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Ian Davies, MWRT Chief Mechanic: “You Will Never See One Of My Cars Wheeled Back In The Garage Broken”

Image via Ian Davies Motorsport Facebook

Ken Block is one of the most popular race drivers in the world nowadays, taking his Monster World Rally Team Ford Fiesta across the globe to compete in stage rallies, rallycross events, and gymkhana demonstrations. But every skilled driver has a similarly skilled mechanic backing him up; for Block, that mechanic is Ian Davies, who brings over 20 years of experience to the table in various forms of motorsport from World Rally to touring cars. On Tuesday, Davies chatted with us as the MWRT team crew began the process of readying Block’s car for Saturday’s Global Rallycross Championship event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:

Rallycross fans will know you best as chief mechanic for Ken Block, but he’s not your only client. Who else have you worked for in your career, and what are you up to when you’re not working with MWRT?

I do a lot of my work for M-Sport, the company that runs the world championship Ford program, so I’ve been with them for a considerable number of years now as a contract engineer. They’ve been sending me to South Africa and other places around the world doing jobs and it’s just the time I have to fill in between races. I looked after Henning Solberg for many years with as part of an M-Sport project, again, but I’ve also worked with Carlos Sainz, Marcus Gronholm, I worked with the late Colin McRae. I worked with all of these people, sort of as you do in the sport for different races. Recently in the last few years I’ve been working with Mohammed ben Sulayem, who’s an FIA vice president, and actually I engineered him for seven years before taking on Henning Solberg. What happens is, drivers leave the sport, contracts run out, and you get a new directive for a few years.  You know, things change over between clients and everything’s a one or two year contract.

You’ve been involved in a few stage rally victories with Ken and Alex Gelsomino this year, including Canada’s Rallyé Defi earlier in the month and Olympus Rally last week. You’ve also been a part of the silver-medal winning team at X Games. What has been your favorite achievement so far this year?

Image via Ken Block Facebook; Photo credit: Tony Harmer

I think the X Games was my favorite. Because a year ago, before X Games when we started the project, it was a little bit unique to build the hybrid car with the list of requirements that Ken had. It’s no secret we didn’t have the best of X Games in 2011 with some of the issues, the technical issues we had. And I think for us to go away in the last few months of 2011, sorting the spec of the car rates and going to win (Rally in the) 100 Acre Wood has been a major step forward for the team to get some reliability and consistency. And then to go to X Games this year and to get the silver medal I think will be the. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed last weekend—we beat David Higgins and the Subaru team in Olympus Rally, when there was no championship to go for. It was all everybody had, you know, the championship had already been sorted. So it was a straight shooting, fast weekend at Olympus Rally. To win that by four and a half minutes was a fantastic achievement. But for me personally, I think to go back and lay those ghosts to rest from the 2011 X Games. That silver medal, and on a puncture at the end… Sebastien Loeb is the greatest rally driver that the world has ever seen, and it’s no disgrace finishing second to him.

Ken has a reputation for driving all out, which I’m sure keeps you busy, but what’s it like working with him? What are some of his needs out of the car compared to some other drivers?

Image via Monster World Rally Team Facebook

Two of the most difficult things for me in the transition to working with Ken were one, understanding where the finance comes from, I think understanding the marketing. Ken markets himself and his team in a very unique way, which is why he’s been very successful, so for me understanding that everything that we do is filmed, every test session we do is filmed, has taken a little bit of getting used to. From a driving point of view, Ken is a very flamboyant driver. He likes to entertain the crowd. I think car setup wise, Ken would have the car oversteering all the time because that’s where the show comes from. But I think about balancing that show, coming back and trying to get a car that allows him to be flamboyant when necessary, but also to be very quick—I think about balancing that with Ken Block, which I wouldn’t have to (do) with some of the other drivers because they just want to go. Ken wants to race and win, he’s a very good racer, but he’s also very mindful of the show he puts on, if that makes sense.

You get to do some real fun stuff as part of MWRT, including Ken Block’s Gymkhana 5 video this year. How many of those videos have you been involved with? How long does a process like that take, and how often do you actually work on the car over the course of a video shoot like that?

Image via Ken Block Facebook

I did Gymkhana 4 and Gymkhana 5 because they’ve both been done with this car that I designed and built. One was done in the studios last year, and then San Francisco (this year). It’s sort of like doing any other motorsport race or event. On set, we arrive at four or five o’clock in the morning to rig the cameras, and filming normally starts at around eight o’clock. And then they will film a scene, and then there will be a break where either we move venues or reset the cameras. And we tend to do our normal service, the same as we would do in a rally, in that time. So whenever there’s a break, we will change tires, we will check the car, we will fix any body work that may have been damaged or a wheel that may have been bent, because we all know that you strike the occasional curb and do a bit of damage when you’re making these. They’re not quite as easy as most people think. And typically there are five days of filming, depending on if we don’t have many problems. But we do rebuild the car every single evening. When we stop, about seven, eight, nine, ten o’clock at night, we go back to the workshop, we strip the car out, we reshim the clutch, we do the things we need to make the car reliable again for the following day. It’s like doing any sort of race or rallycross or rally.

