Tuesday, November 21st, 2017
Words by: Dean Campbell. Photos by: Dean Campbell, Shawn Bishop, Warwick Patterson, Maxime Poirier, Andrew Snucins
The Canadian Rally Championship is nearing the end of a tenth continuous year with Subaru Canada as a presenting sponsor, and as backer of a factory team. But the roots of the most iconic brand in rallying reach far deeper, going back through nearly three decades of involvement in the CRC.
Following a 50th career victory at the Pacific Forest Rally last month, Antoine L’Estage and Alan Ockwell secured a 13th manufacturer’s title for Subaru, more than any other marque in the history of the series.
“I’m honoured to represent such an important brand in the sport of rallying,” said L’Estage. “We’ve had three great years winning three consecutive titles since I joined the team.”
L’Estage is the first to acknowledge he would not have achieved all he has in the sport without Subaru’s presence. When L’Estage first started rallying, Subaru was already involved. The team continued to set the benchmark in a very competitive field.
“The goal was always to compete with them,” said L’Estage. “My first few years in Open class, I was amazed at what Tom McGeer had done. Since then, my career has been directly linked to Pat Richard, first as a competitor, and now working together on Subaru Rally Team Canada.”
Subaru first stepped into rallying in Canada by providing a Legacy GT to McGeer who ran the car in a drivex called the Ontario Winter Rally. Open to road cars, and run overnight, the event demanded skill, reliability, and performance.
“We first got involved because we saw rallying as a good fit for Subaru,” said Ted Lalka, Vice President of Product Management, Marketing, and Customer Experience with Subaru Canada. At the time, Lalka had just started with Subaru in project management and marketing. Along with the help of Brian Hyland, Subaru Canada brought the first car over from Japan hoping that it would emerge from the crucible of rallying as a proven performer.
“We’ve always worked to make sure that Subarus offer reliability and durability while also being fun performers in any conditions,” said Lalka. “There’s no better venue to test those qualities than rally.”
The involvement in Canada coincided with Subaru’s initial involvement in the World Rally Championship, helping to align strategies between Japanese and Canadian corporate offices.
The season following the Ontario Winter Rally debut of the Legacy, McGeer and Can-Jam Motorsport built out a Legacy for stage rallying. Competing against the Sprongl brothers in an Audi Quattro Coupe took a great deal of effort, and a season later, McGeer and the team notched their first CRC manufacturer’s title for Subaru in 1993.
“Looking back, I’m proud we were the first Subaru team in the series,” said McGeer. “Now so many teams run Subarus, but I think back then, we proved Subaru could do it. We nurtured that program until it grew to be a full factory team.”
McGeer switched to an Impreza, and a young upstart started showing up at CRC events in an Impreza RS coupe with a roofrack, and no support truck. Pat Richard had gotten hooked on Colin McRae Rally, a video game made famous by arguably the most famous Subaru driver in rallying history.
“When I got to my first rally, Rocky Mountain Rally, I didn’t know anything,” said Richard. “I ended up meeting Tom McGeer and Brian Hyland early in the weekend, because I think maybe the pitied me because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know until later on who they were, or that they were famous in the sport. We were just hanging out.”
Later that season, Richard went on to win a downhill stage at the Wild West Rally, beating out established drivers in better equipment. That led to support to tow east, and Pat took on Lake Superior Performance Rally, Charlevoix, and Tall Pines. Those performances garnered the attention of Subaru, and in 2000, Pat was invited to join the team starting the following season.
“With Tom and Pat, and the Paynter brothers, we saw a lot more opportunities to showcase the brand,” said Lalka. That thinking initiated the three-car Subaru Rally Team Canada. “The unpredictability of the sport made having more than one car appealing. We were aware of this up and coming guy named Pat, and the Paynters were already involved with Subaru, so that was a natural step.”
With the advent of such a big team, Subaru became the envy and inspiration to many across Canada.
“I remember drooling when looking at the Subaru team,” said L’Estage, who was running as a privateer. “I wanted to match their level of preparation and presence. They were the target I always worked to beat.
“They made me what I’ve become.”
By the end of 2004, Subaru was engrained in the Canadian Rally Championship, and had swept five more titles from 2000 to 2004 inclusive. Changes saw Subaru step back from the CRC, closing down the team. Privateer Peter Thomson went on to help Subaru win another title in 2005, but that year also marked a rise from L’Estage, whose career was clearly rising from the rest.
Meanwhile, Richard was campaigning one of the SRTC cars in the US under different sponsorship. He took the inaugural Rally America championship in 2005, beating out Stig Blomqvist in a season long battle.
Back at the corporate offices, Subaru was doing well, but saw room to grow. Thanks to the Outback and Forester, the brand was known for reliability and durability, but the performance aspect had slipped, despite the presence of the STI at the top of the Impreza lineup. With the launch of the new hatch-bodied 2008 STI, Subaru felt the time was right to return to rallying.
Subaru returned to the series as a sponsor and fielded a new single car team prepared and managed by Pat Richard’s Rocket Rally Racing. Richard slipped back into the driver’s seat, taking on Alan Ockwell as co-driver.
Subaru swept the next three years claiming manufacturer titles in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
“We felt like we were invincible those years,” said Richard.
The era also marked the height of the battles between Pat Richard and Antoine L’Estage for supremacy on stage roads. Meanwhile, contingency payouts to privateers driving Subarus helped ensure entry lists chock full of Imprezas.
“The value of rallying depends on the health of the sport, and how well we do,” said Lalka. “The contingency program encourages more competitors to enter in Subarus. We would love to see some competing brands too, but the more Subarus, the better.”
Today, Subaru Rally Team Canada still represents the pinnacle of the sport in Canada. Rallying continues to serve as the ultimate testing ground for the cars, where competitors have to race not just against others, but persevere in the elements.
“It’s awesome to see what Subaru has created in Canadian rallying,” said Richard, who now oversees the Subaru Rally Team Canada as head of Rocket Rally Racing. “They’ve given so much to the sport and provided some great opportunities we’re lucky to have.”
“The link with rallying and Subaru is so strong,” said L’Estage. “It’s in the DNA of the brand. They are part of this whole rally family.”
The Subaru Rally Team Canada will next take on the Rally of the Tall Pines, the penultimate round of the 2017 Canadian Rally Championship. L’Estage and Ockwell will look to secure their driver and co-driver titles. Be sure to follow all of the action here, and follow the CRC on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the only official live coverage of the Canadian Rally Championship.