The 2013 Canadian Rally Championship opened on February 2, with the 43rd edition of the Rallye Perce Neige, in Maniwaki, Quebec. Renowned for brutally long stages that extend late into the night, icy and snowy roads with banks that will just as often suck a car in as bounce it back onto the road, Perce Neige is a formidable start to the Canadian championship.
In the week leading up to the start of the event, a thaw, rain and subsequent freeze set the stages for what many competitors called the iciest Perce Neige ever. A total of 42 teams placed their names on the start list.
Welcome news for rally fans from coast to coast was the return of the Subaru Rally Team Canada, with Pat Richard once again in the driver’s seat. However, after five years, co-driver Alan Ockwell has stepped aside to follow other pursuits.
Less than 12 hours before the start of recce, Richard met his new co-driver, Rob Fagg of the Isle of Man. The two were connected through Martin Rowe, a PWRC driver who drove a second car for Subaru Canada at the Rally of the Tall Pines in 2010. Richard and Fagg hadn’t even spoken on the phone before meeting at the airport in Ottawa on Thursday evening.
As is tradition, the Rallye Perce Neige started on the in-town stages Marie-Anne and Des Eaux with the further addition of the Lapoint-Montcerf stage. Owing to the location of these roads, much of the surface was sand covered ice and snow, offering limited grip.
Reigning Canadian and North American rally champions Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard would find themselves out of the rally on the first pass of the Lapointe stage after an uncharacteristic engine failure. The DNF meant the battle for first was handed to Richard and Crazy Leo Urlichich and co-driver Carl Williamson.
“It’s the slipperiest Perce I’ve ever seen,” said Richard at the first service. “It’s really trying conditions. In the seeded draw, we selected to be first on the road. It’s a little bit treacherous to be first on the road because you don’t know if there’s any bad corners coming up. If you’re second, you can kind of see where the guys are wiping out. But we like to go first because we feel there might be a little more grip.”
Urlichich had taken the early lead, though Richard had opted for a slower approach to settle in with his new co-driver, before pushing harder on the midday stages.
“The plan this weekend is to try to stay on the road,” said Urlichich. “It’s my birthday, and I have to stay on the road to give myself a good present. The conditions are stupid. Sometimes it’s gravel with good grip, sometimes it’s ice, and now with this thin layer of powdery snow on top you can’t see what’s underneath. The key here is to do my thing.”
By the time teams arrived at the first service, the Rockstar team had left to retrieve their broken car and stranded crew. Meanwhile, those remaining in the event prepared for more challenging road conditions as the stages moved south of Maniwaki, and onto glare ice. It was here that Richard began his charge for the lead.
Richard and Fagg quickly retook the lead on the first pass of Farley – a competitor favourite for the technical twists and turns combined with continuing elevation change – and while Urlichich and Williamson tried to battle back, Richard pushed the pace even harder on the second pass of Farley, putting nearly 20 seconds on the Russian and Welsh pair, despite a smoothly polished road surface. The Can Jam crew even went so far as to tractionize extra tires while in service.
The aggresive pace taken by Richard and Fagg proved to be a decisive factor in the rally. In pushing to try to keep up, Urlichich suffered a flat tire on the first pass of the demanding Kitigan Zibi stage, dropping more than three minutes back from the leader, and into fourth place behind Steeve Hobbs and co-driver Jean Mathieu Tremblay, and Ugo Desgreniers with co-driver Eric Kirby.
“We try not to go too hard. Consistency is the key right now,” said Desgreniers. “We’re not looking at times right now, we’ll save that for later.”
In two wheel drive, Simon Dube and Pat Lavigne were rising head and shoulders above the rest of the field. After the second service, the pair were more than two minutes ahead of their next closest rivals. Despite the icy conditions, Dube was confident in how he needed to drive in order to maintain his pace. L’Estage, who spent the rest of his rally spectating was impressed with the pace of Dube.
“I will keep the car on the road, and I think it will be ok,” said Dube. Having previously run as a regional competitor, Dube once competed on studded tires, but as a national competitor, studded tires are outlawed. “I think in terms of a braking point, it’s better with studded tires. On hardpack snow, maybe tractionized tires are really good. There are too many changes of surface in one stage for one tire to be the right choice. You have to be careful, take a deep breath and go slowly.”
The second fastest two wheel drive car was being piloted by Pierre Dube and David Legault. The two were running in the regional only portion of the rally, using studded tires on their Honda Civic, and bettering many of the national competitiors.
There were no shortage of rear wheel drive cars at Rallye Perce Neige, including two BMWs and the Nissan 240SX of Martin Walter and Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff. Watching these teams compete on increasingly glare ice was incredible. Conditions were so slick that spectators leaving the stages could barely walk without falling over.
