Antoine L'Estage Wins Rocky Mountain Rally, Claims Championship Lead

Antoine L'Estage edged closer to claiming yet another Canadian Rally Championship, winning a revamped yet treacherous Rocky Mountain Rally. By virtue of his victory, he also claimed his sixth North American Rally Championship title.

Both L'Estage and championship rival Pat Richard were pushing hard during Friday's opening stages, in which the competitors had to tackle a turnaround leading up the side of a mountain, and then back down again.

As the teams pushed higher up the mountain during the morning hours, the twisty, gravel stages began to feature ice patches where the sun hadn't been able to dry the road yet. One such icy patch on stage 2 caught Richard and co-driver Rob Fagg off guard, sending their Subaru off the road and rolling into a tree. Thankfully, the pair were alright, despite a separate tree smashing the rear window of the car and striking Richard from behind.

With Richard out, L'Estage and navigator Craig Parry went into control mode, managing a clean run through Saturday's stages, which proved even more challenging than the previous day's.

The second day of the rally took place mostly high up in the mountains. Morning rains lead to slush and ice at higher altitudes, and even wet snow at the highest points. This proved to be a headache for many a driver, and even L'Estage found the conditions tricky.

"It was not an easy rally" said L'Estage "(there were) very treacherous conditions today so it was just a matter of keeping it on the road and not making any mistakes."

With Richard out and L'Estage on cruise control, the battle for second between Max Riddle and Hardy Schmidtke became the main focus. Both competitors had their issues, with a halfshaft problem hampering Riddle during the day, and his exhaust collapsing during a Friday night stage.

Riddle and Darren Garrod held second place overnight and into day 2, but suffered a puncture on the very first stage of the morning and had to stop and change it. This allowed Schmidtke and John Hall to move ahead of them into second.

However, on the final stage of the rally, Schmidtke suffered a puncture of his own. But instead of stopping to change it, he drove on it for 20km, in some of the most challenging conditions of the entire rally. Despite spinning the car at least once during his limp to the finish, Schmidtke and Hall held on to claim second, edging out Riddle by just three seconds.

"It was really tough" remarked Schmidtke, "everybody had some bad luck... luckily we built up enough of a gap to hold onto our second position. Max is a really good competitor (and) we always have our sights set on him."

Riddle too, remained philosophical - "It wasn't a smooth rally for us" admitted the Rocket Rally driver, "but it was the first time I've finished it and we finished on the podium."

The entrants of the 2wd category had a wild weekend, especially given the conditions of the stages.

The biggest story of the category, and maybe leading up to the rally, was the return of the most successful CRC driver of all time, Taisto Heinonen. Making a comeback to the stages after a thirty-year absence, Heinonen and Leanne Junnila managed to take the win in the category. This, despite a small off on the first day, most of which was spent trying to get comfortable after such a long time away from the sport.

Dave Clark and Billy Irvin came home in second, appearing to have a trouble free weekend despite the near-impossible conditions.

Paul Hartl and Chuck Storry rounded out the podium and wrapped up the 2WD national title in the process. The pair were simply aiming to finish the rally, but Paul looked every bit the seasoned pro during the most challenging stages. Celebrations began at the podium and without a doubt continued well into the evening.

The Canadian Rally Championship now returns east for the season finale Rally of the Tall Pines on the last weekend in November. L'Estage now leads the championship by 15 points over Richard. And barring any major incidents, he could be set to add yet another Canadian Rally Championship title to his name.