car is in second with the wheels scrambling for grip.

Direction change happens a very quickly in the Hybrid Function Hoon Vehicle (H.F.H.V.). The car's set up to be quite soft at the front, allowing for the weight to be transferred quickly and easily to loosen up the back and get the thing sideways. So with a stamp of the brake with his left foot and signature DC shoe, we're going the other way.

With smoke pouring into the cabin he eases off the gas, hits a button labeled ‘ALS' and opens the door to waft some welcome air in. He hasn't trumped. He needs to let the car cool down.

"There's not much airflow here, as the track's very slow" Ken says. "The car's getting hot very quickly in here, give it a minute". I realise this for two reasons: I'm sweating and I've just burnt my left calf on a scalding transmission tunnel.

A lap later he slams his door shut, hits the ALS button again. "What's that?" I ask. "Oh, that's the anti-lag system" he says with a smile. "It activates the anti-lag and puts the car in it's most aggressive engine map".

And Kenny B grabs his handbrake again (he does that a lot), puts full lock-on, and mashes his foot to the floor and holds it there.

Oh, Jesus. I'm in the well-known 650hp automotive spin-dryer that James May fell into. The g-forces rapidly increase so that you're smiling even if you don't want to. For the faint-hearted, this is when your internals escape into your pants and with the help of centrifugal force, are pinned to the doorcard.

We finish the spin-cycle and make our way past TopGear Live's Deadly 720 loop-the-loop. "Fancy taking your car round that?" I goad. "No. Not at all, that scares me. Everything I do is based on four-wheel-drive rally skills, whereas loops I don't really understand and they just scare me."

The car's hot again so Ken ends our run and I try and get some Gymkhana 6 info out of him - specifically where it'll be.

"The moon?!" he jokes, "I kind of screwed myself because I think we made Gymkhana 5 a bit too good, and we're going to have a hard time beating that one. Luckily I don't have to do anything until the middle of next year, so I have some time to think about it."

Maybe that's enough time to convince him to do a double loop. What do you think dot commers?

Tags: loop the loop, topgear live, gymkhana 5, gymkhana 6, ford, ken block

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