Antoine L'Estage Dominates Défi As New Cars Surprise

Antoine L'Estage's victory at Rallye Défi probably came as no surprise to anyone in Canadian rallying circles. With Pat Richard announcing his retirement not long before Défi, it seemed as though L'Estage would walk away with yet another victory. And while the Quebec driver did win in the end, the final result was closer than many thought it would be.

"Win number 8 at Défi! Super happy with that!" L'Estage wrote on his Facebook page, "Thanks to John Buffum and the team, (and) thanks to Alan Ockwell who did a superb job co-driving..."

With Richard's seat in a brand new 2015 STi coupe up for grabs, Subaru Rally Team Canada turned to former British Rally Champion and Vancouver resident Martin Rowe to fill the void. Accompanied by veteran codriver Nathalie Richard, Rowe admirably navigated both the growing pains of a new car, as well as stages that were completely new to him.

In the early stages of the rally, however, a great battle for the runner-up spot had erupted between the Can-Jam crew of Alex Beland and Lynne Murphy, and the Mini Countryman WRC team of Joel Levac and Stephanie Lewis. Beland and Levac looked each other's equal in stage times throughout day 1, and by the end of the evening stages Beland had a thin grasp on second place.

But early on in day 2, Beland and Murphy suffered a heavy landing after a jump, putting the right front damper and coil through the hood of The Beast, ending their day in dramatic fashion. The landing was heavy enough to send Murphy to the hospital with a fractured vertebrae in her back, putting her out of competition for at least 3-4 months.

With their closest competitors out of commission, Levac and Lewis looked as though they would secure second place easily. Furthermore, as the rally progressed, Levac appeared to be getting more and more comfortable with the WRC-spec car, driving more aggressively as day 2 went on.

But while the new Subaru of Rowe and Richard had some kinks to work out, the pair were quietly putting up some impressive stage times. This, despite several serious mechanical difficulties; including having to change the gearbox from a sequential to an H-pattern before the rally, and needing to swap the engine on Friday night. Additionally, the car was smoking heavily during parts of the Friday stages, and the pair were forced to run with only rear wheel drive at one point on Saturday.

After battling with L'Estage for stage wins in the final five stages of the day, it was only after the very last stage that they were able to leapfrog Levac and Lewis for the runner up spot. And considering the challenges they faced, finishing only 3 minute and 30 seconds behind L'Estage is nothing to scoff at either.

"I'm happier with this second place finish than I have been with a first place finish in a long time." Richard admitted, "I'm really happy for everyone at Rocket Rally, they did an awesome job."

Top spot in the two-wheel drive category went to Chris Greenhouse and Billy Irvin. Finishing with their best result of the season thus far, the US-based crew failed to put a foot wrong over the two days of Rallye Défi.

Second place in 2WD went to class leaders Simon Dube and Pat Lavigne. Extending their lead in the CRC's second class, Dube struggled early in the rally, but found his pace as the second day progressed.

Mirroring their result in the Ontario Performance Rally Championship, Martin Walter and Ferd Trauttmansdorff rounded out the 2WD podium in their return to the CRC. The Ottawa-based crew had last competed at Rallye Perce Neige eight months earlier, but their familiarity with the stages of Défi paid off.

The Canadian Rally Championship now heads west, with the next two rallies taking place in British Columbia. The Pacific Forest Rally is up next in early October, with crews making the long trek out to Merrit, BC to tackle arguable some of the best rally roads anywhere in North America.