ANTOINE L'ESTAGE OVER COMES CONDITIONS TO DOMINATE RALLYE PERCE NEIGE
MANIWAKI, QUEBEC, FEBRUARY 5 , 2011 Antoine L'Estage (Ste-Jean-sur-Richelieu, QC) and Nathalie Richard (Halifax) of the Rockstar Mitsubishi team opened the 2011 Canadian Rally Championship with a definitive win at the Rallye Perce Neige. Canada's only true winter rally, the Rallye Perce Neige is also one of the longest, with more than 200kms of competitive stages covered in just one day of racing.
Teams started from downtown Maniwaki in the morning, running two in-town stages before heading into the forest roads west of town. Short and fast, the in-town stages rarely present an opportunity to win an event, but ample chance to lose.
Subaru Rally Team Canada driver Pat Richard (Squamish, BC) and stand in co-driver Leanne Junnila (Calgary) were the first team to tackle the stages in their Subaru Impreza STI. Attacking right from the start, they set the pace to beat for rivals L'Estage and Nathalie Richard in the Rockstar Mitsubishi. Both drivers hold multiple national titles, and after eight stages, the two teams were separated by less than one second.
"Running first on the road can be really hard, but maybe Pat had the right tire choice" said L'Estage, referring to the Subaru driver's choice of his Yokohama snow tires heading into a midday stage. Conditions were a difficult mix of snow and ice, and start order played heavily into what tires would work best.
A timing error arriving at the first service resulted in a one minute penalty for the Subaru team, who broke a wheel a few stages later, losing a massive seven minutes while replacing the wheel. Taking a gamble on tire choice, Richard hoped to make up some time to get back into a points scoring position, vital in his hunt for the 2011 Canadian Rally Championship title.
"I can't make the same choice as Antoine because we're so closely matched, we'll get similar times To make up any time I need to gamble on tire choice and try something different," said Richard.
With the pressure off, 2010 Canadian, North American and Rally America champion L'Estage was finding it challenging to drive at the correct pace to keep his first place position secure. "I have to find the right rhythm. I can't go too fast and make mistakes, but it can be harder to keep focus when you slow down."
Further down the order, a battle was shaping up for the other podium positions. Bruno Carre and Yvan Joyal (Laval, QC) drove cleanly and smoothly all day, a style that earned the team their first National win at this event in 2010. The team finished second, nearly 30 seconds ahead of third place.
"It's a great feeling, and our approach was similar to last year," said Carre at the finish. "We tried hard to keep out of trouble, and that paid off."
Swap Shop teammate Craig Henderson (Saint Constant, QC) and co-driver Peter Watt (Peterborough, ON) were struggling to find the right pace and were uncharacteristically further down the order, making space for 2010 Canadian Novice Champion Ugo Desgreniers (Orford, QC) and Erik Kirby (Sherbrooke, QC) to move up the leaderboard, in turn battling with "Crazy" Leo Urlichich (Toronto) and Martin Headland (Caledon, ON). In the final stages, Desgreniers moved into a comfortable third after Urlichich drove off the road. For Desgreniers, the result is a career best, and one year anniversary of the his first rally finish.
"It wasn't a perfect rally," said Desgreniers. "The shifter broke and we had to drive with just a short piece sticking up from the gearbox until we could fix it. I'm so happy for the result, it's amazing to have come so far in just one year."
Richard and Junnila finished just off the podium in fourth place.
"It's not what we wanted, and was a tough event, but still, there's no excuses," said a frustrated Richard after the rally. "I had a four minute gap to make up to get to the podium, and we made up about three minutes in two stages, but it wasn't enough."
Road conditions were especially tough for the two wheel drive teams. Covered in slick ice, the roads made for slow progress and rough sections also took a toll on the cars. Just one team, Jan and Jody Zedril (Winnipeg) finished in their two wheel drive Mitsubishi. The brothers managed their pace carefully through the entire event, showing why they are reigning champions.
"This event was so much about survival, just getting to the end." said Jan. "Once we knew that we were the only 2WD car left, we slowed down to make sure we would finish."
Interim rally coordinator Terry Epp was very positive about the event, where remote locations and limited communications prove very challenging for organizers. The event has a 46 year history and the reputation of being a marathon event, demanding of teams and volunteers alike.
"We've been in a rebuilding process for this event, trying to ensure it has a long future. I'm happy to say that the rally ran extremely well this year and is good hands moving forward."
The 2011 season continues May 26-27, at the Rocky Mountain Rally, headquartered in Calgary. Though the event has been changed for this season, it still features the high mountain roads and unpredictable conditions that make the event so compelling.
The Canadian Rally Championship is comprised of six events held nationwide in a season that extends from February to November. The series is presented by Subaru Canada, supported by Yokohama Tire Canada and features contingency programs from Subaru Canada and Mitsubishi Canada. The Canadian Association of Rallysport (CARS) is the official sanctioning body for rallying in Canada. Rally car racing is often described simply as "real cars, real roads, real fast." The all-season motorsport sees drivers and their co-drivers take modified road cars to the limit as they achieve blistering speeds over closed-road courses that typically cover more than 150 kilometers of gravel, dirt or snow-covered roads. Fans can get up close to the cars in the service areas and catch all the action from specially designated spectator points located at the best spots on the route.