Evan J. Smith
Freelancer
February 16, 2016

Ken Block, rally driver and Gymkhana superstar has infected automotive enthusiasts with an unrivaled energy that explodes with pure driving adrenaline. Block’s exploits are known worldwide from his popular YouTube videos and for his competition rally driving. Block’s car control is considered legendary, and recently we had the chance to find out first hand when we caught a ride with Ken Block in a brand-new 2016 Focus RS at the recent 45th Anniversary Scottsdale Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction.

Block was in Scottsdale to help Ford sell a 2016 Focus RS, which ultimately sold for $550,000 and benefited the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). Ford told us the winner of the auction will receive the very last production 2016 Focus RS and it will be delivered in Magnetic, a color not normally offered in North America on the RS. “It will be the only one in North American,” stated Matt Sylvester, assistant marketing manager Ford Focus and marketing manager RS.

“This is actually the first time I’ve been involved in a production car,” Block told us. “All the testing and development I have done in the past has been with race cars. As a race car driver, we’re always trying to develop the race car and there’s a certain way we do that with testing. But this is the first time for me being involved with a production car from beginning to end. I was around to push the concept from way back in the beginning three or four years ago, which was to make the RS all-wheel drive,” Block explained. “Once they approved the car with the all-wheel-drive system, I consulted on what they thought was important and what they wanted to focus on as far as performance, looks and all that. And then, once the car got going in the testing phase, I did three different tests. One in Belgium, one in Germany, and one in Detroit.

We asked Block if it was all about racing, or if he had performance enthusiast in mind during the testing? “So I got in the car, drove as hard as I could for a couple of days and gave them all the feedback on what worked and what didn’t work. It was really amazing, a really cool experience and I hope I get to do it again in a couple of years.

“That’s the thing with a production car, especially a car [like the RS] where you have different settings. You have to think about if someone can drive at the level that I can, plus we also have to think through what the average person [can do] once he gets in the car and tries to push the car hard. It’s important to know how it will react. And how can we make it so it’s a bit more friendly so that a person doesn’t put themselves in a bad situation,” he added. “It’s really quite a different mindset, more of a dynamic mindset. It was one of those exercises I really enjoyed.”

So, exactly what kind of testing did Block do? “We tested on sort of open tarmac, we tested on wet test tracks, and dry test tracks. Most of it was all quite curvy. It’s built for having fun on twisty mountain roads or twisty country roads. That’s where that car really shines.”

And there are thousands of enthusiasts who can’t wait to eat up a corner with the Focus RS. “What’s been interesting is that even though we haven’t offered [the Focus RS] here before, it still has a huge following in the United States with people who are interested in World Rally and Rallycross. The following is even bigger in Europe,” said Sylvester. “So what we’ve done is built off that European heritage and we leveraged the people who’ve been enthusiasts in the brand in the US, even though it’s not available yet. And we’ve continued to build on this rich history of Focus RS and the RS badge to build buzz and promote the vehicle, which has been really successful. Ken Block was brought on early to help with the calibration of the all-wheel-drive system and work really closely with the engineers.

“When it comes down to it, this is a performance vehicle and it needs to drive like a performance vehicle, so you have a race car driver who is the best person we could have on the team to tell us how this thing should handle, drive, and feel—regardless of whether you’re on the road, track, or using it as your daily driver. And of course he’s been promoting it since we launched it last year at the New York Auto Show. He’s a huge advocate for the brand and wants us to be successful.

Ultimately, Ford will deliver a complete package, unlike any other performance car that precedes it. “Well, they’ve done a very nice job with a good-looking package on the exterior, the interior’s really quite nice, the engine is a newly developed 340-350 horsepower engine that’s got quite a bit of pep to it,” Block explained. “But the biggest thing for me it the all-wheel-drive system and the driving modes. The AWD system really gets you traction everywhere. With the torque vectoring you can come out of most any corner on throttle and the car will pull you around very quickly and very cleanly. With the driving modes you can put it into a track mode, which stiffens it up, and gets you even more traction, or the drift mode, which will actually let the car oversteer to a certain degree, and then it controls that oversteer around the corner. There are very nice features, but for me you have these different driving modes and the set up is incredibly fun, that’s what really sells me.

We were curious if there were any difference in sliding an all-wheel drive car as compared to a rear-wheel driver, so Block laid it out for us. “Driving an AWD car in a slide is similar to a rear-wheel drive car, but the front wheels are spinning to so the car is actually a bit more controllable. You really have to throw it in there quite hard to get it to get an AWD car to slide, and then once it starts sliding if you counter-steer too quickly or too early the thing will instantly straighten out. That’s because the front wheels are spinning and pulling you through. When we’re racing, a lot of time when you get the car in a slide, you actually turn the wheels back to center and then control the slide with the throttle and the brake. It’s a bit different, it takes bit more commitment because don’t have to counter-steer and control the front wheels as much as you do with a rear-wheel drive car.

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Block was just as enthusiastic when he spoke about the JDRF and the charity Focus RS. “I really enjoy working with Ford because they are always finding ways to give back to the community—especially through charities. This is the third car that I’ve been involved with in the past year for JDRF. It’s cool to come out and be a part of this process here, and help promote the car and the sale and through Ford have it benefiting a very good charity. I genuinely enjoy that, because I try to do as much as possible to help with various charities that I’m involved with. So doing that with Ford has been a great process and it’s great that one of my biggest sponsors is involved in that sort of thing.”

Along with Block and Sylvester, we also spoke with Gael Sandoval, of the Ford Global Action Team. Sandoval is deeply involved with the JDRF, especially as it relates to Ford. “Ford Motor Company's involvement with JDRF began in 1983. The employee-driven group, the Ford Global Action Team, was established in 1998, with Edsel B. Ford II as the Corporate Team Chair,” she said. “It was created after Edsel’s son Albert was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes. Mr. Ford continues to lead the effort in honor of his son, Albert, who has been living with type 1 diabetes for 19 years.”

Amazingly, back in 1998, the Ford Global Action Team raised over $180,000 for JDRF at three sites in Southeast Michigan. One year later they raised over $760,000 at 11 sites. Today the team has grown to more than 90 fundraising teams in 35 sites in 11 countries on 4 continents raising over $4.5 million in 2015.

“Since 1998, over $55 million has been raised through the Ford Global Action Team and its creative fundraising initiatives like parking spot raffles, auctions, job-switch drawings, sneaker sales, jeans days, bake sales, dunk tanks, golf tournaments, and JDRF One Walk donations and family walk team sponsorships,” said Sandoval. “Ford Motor Company employees and families are passionate, committed and generous and will not stop this effort until a cure is found.”