Saturday marked the 44th running of the Rally of the Tall Pines on frozen rural roads near Bancroft, Ontario. The annual event, which takes over the small cottage town each November is the traditional final round of both the Canadian and North American rally championships. The unpredictable weather conditions in that part of the province force competitors to come prepared for anything from wet, mucky gravel to deep snow. Often they have to contend with both extremes in the same day. This year’s event provided excitement that mirrored much of 2014 for the top teams.

Despite losing two major corporate sponsors at the end of 2013, Quebec driver Antoine L’Estage came out of the gate at the first event of the season, Rallye Perce-Neige Maniwaki in his home province, with his foot to the floor. Determined to prove to all that he could do it alone, L’Estage won that event convincingly and continued that performance for the rest of the season, winning all six rounds of the Canadian championship. This is the first time a driver has won every round of the Canadian series.

After spraying and tasting the winner’s champagne at Tall Pines, the driver said “It’s unbelievable, to win all the rallies in one year has never been done before.” Even historic winners need money to keep the wheels turning, as L’Estage told reporters, “We’ve done it with a low budget this year, and stretched everything this year. Thank you to Yokohama who stepped in to help with this season. We wouldn’t be here without them.”

Antoine L'Estage (right) and Alan OckwellMartin Rowe and Nathalie Richard in #2 2015 Subaru WRX STIAlexandre Béland and Philippe Poirer in #6 2007 Subaru Impreza STI
Antoine L’Estage (right) and Alan Ockwell, Martin Rowe and Nathalie Richard in #2 2015 Subaru WRX STI, Alexandre Béland and Philippe Poirer in #6 2007 Subaru Impreza STI. Click image to enlarge

L’Estage clinched the title in October by winning the Pacific Forest Rally, giving him his seventh overall driver’s championship. Alan Ockwell signed on as L’Estage’s co-driver partway through the season and Ockwell tells me they instantly clicked inside the car. Despite not campaigning the entire season, the Tall Pines win rewarded Ockwell with his third National Championship for co-drivers.

The black Mitsubishi’s perennial competition comes in the form of a certain blue and white Subaru. The Subaru Canada Rally Team had a challenging season from the start, as long time star driver and car builder Patrick Richard suffered a neurological complication brought on by repeated minor head injuries, which prevented him from driving. British ex-pat Martin Rowe, who now lives in Whistler, stepped in to fill Richard’s place alongside Nathalie Richard in an all-new 2015 Impreza. 2015 has been a learning curve for the team, as they learn a new car and adapt to a new driver. Rowe became gradually more comfortable with the car as the season progressed and was looking forward to the Ontario round as it was the only Canadian event he had ever entered before.

Rowe and Richard’s day was difficult almost from the outset, as the landing from a massive jump early on shook up both driver and co-driver and forced Richard to be treated by a chiropractor during the lunch break. As the afternoon pushed on, the Subaru slid wide at the exit of a fast turn and hit something in the ditch, which sent the car into a violent roll. Both Richard and Rowe were uninjured beyond a few bruises, but the Impreza was too badly damaged to continue. In a Facebook post yesterday, Richard credits Rocket Rally Racing and Subaru for building a car strong enough to keep the pair safe.

Sylvain and Simon Vincent in #3 1994 Subaru ImprezaWill Hudson and John Hall in #24 2011 Ford R2 FiestaMartin Walter and Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff in #23 1991 Nissan 240SX
Sylvain and Simon Vincent in #3 1994 Subaru Impreza, Will Hudson and John Hall in #24 2011 Ford R2 Fiesta, Martin Walter and Ferdinand Trauttmansdorff in #23 1991 Nissan 240SX. Click image to enlarge

Quebec based Alexandre Béland and Philippe Poirier teamed up for the first time in “Crazy Leo” Urlichich’s Subaru, affectionately known as ‘The Beast’ and had a flawless run, which saw them take second spot on the Tall Pines podium. This was the first time that Béland was able to successfully complete Tall Pines. Third spot went to the father and son team of Sylvain and Simon Vincent in an older Subaru.

Race Websites:
Canadian Rally Championship
Rally of the Tall Pines

Photo Gallery:
2014 Rally of the Tall Pines

The two-wheel–drive machines also offered considerable excitement for the fans, as American driver Will Hudson and co-driver John Hall, from Alberta, attacked the roads in their Ford Fiesta R2, often running faster than many of the all-wheel-drive cars on their way to a win. Second up on the two-wheel–drive podium were the class winners from 2013, Martin Walter and Ferd Trauttmansdorff, both from Ontario, in their always quick Nissan 240SX.

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