6 for 6: Antoine L’Estage caps perfect Canadian rally season with Tall Pines victory

Canadian rally racing star Antoine L’Estage put an exclamation mark on his remarkable 2014 season this weekend when he won the Rally of the Tall Pines at Bancroft, Ont., his sixth victory in six national events stretching back to last winter. It was a perfect season for L’Estage and marked the first time in the history of Canadian rallysport that a driver won every event on the schedule.

Antoine L'Estage Rally of the Tall Pines
Antoine L’Estage
Rally of the Tall Pines

L’Estage, of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and his co-driver, Alan Ockwell of Toronto, drove their Yokohama Canada Rally Team’s Mitsubishi to a decisive victory, winning by more than five minutes. The two attacked from the very first competitive stage of the event, suffering no difficulties despite their fast pace.

“It’s unbelievable,” L’Estage said after the final state. “To win all the rallies in one year has never been done before. We’ve done it with a low budget this year, and stretched everything this year. Thank you to Yokohama who stepped in to help with this season. We wouldn’t be here without them.”

Although there were two events remaining on the schedule, L’Estage clinched his seventh driver’s championship when he won the Pacific Forest Rally in October. Ockwell only joined L’Estage at the second rally of the year but their record since saw him secure his third co-driver’s national championship at the Tall Pines.

Alexandre Béland of Val d’Or, Que., and Philippe Poirier of St-Rédempteur, Que., finishing second. They only teamed up for this event recently and were immediately competitive following one short test session. Beland’s car, a Subaru Impreza STI known as “the Beast,” finished without any problems, although the rough roads around Bancroft destroyed tires and knocked parts of the cars of some competitors.

“It’s been a hard season with a good start to the year but a lot of bad luck later in the season,” said Béland, who wasn’t able to finish in his two previous attempts at the Tall Pines.

“To finish with a second place here is amazing. This rally is hard from the beginning to the end. There’s no point where you can say: ‘Okay, now we’ve done what we needed and we can relax.’ You have to go right to the end.”

The father-son team of Sylvain and Simon Vincent of Terrebonne, Que., finished third in a Subaru Imprezza. The rough roads and pressure of competing at the national level took a lot out of the 50-year-old Sylvain.

“It’s the most physically demanding rally, and the last time I did the full event was back in 2001,” he said. “It is so hard on the team in the car, racing over the jumps, and the g-forces in corners. Experience helps to know when to push, but I also don’t have the stamina of a young guy. I’m very tired, but I am very happy that we finished.”

American Will Hudson of San Francisco and co-driver John Hall of Sherwood Park, Alta., entered the rally hoping to finish and to gain experience. Hudson is a quick driver but has had difficulty finishing Canadian events previously. This time, however, they drove flawlessly, finishing fourth overall and first in the two-wheel-drive class.

“It was amazing,” said Hudson. “I’m thrilled. There are so many aspects to this rally that you have to be aware of all the time. The Hastings stages have these incredible crests where you just drop down into nothingness and you have to hope you end up in the right spot. They are so unique.”

According to organizers, 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.

Traditionally, the Rally of the Tall Pines is the final event in the Canadian Rally Championship. It runs over 192 kms of competitive special stages in one long day of racing. This year, dry conditions and sub-zero temperatures created a road surface that was both grippy and durable, with occasional short sections of ice. Tire choice was incredibly difficult as a result of trying to balance grip, speed and durability on a surface similar to frozen sandpaper.

Competitors are allowed a reconnaisance “lap” and one run-through before the rally takes place. During the reconnaisance stage, the co-driver takes copious notes to inform the driver of what’s around the next bend; their communication then must be refined during the run-through so that the driver and the co-driver are on the same page when it comes to the rally, which must be completed at top speed.

The Canadian Rally Championship is made up 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 a contingency program from Subaru Canada. The Canadian Association of Rallysport (CARS) is the official sanctioning body for rallying in Canada.