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Ian Davies: “Even A Few Tenths During Qualifying Matter”

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

Monster World Rally Team chief mechanic Ian Davies has been keeping busy in the month between Global Rallycross Championship races, both visiting Monster Energy-sanctioned events and dealing with Ford’s withdrawal from the World Rally Championship and his other employers at M-Sport. While he awaited the arrival of driver Ken Block at SEMA from a Gymkhana Grid event over in Europe yesterday, he took the time to talk to us about last month’s race at Las Vegas, setting up the car for the new track, and shed some light into what his commitments will look like in 2013:

After all of the issues at New Hampshire, you guys came right out of the box strong at Vegas by qualifying second and winning the heat race, your first heat win of the season, when Andreas Eriksson spun in the final corner. How important was it to simply make it out of the heat intact after Loudon, and how satisfying was it to take the heat win?

It was very good—it was almost like clockwork right up until the final. The main thing is to try and use your car as little as possible during one of these weekends, so you save your tires, you save your engine life. Our speed was good, our starts were good, again it all went very well for us right up until we went into the first corner in the final. That was a different story.

How much of an advantage is it to be in one of the earlier heat races, take the win, and have extra time to work with the car before lining up for the final?

Oh, it’s a huge advantage! You’re suddenly in control, you’re not playing catch-up all the time. This way, you can have 20 minutes to work on your car, you have a minute to work on your fuel loading, you’re just in control. The whole pit area, the garage, is calm, everybody knows what they’re doing. And you’re looking at other people who are having the nightmares that you normally have, trying to get in the last chance qualifier. Certainly, (we had) the whole calm process of what we did in Las Vegas, having more time. When you’re on a back foot, instead you’re doing catch-up all the time.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

There was a little bit of carnage at the start of the main event, and Ken came out in the back of it. How much work did Ken leave you with when you got the car back at the end of the race?

There was enough damage… we had to go to the body shop and pull out the back panel, that ended up being pushed in. (We) damaged the exhaust system, the back end of the car was a bit out of alignment. So there was enough damage. It wasn’t (too much), but it was enough damage to put right immediately after the event. It’s a semi-contact sport—it’s not supposed to be a contact sport, but we’d be naive to say it was a non-contact sport. And I think you’ve just got a pack of cars—if you look at the slow-motion camera, at the start line, Ken was first off, and he made a move on Tanner (Foust). And (Brian) Deegan comes in, and it’s just a big squeeze. I think it’s a shame, he got hit from behind, but that’s the track. You’ve got to get off the line and get out of trouble.

I think we had a slight gear selection problem during qualifying, where on our best run the gear cost us a few tenths. It would have put us on pole. Again, it shows the importance of being on the inside, of being on pole, the line that Tanner had. Because there was a lesson that we will take away from that—it is that even a few tenths during qualifying matter. I think we were a tenth or two tenths off pole, which put us off the left hand side of the grid.

Moving on to the race in a couple of days, what are your thoughts on the layout of the SEMA course? Have you made any sort of changes to the car to better suit the addition of more dirt?

Yes, we’re actually still working on the car. Ken’s not here until (Monday) so we won’t use the free practice (Sunday). But yes, we’re a rally team, so we’re not afraid of dirt. Dirt is our thing, we like dirt. So yeah, we adapt to a different suspension setup, a different damper setup, a different spring.

During the next day or so, qualifying and free practice, you sort of work out where the time is won or lost, what your best time is on the gravel section and what your best time is on the dirt section. Sometimes you’re better off setting up the car for the asphalt or tarmac section, because you can make up more time that way, and just letting the dirt the way it goes. Other times it can be a massive advantage in the dirt for you, so you’ll put up with things on the tarmac in order to get good drive on the dirt. The main thing is the dirt is towards the end of the track, so off the start line into the first corner, turn one into turn two and maybe turn three—turn one’s a 90, (then there’s) a hairpin where you come back on yourself and come back on the dirt—it’s looking like we’ll be biased more to the asphalt section for this race. But if you can get the car to do you what you want on the dirt, your chances of overtaking somebody on the inside are far greater.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

The Fiesta has been one of the most consistent cars on track all year. It’s guaranteed to score the top two spots in the title and Ken has a good chance at taking third. Is sweeping the top three spots in the championship for Ford a priority?

