Antoine L'Estage and Nathalie Richard took what has become their usual place at the top step of the podium at the Canadian Rally Championship season highlight Rallye Baie des Chaleurs. As has been the case throughout the CRC season so far, the pair had little trouble throughout the event. This, despite changing conditions that caught a lot of competitors out.
What began as a beautiful day on Friday quickly turned treacherous. The rain began to fall just as the first stage was getting underway, and by the 6th or 7th car it was pouring so badly that many stage roads were completely washed out, leading to engine misfires and electrical problems for many crews. Windshield fogging was also a factor for the majority of crews, further restricting visibility, which was reportedly already down to as little as 100 feet.
But the rain did little to slow L'Estage, who had built a 1 minute 27 second lead by the end of the first day. With the conditions improving dramatically on Saturday, the championship leader was able to back off and effectively cruise to his third Canadian victory in as many rallies.
However, it was anything but a trouble free weekend for Richard and co-driver Alan Ockwell. As heavy rain began to fall on Friday, they experienced such extreme fogging on the windshield that Richard himself said that they couldn't see anything from stages 2-6. As the rally continued into the evening, the fogging issues worsened to the point where Richard called it the "scariest night of rallying in my whole career."
And Saturday brought even further problems for the Rocket Rally crew. They lost their brakes early that morning, followed by the turbo later on in the day. Despite spending most of the rally managing their broken Subaru, Richard and Ockwell held on for a well-earned second place finish.
Crazy Leo Urlichich and Carl Williamson had their share of issues throughout the weekend, beginning on Friday with a broken gear shifter. The Can-Jam Motorsports crew ended up having to use a screwdriver to get the car back into first gear. But the drama didn't end there, with 'The Beast' being stuck in fourth gear for the final three stages of the day, leaving them well down the order going into Saturday.
Saturday the issues continued, with Urlichich suffering through a leaking intake manifold and incurring penalties after leaving service late. Originally, the team were given early arrival penalties, which temporarily dropped them down to 9th. In fact, the penalties were only retracted a few minutes before the national podium ceremony occurred.
Even before he found out of his promotion to a podium spot, Crazy Leo was extremely happy with the pace he had been setting throughout the rally. He was particularly pleased with beating Richard on several of Friday's stages, and is confident that he can start doing so on a consistent basis. He remained realistic on his chances of besting L'Estage, however, saying it would be a "long time before I can catch him!"
Quebec driver Ugo Desgreniers looked set to hang onto third place in the national category in his 2005 Subaru WRX STI, but went off on one of the final stages of the day.
Before Urlichich and Williamson had their penalties retracted and were promoted to third, it was Craig Henderson who thought he had the final podium position in the bag. He and co-driver Lyne Murphy were consistently fast throughout the weekend, despite running into problems on Saturday, including a broken axle early in the day.
The weather conditions wreaked havoc on the 2WD field, with the rain on Friday leading to all sorts of engine floods, misfires, and other problems. The American crew of Ed McNelly and Ole Holter claimed the class victory in their R2 Fiesta through a consistent run, and by virtue of possibly being the only car in the group that didn't run into problems.
Eric Grochowski and Leanne Junnila came in second after their own trouble filled rally. They blew their radiator attacking a water splash on Friday, endured misfires all night, and then destroyed the suspension of their VW Golf on Saturday.
Third place in the class went to Sylvain and Simon Vincent, who, other than a puncture and broken steering on Friday, seemed to make it through the rally with their 1986 Toyota Corolla relatively undamaged.
Also of note was the fact that, much to the dismay of the many fans that frequent the rally, the second pass of the famous 'Saut du Rang 5' jump was cancelled after both Richard and L'Estage encountered an unauthorized vehicle in the stage.
The Canadian Rally Championship now has a long mid season break, with the next rally not taking place until Rallye Defi, running from September 6th-8th in Ste-Agathe, QC.