► We ride with precision driver Ken Block
► A memorable ride from back in 2009
► Ken Block 1967-2023: sideways memories
‘Are you ready?’
I’m pretty sure that’s what the man said over the helmet intercom; but to be perfectly honest with you, my brain’s just a tiny bit fried right now, and I don’t recommend you quote me exactly.
Either way, he definitely didn’t say it in the manner of that Scottish geezer vaguely responsible for refereeing television’s Gladiators. It was more a kind of quiet inquiry. Spoken with a grin. Or maybe as a gentle warning – since I didn’t exactly get a chance to reply.
Obituary: Ken Block killed in a snowmobile accident
I’m on the infield side of Silverstone’s Copse tunnel, which, as you may know, dips under the circuit, flattens, then rises again. It’s very narrow – barely wide enough for a car to potter slowly either side of a central concrete and railing divider. But I’m strapped – multipoint harness, HANS device and all – into a stickered-up 2008 Subaru Impreza WRX STi punching out ‘a little over 400 horsepower’.
And the man to the left of me at the controls, the man who uttered that mildest of warnings; that man would be none other than Ken Block.
By this point, Block really shouldn’t need any introduction. He’s an internet legend. A modern motorsport hero – and just in case you are in any doubt, a seriously talented, event-winning rally driver. Not to mention modest, down to earth, and a decent bloke. Or, as he and his fellow Americans would say, dude.
Clearly none of this stops him from also being certifiably insane.
Antilag system engaged – I can tell this by the dymo-labelled toggle switch on the dashboard, the last thing I remember looking at before some seriously silly stuff starts happening beyond the windscreen – Block launches his Scooby-doo into the tunnel.
Do not believe anybody who says insanity isn’t catching. My maniacal giggling would have been louder, except the car accelerates so hard it’s actually difficult to go mad when you’re also struggling to breathe. Darkness as the tunnel flattens, light as the incline rises, Block momentarily lifts the throttle to trim the speed, and…
…we’re airborne. It feels like ages. Minutes – but maybe really not even seconds. I know from the photographs that the Impreza catches a good two or three feet of air, though to be brutally honest at the time I was thinking £$%@^*& hell, we’re going to land close to that barrier…! The car comes in at an angle – heavy, heavy on the left hand front side. But this is basically a WRC car without the engine restrictor plate – meaning it makes all that extra power – so the suspension just copes. It is incredible.
With barely a bounce we’re off – screaming down a short section of Silverstone tarmac in front of hundreds of baseball caps, all pressed up against the catch fencing, momentarily distracted from the cars and girls of Trax 09, an annual performance-slash-modifiying event. They’re all drawn by the allure of Ken Block.
He does not disappoint. This is a short gymkhana-style demo run, all in the name of promoting the Colin McRae: DiRT 2 video game, in which Block features, having also helped out with course design and physics realism. Realism isn’t something that seems to feature for me for the next few minutes, as Block handbrakes and powerslides his way around a bizarre but appropriate selection of obstacles – check the helterskelter, dodgem cars, Xbox 360-branded winnebago and, er, conspicuously large pile of what looks like sand.
I get a great look at the motorhome – in fact I could probably write it as an Autotrader listing. Long, white, a touch of green, and, oh yeah, mostly surrounded by smoke. Clearly Block measures the optimum number of revolutions per donut by the time it takes his Subaru to fill with vapourised rubber. The organisers’ bill for tyres must be huge.
Block opens his door on the cool down, mostly so we can have some slightly less arid and considerably more transparent air. He waves to the crowd. They go wild.
That sand? It’s packed earth – later in the day Block uses it to launch his Subaru over 60ft. Some way short of his own 171ft rally car jump record, but the first time he has ever performed this trick in the UK.
Colin McRae: DiRT 2 is out now for the Xbox 360. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to driving like the real thing. Click here for the official gaming site