“The roads are slippery as hell,” said Walter. “On Des Eaux, we came across a car that was just out of a snowbank. They were back in the car, so the triangle was away. It was either t-bone them, or into the snowbank. We had to wait for someone else to tow us out. It’s a long rally, we’re still in the game. We figure everyone is going to take their turn today.”
Despite leading by a massive margin, Dube and Lavigne made a mistake that left them stranded on a snowbank on the final running of Kitigan Zibi, thinking of what would have been.
Paul Hartl – who has been putting in a lot of time going ice racing in Ontario – along with co-driver Chuck Storry stayed clear of trouble and were duly rewarded, mounting the top spot on the first ever national two wheel drive podium. After two years of demoralizing DNFs, the result was a high point for the team.
“This is amazing to have this result,” said Hartl. “We have had such a tough couple of years, but I really like the racing on ice and snow, and I really like the Kitigan stage. We decided to just focus on that stage and stay smooth.”
Second in two wheel drive went to Walter and Trauttmansdorff, who limped to the finish with just one gear left in an otherwise very broken gearbox. Getting the car onto the podium elicited brutal clangs and crashes inside the drivetrain, but the smiles on the crew as they sprayed champagne showed it was all worth it.
“There’s not much left in that gearbox,” said Walter. “I’m just glad we were able to limp it back, but we basically got it into fourth gear, and finished the rally that way.”
Third on the podium were Eric Deschenes and Catharine Asselin in a smoothly driven Toyota Echo.
At the front of the pack, with Urlichich down and L’Estage out, Richard and Fagg relaxed their pace, driving to maintain their lead, without taking chances. However, Hobbs briefly put on a charge, making time on the Subaru Rally Team Canada.
“It has snowed out on Kitigan,” said Urlichich. “Nobody knew that. So the snow fills up the tractionized tires and there’s no grip. I’ve never driven this slowly. But we hit a rock under braking and got a flat. We had to stop and change it.”
“I’m not mad about the flat, it’s just bad luck,” said a clearly disappointed Urlichich.
On the penultimate stage – the massive 49.5km Kitigan Zibi/Lac a l’arche stage, Richard declared his authority winning the stage by well over a minute. On the same stage, Urlichich and Williamson ended their rally, when the front right strut broke free and punctured up through the hood. The two had picked up a second flat, and had elected to drive it out, but over such a long stage the conditions were too severe and the car sustained rally ending damage.
Hobbs and Desgreniers were free to land on the podium so long as they could secure a trouble free drive.
“We are second on the road,” said Hobbs. “The momentum on the road today is ok for me. I won’t try to push any faster, or go any slower.”
Richard and Fagg went on to win the super special finale by nearly ten seconds over just one kilometre of distance, winning the event with a total time of two hours, 12 minutes, 19.5 seconds.
“We had a fantastic event. It’s nice to start the season off with some points,” said Richard, who has struggled at Perce Neige over the last two years. “Now everyone else is under the gun to beat us. It’s a really good change.
“This was a really tough event. Leo had an off, Antoine had a mechanical problem. It would have been nice to battle with them, but at the same time, we’ve experienced mechanical failures here and it really wrecks the season. With a win for us and only start points for them, we can finish second at the next four rallies and still be leading the championship, so that’s a really huge deal.”
“Rob and I had a great event. He never got lost, was always on the notes, it was perfect. He did an awesome job,” said Richard of co-driver Rob Fagg.
Hobbs and Tremblay finished second, just over two minutes back, while Desgreniers and Kirby rounded out the podium in third.
“My strategy was to stay cool,” said Hobbs, who scored his best-ever national rally result after previously finishing third at Rallye Defi. “The choice of the tires, the strategy between high speed and low speed, and when to push – I’m surprised.”
“It was a really hard rally,” said Desgreniers at the finish. “When we did the recce yesterday, I was sure it would be a mess today for everybody. I stayed conservative this morning, and then in the woods, I really like Kitigan Zibi, and we pushed there. I was sad for Leo to have a DNF. He’s a great guy and a real gentleman.”
Much of the field was happy to have the event over, with weary looks on the faces of many competitors as they watched the podium ceremonies. Hardy Schmidtke and John Hall finished an uncharacteristic 20 minutes back of the winners, weary and convinced that the rally had been the hardest they had ever encountered – strong words given the challenging experience the pair had at last year’s Rallye Defi, where the steering column came loose, falling away from the firewall while on stage.
The Rallye Perce Neige has never been easy on teams. Perhaps more than any other event, it punishes teams the longer they stay in the event, with longer and more treacherous stages as the day wears on an reflexes and nerves run out. But for those that finish, the celebration and sense of accomplishment taste sweet regardless of whether or not the results come with champagne.
The Canadian Rally Championship continues June 29-30, 2013 for the Rallye Baie Des Chaleurs, in New Richmond, Quebec.