CUMBRIA, U.K. — The oak-paneled dining room of 17th-century English stately home may seem a strange place to be chatting about Ken Block, the finer points of building World Rally Cars and how to turn everything from Bentley Continental GTs to Jaguar I-Paces into race winners. Yet, just the other side of the wall, there’s a production facility lined with race and rally cars, plus the CNC machines, fabrication shops and engine prep areas to support them. And on a country estate with history stretching hundreds of years there’s now a freshly-built, FIA-spec test track hosting Focus STs and Ford GTs promoting the Ford Performance portfolio to attending journalists from across Europe.
The butlers and aristocrats who once frequented Dovenby Hall have long since moved on, the family silverware of old now replaced with motorsport trophies and cups while frames once bearing ancestral portraits now contain photos of rally winners spraying the champagne. It’s an eccentric juxtaposition current custodian and M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson is clearly proud of, his local roots inspiring the decision to repurpose this abandoned country pile into a cutting-edge motorsport facility, powering everything from Ken Block’s Gymkhana cars to Ford’s factory WRC effort.
Downton Abbey — the fictional country home represented by Highclere Castle in the film in theaters on Friday — reinforces the stereotype we all have of the classic English stately home. But many of these once-grand houses have been transformed in recent years. Some — like Goodwood —remain in family hands. Others have been turned into museums and tourist attractions. Others are now hotels, golf courses or conference centers. In the case of Dovenby it was bought by the local authority and used as a psychiatric hospital. When that closed Wilson stepped in, spotting an opportunity to create a center of high-tech engineering motorsport excellence distinct from rivals sucked in by the gravitational pull of Silverstone three hundred miles to the south. And you get the impression that’s the way an independently-minded guy like Wilson likes it.
You’d be surprised at the visitors Dovenby now entertains. In the workshop we see Ford factory WRC driver Elfyn Evans in discussion with the engineers building the Fiesta for his post-injury Rally GB comeback. And Block has been a regular visitor, Wilson spotting the mutually advantageous opportunity of a tie-up with Ford, powered by M-Sport’s engineering talents.
“We were trying to get Ken into one of our rally cars,” recalls Wilson, “and we made the introduction to Ford and got the benefit of running him in one of our cars, which developed into us supplying parts and expertise for the Fiesta rallycross cars.” The relationship blossomed, M-Sport’s long association with Ford (Wilson is a successful ex-factory driver himself) leading to them building the 2016 Focus rallycross car featured in Gymkhana Nine and Block visiting for shakedowns and the chance to immerse himself in the rally heritage modern Dovenby embodies. Ken’s wife Lucy even runs an M-Sport built Fiesta R2, bought for her as an anniversary present back in 2017.
“Ken’s passionate about Ford and rallying and anything we’ve ever done with him he’s been 100 percent,” says Wilson. “Working with him was a real eye-opener too. I remember we had him at a rally in Turkey and there was a queue for autographs stretching as far as the eye could see while Sebastien Loeb was all but ignored. I was amazed — rallying has been my life but I thought ‘hang on a minute, there’s something I’m missing here,’ and he’s been an incredible ambassador for us and Ford.”
M-Sport’s technical director Nigel Arnfield has also enjoyed the opportunity to turn the in-house expertise to new ends, Hoonigan Racing director Derek Dauncey’s previous life in WRC helping the collaboration no end. “It was nice to have the freedom,” says Arnfield. “In WRC cars we’re tightly regulated and chasing every single horsepower, but with the rallycross car you’ve got that much power and torque to play with, it’s like a sledgehammer to crack a nut!” The grin on his face says it all, likewise his admiration for the Hoonicorns, Hoonitrucks, RS200 and Escort Cosworths that have followed.
Enough to inspire a Downton Abbey/Gymkhana mash-up for Block’s next YouTube adventure? If that’s how it plays out remember where you read about it first!