I think our priority this weekend has to be getting that extra point we need to get in front of (Samuel) Hubinette to be on the podium, to make it a Ford 1-2-3. I think, should we get on the podium this weekend—or should we gain the points to be third in the championship, let’s not say get third on the podium—then we will not have had a bad rookie season in rallycross. We didn’t have the best of starts, we got to learn a lot, our car has improved massively, and we know we can put it on the front row of the grid. But it’s just a bit of racing. If you stay out of trouble, get a third or fourth place—look at the Subaru, they’ve done a tremendous job this year, coming from nowhere and getting on the podium in the last race. And the situation in New Hampshire, where Travis won out of nowhere. Rallycross is unpredictable in that respect. But our priority this weekend will be, I’m sure, getting that extra point or two points needed to get in front of Hubinette in the championship.

The GRC season ends Tuesday, leading into the rest of the SEMA Show. I know you’ve said that most of the team is sticking around for that, but what else is on your calendar for the rest of the year? Will you be at the WRC season finale in Spain, and are you following Ken around anywhere?

No, I regret to say that my year is basically done when we finish here. But you have to understand that rally season probably starts again at the end of January, possibly in the United States, so we have cars to rebuild and lots of other projects to sort of complete during the winter. And Christmas in Europe will probably take two, three weeks out of the calendar. I will be looking to be back in the United States in the middle of January for rebuild, for upgrade, and for testing of next year’s rally program. So we’ve sort of got a month or six weeks back home—engines to rebuild, transmissions to rebuild, we’re busy enough at the moment.

I’m sure we’re just waiting for the calendars for next year. I think everyone’s sort of waiting for calendars around SEMA Show, and then Ken will sit down and decide what they want to do. But I think that they want to do some of the American rally championship stuff more next year, so the rest of our year will be to get the car ready for the start of next season.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

Have you given any thought to the 2013 season yet? Do you have any indication as to where GRC is headed and when, and does that affect any other commitments for the Monster World Rally Team?

It’s up to people much higher up the food chain than me to decide what we do next year. I think Ken and his management team sit down with the sponsors and they decide where their priorities will be and what they want to do. As far as I’m concerned, my priority is to work on Ken’s cars to make them more competitive in both rally and rallycross for next season. We’ve been usually dominant in the rallies that we’ve been in the United States this year, but we still have a few upgrades that we need to do to make some of the components a bit more reliable. So we intend to do that for next season in rallying.

I’ll be doing rallycross car designs with my thoughts and changes for next season. And I think when Ken comes back to the sponsorship meetings they’ll decide exactly what we’re going to do with rallycross and what they wish to have prepared—to rebuild this car, to build a new car for GRC, that’s up to them—that kind of point of view of getting the design and having the consultation on what we get rid of for next season, what our priorities will be, to make our car even more competitive.

I think it’s going to be the next three weeks to four weeks with our technical partners in deciding what we can do… looking at a lot of video footage, seeing which suspension to go with next season, talking to our electronics people about new products on the market that they want to display inside the vehicle. It’s that sort of time of year, if that makes sense.

Image via M-Sport Facebook

Finally, much has been made of Ford shifting its factory participation out of the WRC and likely into rallycross. You work in both forms, but in particular you’ve been with M-Sport, who are affected by the shift, for a long time. What are your thoughts about that decision?

No it doesn’t. I mean, it’s important, the situation with Ford and M-Sport, but actually when you get to see the closure of the factory in Kent where they laid 4,300 people off, in the UK where there’s 4,170 people left, you can see why Ford couldn’t justify the continuation of a rally car program which is mainly based in Europe, where they’re closing those factories and laying those workers off. From a Ford point of view, Ford have actually ended the sponsorship part of its program with M-Sport as I understand, but its technical partnership continues. So from a technical point of view, Ford will still give M-Sport assistance in a lot of areas, with homologation of vehicles, parts, and design work.

From my point, my relationship is probably with M-Sport more than Ford. I’ve had several meetings with them in the past couple of weeks, and they’ve shown more interest certainly in rallycross in Europe as well. And I think that now their perspective has to shift a little bit in terms of World Rally, it’s probably not their absolute priority, but I think from a rallycross perspective, we will benefit in the next 12 months. But next we have a little bit more time on our hands looking for a slightly different direction for that company.

– Chris Leone

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