L'Estage Pushes Hard for Victory at Baie-des-Chaleurs
After starting the 2015 season with a resounding victory at Rallye Perce Niege, Antoine L'Estage and Alan Ockwell were keen to continue their dominance at Rallye Baie-des-Chaleurs. But like at Perce Neige, there were plenty of their fellow competitors looking to knock Subaru Rally Team Canada off the top step of Canada's most popular rally.
Joel Levac and Stéphanie Lewis looked set to challenge L'Estage early on. After the reigning series champion had electrical issues on the first leg, the pair had built up a 6 second lead by the end of stage 4.
But L'Estage came charging back on the fifth stage. The Subaru driver used every inch of the 23-kilometer stage to leapfrog Levac, pushing as hard as he had in some time. But L'Estage kept it on the road, ending the morning loop with a 7 second lead over the Mini WRC crew - a lead which grew to 54 seconds by the end of day 1.
While L'Estage and Levac were trading stage times at the top of the order, Alex Béland and Lyne Murphy were pushing hard in third position to keep up with the leaders. However, despite sitting comfortably in a podium position, fuel issues on the fifth stage wrecked the Can-Jam crew's chances of a spot in the top three.
The rally continued into its second day with L'Estage working to build his lead over Levac. The final nail in the coffin for Levac's victory chances came on the third stage of the day, when his Mini Countryman WRC suffered transmission issues, losing rear wheel drive. When the dust finally settled, L'Estage and Ockwell had won the rally by a 3 minute, 24 second margin.
"This win is special for many reasons" L'Estage wrote on his Facebook page, "It was the 7th time I was winning this great event, it was also my first win on gravel with the Subaru Canada Rally Team and it was my 50th National overall win on both sides of the border!"
With Levac and Lewis locking down second place, third position went to Maxime Labrie and Anik Barette, who almost didn't make it to Baie at all. A heavy crash at Rallye Saguenay just weeks before had some questioning whether they would be able to get their Subaru repaired in time. But sure enough, the Quebec crew rolled into the service park in New Richmond, ready to go.
In the rally's early stages, Labrie had been involved in a three-way battle with Béland/Murphy and André and René Leblanc for the final podium spot. But after Béland's mechanical issues, Labrie inherited the position and began to pull away from the pressing Leblancs. When the local brothers were forced to retire with turbo problems, Labrie and Barette were able to cruise to their third place finish, despite striking a bridge on the penultimate stage.
After having an up and down season in 2014, Chris Greenhouse was keen to redeem himself at Baie. And he came prepared with British codriver Phil Hall, who flew over from the UK to tackle Baie with Greenhouse. The new pairing took a conservative approach to the event, yet never relinquished the category lead, taking home first place in 2WD. This, even after the American driver had a run-in with a log early on in the rally.
Greenhouse and Hall led the class from the first stage right until the end, despite a spirited challenge from eventual second place finishers Simon Dubé and Eric Lachance. Dubé had been pushing hard to catch Greenhouse, but was hampered by suspension issues on Saturday, and power steering issues on the Sunday. Dave St-Pierre and Manuel Arsenault rounded out the class podium in third position.
The Canadian Rally Championship returns to action in early September at Rallye Défi, the third consecutive event on the calendar to take place in La Belle Provence. Défi also marks the beginning of the late summer/fall push to the championship, with 4 rallies taking place over the course of three months.