Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard dominated the 2010 Rocky Mountain Rally from start to finish. After opening a massive lead in the first three stages of the event, the team continued to put time on their competition, eventually winning the rally in a total time of one hour, 11 minutes, 48.8 seconds, more than two minutes ahead of their closest rival.
“It’s awesome, I am very happy,” said L’Estage at the finish of the rally. “We’d had some bad luck last year, and we hadn’t won an event since Rallye Defi last September.”
The pair have earned a number of strong finishes in the Rally America season, taking a firm hold of the points standings in the U.S. series, though a DNF at the Canadian season opener makes this win critical for the Canadian Rally Championship.
Second place went to Pat Richard and Alan Ockwell. The two suffered from a poor tire choice early in the rally and chose to gamble this morning, taking gravel tires, while L’Estage opted for snow tires. The hope was for conditions that would favour the harder gravel tires, but they meant a big sacrifice in traction on snow and ice. The strategy dropped Richard and Ockwell to third place before they were able to claw back time in the final stages.
“The roads were super haywire this morning,” said Richard. “I had to take a gamble on the tires and take something different than Antoine to try to make time. It didn’t work.”
For Richard, this is his first second place finish in a long time. “I don’t think I can even remember when I last finished second.”
Bruno Carre, labelled a dark horse after winning the Rallye Perce Neige in February, was an unknown quantity coming into the Rocky Mountain Rally. Last year, he and co-driver Yvan Joyal crashed heavily during the second day of action. This year was very different as the pair drove to a stellar third place finish. Taking a narrow deep-snow tire, Carre found the secret weapon for the very treacherous road conditions.
“I am very happy with the result,” said Carre. “I kept with the same tires because I did not want to change a winning combination.”
Carre has held onto his lead in the Canadian Rally Championship and looks as if he could threaten the more established teams if he can continue his pace in the upcoming gravel events.
The rally was as much a test of the organisers as it was for the crews. Making the best of a bad situation, officials worked with what roads were safe enough to use to create a new set of stages and schedule in order to get in the required distance to have the event count as a national rally.
“The roads in the south were so bad that we couldn’t get our ambulance in to an accident if something happened down there,” said Keith Morrison, safety official for the rally. “We also wanted to minimize road damage, and the snow and water made that very difficult.”
After the first two stages of the day, teams came in for a 40 minute service as volunteers quickly set up for a batch of three stages.
Perhaps because conditions were so difficult, there was very little attrition. Instead, drivers focused on finishing and tip toed through the stages, simply aiming to keep the car on the road. While a few teams spun, and one team got stuck, nearly all crews got back on the road, making it to the finish.
After the three afternoon stages, teams again returned to service, expecting to head out for one final stage.
Leo Urlichich and Chrissie Beavis had a secure fourth place ahead of Craig Henderson and Lyne Murphy.
Henderson had struggled on Friday, but regained his confidence heading into Saturday’s stages. Unfortunately his car blew a head gasket, and so Henderson carried a large bottle of water with him, topping up the coolant at the start of each stage.
“I think maybe I’ve put five gallons of water into the car today,” said Henderson at the final service of the day.
Less than thirty seconds behind Henderson were Hardy Schmidtke and Adam Vokes. The two came to Rocky with a new open class drivetrain, expecting to make use of the added power on the typically fast gravel roads. However, much like two years ago, when teams last faced a wet and treacherous Rocky, The team finished well, placing sixth overall and first in the regional rankings.
“This whole rally was about tire choice,” said Schmidtke, who will be running the whole national championship. “We got passed by Bruno Carre early on and followed him, watching how his tires were working. It was amazing and so we switched to something similar.”
The pair had also been fighting off a charging Simon Losier and Philippe Poirier. After trading times through most of the rally, Losier finished 21 seconds back, the result of time lost in a spin early on Saturday.
In two wheel drive, Jan and Jody Zedril started the day with nearly a minute lead over Kris and Jaclyn Schofield.
Intending to manage their lead, the Zedril brothers drove at a brisk pace without taking any risks. However, the plan nearly backfired when the hard charging Schofield team made up all but 11 seconds coming into the final service.
“We had a few moments, but we really got moving,” said Kris Schofield.
During the final service, officials reassessed the road conditions and cancelled the final stage of the revised schedule, meaning times coming into the final service would be final.
Mark Jennings-Bates and Jennifer Daly finished ninth overall, and second in the regional rankings, while JC Bourgeois and John Hall finished 12 overall and third in the regional standings.
Organiser of the Rocky Mountain Rally, Shabir Haji was quick to praise his team of volunteers for putting together a rally on the spot when road conditions prevented the original plan from working out.
“It was a collective effort,” said Haji. “When we saw the road conditions, the decision was quick. We had to develop a format to get the mileage.”
The next round of the Canadian Rally Championship is the Rallye Baie Des Chaleurs, in New Richmond, Quebec July 2-3, 2010. Drawing some of the biggest crowds of the year, Baie is known for fast speeds and big jumps.