Earlier this week we reviewed the Focus RS, Ford’s hottest hatch and the best performance car to come from the Blue Oval in quite some time. Unlike RS Fords past, the Focus RS wasn’t built to satisfy the homologation requirements of a particular racing series. But it turns out there is a competition version, developed in a partnership between Ford Performance, the UK’s M-Sport, and Ken Block’s Hoonigan Racing outfit. Meet the Ford Focus RS RX.
The Focus RS RX competes in the FIA World Rallycross Championship, a series similar to the Red Bull Global Rallycross, although the former is concentrated in Europe as opposed to the US. To find out more about the Focus RS RX, we spoke with Ford Performance Motorsports Supervisor Brian Novak, who happens to be a huge old-school computer nerd and Ars reader.
Ford has been competing in Global Rallycross with a Ford Fiesta—the car we rode in back in July at Red Bull’s round in Washington, DC. But the Focus RS RX is all-new. Novak told us:
We’ve taken a lot of what we learned with the Fiesta and put it into this car. But in reality the suspension design’s very different. The engine is bespoke to the RS—it’s a new design engine we worked on with M-Sport—you can call it an upgrade on that Fiesta package. It is its own beast. In this case it’s a clean sheet design.
The Focus RS RX starts life on the same production line as the RS road car in Ford’s Saarlouis plant in Germany. The RX begins as a body-in-white before being heavily modified. “It’s a very specialized car, but that’s something we find important to the RS brand—it’s there to go racing, to get speeding tickets,” Novak said, referring to my misadventure in the RS on the way to racetrack at Monticello, NY.
“The RX is specific to the sport and very high-tech compared to the street car. We felt it was time that we could tie that in to the world product. It’s something we’re very big into at Ford Performance—that tie in with our engineering expertise,” he said. For starters, a lot of the road car’s weight is taken out of the racing version, although the addition of a roll cage adds some of that back in. “That adds in a lot of the structural rigidity that you might remove with light-weighting the body,” Novak told us.
The suspension design is also different from the road car. The front strut setup is gone, and the RX uses a “short long arms” (double wishbone) suspension front and rear. And the clever torque-vectoring drivetrain is also ditched. “The way the rules are written in rallycross you’re not allowed to have any sort of active systems like torque vectoring,” explained Novak. “So it’s got a traditional diff in the back but you’re not allowed any active control. Rudimentary is the wrong word but it’s a more simple system. That system also couldn’t handle the amount of torque in this car.”
In order to put out almost double the power of the road car’s engine, the RX’s power plant is also quite different. Novak said:
The interesting thing about rallycross, and one of the reasons we really like it, is that the rules are quite open, so if you want to build your own block out of billet you can go and do it. You’re at the point where the motors don’t last that long. You’re only allowed three motors per season, but there’s not a lot of hours on each one. We don’t call them grenades, but they’re so highly strung because of the amount of horsepower you’re putting out of a two-liter engine. In our case it’s a production-derived Ford block.
Because it’s based on a production engine block, power output is constrained by a 45mm air restrictor . “If you made your own block out of billet you have to use a smaller restrictor,” Novak said. That extra power means extra cooling, which in part explains the outrageous styling. The radiator has been moved to the back of the car, so all the clean air that gets sucked in at the front just has to feed the engine’s intercooler. “Then just a significant amount of work on all the ducting [to route air to various parts that need cooling] goes along with that to ensure we have the lowest drag and the cleanest flow going to all those parts,” he said.
While downforce isn’t exactly ignored, it’s a less important consideration for the short rallycross tracks, not to mention that rallycross cars spend a lot of time traveling at extreme slip angles compared to road-racing machines like the Ford GT Le Mans racer.
As a true racing car nerd, Novak favorite part of the RS RX is probably its optimization over the street car.
Every little thing you do on a race car has some effect on the endgame of how the car’s going to handle and perform in a race. So the minute differences of trying to drop the engine a centimeter lower in the car to lower the center of gravity in the car is huge. We continue to do that, and that always has knock-on effects; maybe you have to redesign the steering system or the steering gear, or machine out some gaps in things so everything fits and meshes around each other.
That attention to detail goes into everything—how do you position the driver in the car, how do you position the hand controls—for shifting, for the handbrake—so the driver minimizes the amount of time he spends transitioning between the two. Those minutest details all go into making a winning car. And that’s the biggest thing that gets me going about the car—how optimized it is for rallycross competition.
Novak was justifiably proud of how quickly he and his team were able to get the car to its first race.
The car was essentially done in nine months. That was the biggest challenge. In reality we went to the first race without testing the car—we went to a small track on the way to the event and got a couple of shakedown runs in, but Andreas ended up winning the first heat he was in, and we finished fourth that weekend. We couldn’t ask for a better debut for a racecar.
Right now only two Focus RS RXs exist, one for Ken Block and another for his teammate Andreas Bakkerud. They are under strict instructions not to destroy them. If you want to see the RXs in action you’ll have more luck if you’re based in Europe, but Novak couldn’t rule out the possibility of future appearances in the US-based Red Bull series in the coming years. Fingers crossed that happens!
Listing image by Ford