Monday, November 27th, 2023
Known as the toughest day in Canadian Rallying, the 2023 Lincoln Electric Rally of the Tall Pines in Bancroft, ON, lived up to its storied reputation. Never has the old adage “winter roads, summer ditches” been more appropriate. A combination of smooth roads and a pre-event flash freeze made the high-speed, jump filled stages a skating rink, testing the skills and bravery of all 26 teams entered in the sixth round of the Canadian Rally Championship. The championship saw its sixth different winner in as many races, showcasing the depth of the competition this season.
The defending champions, Jerome Mailloux and Philippe Poirier, have embodied the press-on-regardless spirit of rallying this year. Despite a series of disastrous events, they’ve started every rally with the same energy that led them to their title in 2022. Their determination finally paid off at Tall Pines. They were one of the few teams to drive every stage without drama, setting the early pace and leading almost continuously from start to finish, their Test Racing Subaru running flawlessly to their first win of the season.
Points leaders Jean-Sebastien Besner and Yvan Joyal were not so lucky. Tall Pines was their first time facing icy conditions in their new Fiesta, and it took Besner the first loop of stages to figure out how to make the car dance on the ice. After the first service, they were ready to attack, and started hunting down Mailloux. They took the lead on Stage 7, but then lost all their gains on Stage 8 when an electrical problem caused the car to repeatedly shut down at speed. Their service crew was able to diagnose and repair a faulty ECU connector at service, but they would have to settle for second place.
Previously, Tall Pines 2021 was a turn-around event for Marc-André Brisebois and Marie-France Desmarais-Trepanier, with their success leading to runner-up status in the championship. The 2023 edition proved to be another successful run for the Test Racing duo. They drove clean and fast, avoiding the costly mistakes made by other teams, and earned third place despite being under pressure through the second half of the event from Tall Pines specialists Jeremy Drake and Deric Jackson.
But the most shocking drive of the rally came from Crazy Leo Urlichich. The two-time Tall Pines winner has been on hiatus in Canada for the last couple of years but decided to bring an old 105hp 2WD Ford Focus out of mothballs to have some fun on the icy stages. The resulting performance was nothing short of miraculous. Crazy Leo and co-driver Sam Roxon took every corner right to the edge and flew higher than any other team over the jumps, setting several top-three stage times and winning the penultimate stage of the rally outright. A 3-minute transit penalty was the only thing that kept them off the overall podium, and they won the 2WD class by a huge margin.
Chris Greenhouse and Ryan Scott quickly realized that trying to hunt down Crazy Leo would end with their Dodge deep in a ditch and kept their heads in the long game for the overall 2WD Championship. A smooth, drama-free drive to second place in class was enough to earn them their first title. “I may have lost this battle,” said Greenhouse emotionally, just before spraying champagne. “But I won the war.”
In the points race to the Fidler Cup, Alexandre Moreau and Ian Guité were hoping to close the gap to Besner and Joyal, having finished on the podium at Tall Pines before, but the opposite happened. A repeat of the fuel pump problems they had at the Rocky Mountain Rally cost them enormous time in the first loop, dropping them as low as 19th. Team Swap Shop fixed the car at the first service, and they fought heroically to climb back up the leaderboard to finish 7th, just high enough to keep Besner and Joyal from locking up the title.
The teams have just two weeks to re-prep and make their way to Kelowna, BC, for the 2023 Canadian Rally Championship finale, The Big White Winter Rally. Jean-Sebastien Besner needs just two points to earn his place on the Fidler Cup, while Alexandre Moreau needs to win and hope Besner ends up in a snowbank for his chance at the ultimate prize.