Rallye de Quebec preview

QUEBEC CITY, Que. (Jan. 24/2001) - Tom McGeer begins defence of his Canadian rally driving championship this weekend at the Rallye de Quebec, but he faces a formidable foe in <B>Frank Sprongl, who has never been beaten here. McGeer won...

QUEBEC CITY, Que. (Jan. 24/2001) - Tom McGeer begins defence of his Canadian rally driving championship this weekend at the Rallye de Quebec, but he faces a formidable foe in <B>Frank Sprongl, who has never been beaten here.

McGeer won five of eight events in 2000 on his way to his fourth title in the Subaru Canadian Rally Championship, presented by Yokohama. But he has never won the season-opener at Quebec City; indeed, nobody but Sprongl ever has. Sprongl has seven straight victories since this event's introduction in 1994.

A year ago, Sprongl finished almost six minutes ahead of second-placed McGeer, but the 33-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., is not quite as confident going into the 2001 rally - in part because he will be driving a strange car.

The Audi Quattro S2 which carried him to those seven Quebec wins had its motor expire at an event in Alberta last May and he has been unable to repair it. He sat out most of the remaining rallies in 2000. For this event only, he has rented a 1985 Audi Quattro Coupe from renowned U.S. rallyist Bruno Kreibich.

The older Quattro Coupe has slightly less power than his regular Quattro S2, but Sprongl does not think that will be too much of a handicap on snow and ice. Despite the car's age, he said, "It should handle almost the same [as the S2] and I think it's still capable of winning if I can drive it fast enough."

Sprongl, who has brother Dan as his navigator, is a six-time Canadian driving champion, but he is not chasing the title this year. He plans to run only a few of the eight rallies in the series and that takes the pressure off.

"I'm just going to go out and have fun," he said. "I always enjoy snow and ice and I've got nothing more to prove on this event. I will either win it or end up in the snowbanks."

McGeer, 40, of Georgetown, Ont., will be back in the Subaru Impreza WRX that carried him to last year's championship. As he goes after a fifth national title, he will again have U.S. competitor Mark Williams as his navigator.

One of his chief rivals for the 2001 championship is expected to be Toronto's Keith Townsend in a Mitsubishi Lancer prepared by the Sprongl brothers. He was a close second to McGeer in last year's season-ending Rally of the Tall Pines. "I predict the championship will be between Keith and Tom," said Sprongl.

The Rallye de Quebec, which coincides with Quebec City's annual Carnaval celebrations, begins on Friday evening (Jan. 26). Sixty cars are entered.

The first of 16 special stages - the competitive portions of the rally, held on roads temporarily closed to the public - will be at 8.45 p.m. on Friday at the historic Plains of Abraham. Four further stages will be held that night in Quebec City and neighboring Sainte-Foy.

On Saturday, competitors will head northwest for a series of nine stages, mostly on forest roads in the Portneuf region. The rally will conclude that evening with two stages around the Hippodrome horse-racing track in Quebec City, starting at 10 p.m.

The special stages cover about 160 kilometres, out of a total rally distance of 500 kilometres.

As well as Sprongl, McGeer and Townsend, other notable entries include past champion Jean-Paul Perusse, of Laval, Que. He was the Canadian titlist in 1975 and 1976, but has not rallied regularly since the 1980s. Indeed, this will be just his second start since 1988. He will be driving a Volkswagen Golf.

Sylvain Erickson, of Gatineau, Que., a top contender in the mid-1990s, is also making a comeback after a four-year absence. He will drive a Mitsubishi Lancer in the new "Group N" class (derived from a World Rally Championship division). He will be up against Jean-Sebastien Besner, of Montreal, also in a Lancer.

Popular Quebec TV personality and veteran road racer Didier Schraenen, of Mont St-Hilaire, will be making a rare rally appearance. The two-time Canadian Formula Ford champion will be at the wheel of a Subaru Impreza, with Jean-Marc Alcaraz - usually a driver - as his navigator.

Marc-Antoine Camirand, another Quebec driver better known for his exploits on race tracks rather than back roads, will make his rally debut in a BMW. The 21-year-old from Trois-Rivieres was Canada's youngest Formula Ford champion in 1997 and has since raced Formula 2000 and Toyota Atlantic, mostly in the U.S.

Perusse, Schraenen and Camirand are expected to contest only the two Quebec winter rallies - this one and the Rallye Perce-Neige Maniwaki two weeks later - but Erickson and Besner will likely run the full season.

-CARS

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Series Other rally
Drivers Marc-Antoine Camirand , Didier Schraenen , Sylvain Erickson , Jean-Paul Pérusse , Frank Sprongl , Tom McGeer , Keith Townsend , Mark Williams
Teams Williams