Different events require different setups, but do they require different parts as well? If so, what do you have to change on the Fiesta to go from a rally event to rallycross, and even to gymkhana?

Image via Ian Davies Motorsport Facebook

We’re actually doing that now. The car arrived from Olympus Rally (Monday) evening. So we’re in the garage here at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and we’re just embarking on our 48-hour changeover. So the radiator is moved from the front of the car and the cooling package goes into the rear of the car, where the spare wheel normally goes. We take in the air from the side of the car, and we have water lines that go underneath the car because they’re not allowed by regulation to go inside the car. Because of the air flow, or lack of air flow, in rallycross, we choose to put the radiator in the rear because the cooling efficiency is far greater than putting the radiator in the front, and also (with) the touching and banging that goes on, it’s much safer inside the car than what it would be in the front. The suspension, we have different shock absorbers, different springs, different arms, and some different bracketry to the bottom of the uprights to change the roll centers. Also we take the co-driver’s seat out of the car, we take out the jacks, we take out the spare wheel, most stuff that we would normally use for stage rally. So it’s about a—it can be changed over in about 24 hours, one working day is what we take for four people to swap it over. But we’re also rebuilding after the stage rally, so we’ve got to go from one to the other and swap back again.

One of the things that we’ve noticed over the course of the year is that the Fiestas seem to be the strongest cars in the series. What about them is so well suited for rallycross?

I think the engine’s very good. I think the two liter Durotec engine that we use is a very good base engine. And I think that’s the first thing that makes a huge difference, having a good base car. It’s quite a small car in the way it’s packaged, so it’s quite nimble. If you look at some of the other cars, like the Dodge Dart for example, it’s a much bigger body than we have. So it makes the car a lot less nimble. Travis did win in New Hampshire, but as a general rule the Fiesta is a very nimble car and the Durotec engine is very strong.

Photo credit: Matthew Kalish

The MWRT crew has had to do some heroic repair jobs during GRC events to keep Ken on track this year, with the most impressive one coming at New Hampshire after the heat incident. What was broken on the car, and what were you able to fix between your heat and the final?

(From the end of the heat) we had six minutes if we were to make the last chance qualifier. There were no fenders left at all, they were smashed. The front bumper was smashes, the hood was smashed, the windshield was smashed, and there was a little bit of suspension damage to the front. (But) we’re rally guys. It’s sometimes not pretty, yeah there’s a lot of duct tape, (but) we carry a plastic windshield. It’s a matter of getting out the build conventions, cutting it out quite quickly. It’s all very crude—you might have seen one of our mechanics inside in the drivers’ seat, kicking out the windshield with his feet, getting it out the quickest way possible. And we got the car fixed up and patched up, and as long as the wheels turn in the right direction, then we have to qualify. And at the end of the day, Ken got fifth in New Hampshire, and got some points. Had we had a better start to the season, who knows where those few points may have led us? You will never see one of my cars wheeled back in the garage as a broken car. We will always, always try to fix it on the track and get Ken back out. And we always work and plan for that.

Is it frustrating as a mechanic to have so little time to work on the car when the GRC races themselves start?

Image via Ian Davies Motorsport Facebook

It’s like any motorsport event—you need to adjust. We go to rally and we get 20, 30, or 40 minutes the fix the car, whatever the schedule is. In Global Rallycross, if you’re in the first heat and there’s a problem and you go into the last chance qualifier, you get 40, 45 minutes, it can even be an hour. If you’re in the last heat and something goes wrong, you have six minutes. A little bit is the luck of the draw, we all know that, and we all work to those rules and regulations. It’s also very important for Global Rallycross to keep a compact event. Yeah, we have a stadium mentality. We have people watching, they need to be excited, they need to see the sport in its raw element. But it must happen quickly, and I think that’s part of the interest. I believe that what Global Rallycross is doing is fantastic. Sport in the United States certainly needs what we’re doing here. (Sometimes) you’ve got six, ten minutes, but hey, you know? We work with that.

Finally, the biggest schedule-related news out of the series came very recently when the GRC announced that it would be going to SEMA at the end of October. As mechanics, are you and the MWRT crew especially looking forward to racing at a car show like that?

Everybody is massively excited about going to SEMA. And it’ll be a great platform for our sport, with all the people there, and every person selling something at that SEMA show or showing something is a potential sponsor. As mechanics, all the guys are taking holidays after the race because they want to stay on, actually look at SEMA and spend some time here. So (for) the mechanics, it’s very exciting. You know, SEMA’s a big name around the world, because in the UK, the majority of us are from Europe, the work team, and it’s not really feasible for those guys to pay for a ticket and go to the SEMA show. But we’re here and there’s a race on, so we are very excited about the prospect of the two mixing.

– Chris Leone

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Comments

  1. That’s so interesting the life of a racing mechanic! It seems quite a bit different to your everyday mechanics, as you have to work in a high pressure environment to get those cars back out racing! Good job guys 🙂

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