Sunday, February 5, 2012

David Higgins Masters Ice at Sno*Drift 2012 to take Victory for Subaru

With frozen fingers drivers and co-drivers try to pry the tops off the bubbly relived to have finished a very challenging Sno*Drift 2012. Photo: Neil McDaid / Rally World News
Atlanta MI, Manx Ace, David Higgins and Subaru Rally Team USA take a dominant overall victory at the 2012 Sno*Drift Rally. Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew mastered the extremely challenging conditions to keep Canadian Antoine L’Estage in his Rockstar Energy Drink sponsored Mitsubishi in second place. Rounding out the podium was “Crazy Leo” Urlichich, Leo, a highly entertaining character and driver who was making his first appearance on the Rally America circuit. 
This the 36th running of the Sno*Drift rally was the opening round of the 2012 Rally America Championship.

As with many northern U.S. states, Michigan has had limited snow falls in 2012, with higher than normal temps during the daylight hours, what little snow that did fall on the stage roads would melt during the day and freeze hard over night, leaving a thick layer of ice.

This year’s Sno*Drift Rally would see drivers tackle 24 special stages which were located mainly in the Atlanta and Lewiston area of northern Michigan.

Team Subaru driver David Higgins and his Co-driver Craig Drew on their way to a deserving victory at Sno*Drift 2012. Photo: Neil McDaid / Rally World News
SS1 Eberly Road would dish up a taste of things to come on day-one, ice, ice, and more ice. Running first on the road David Higgins would opt for the cautious approach easing his way through the tighter sections, an approach that would reward him with the stage victory.  Antoine L’Estage who was though by many to have the edge coming into Sno*Drift would make a rare mistake by cutting a snow bank on SS1 then spinning , thus costing him valuable seconds.

Many more including Crazy Leo would be caught out on the very challenging opening test.
As we moved through the early stages on day-one, no one seemed to have an answer for the pace or grip of Higgins in his Team Subaru STI, David took victories on all 6 opening stages. As cars returned to Lewiston for the first service of the rally, service crews scrambled with tires and setup in an effort to find grip on this very challenging surface. Unlike the WRC, studded tire are not allowed on the Rally America Champion.

Into the night, L’Estage launches his attack on SS7.
Photo: Neil McDaid/Rally World News
After the opening six stages Antoine L’Estage was already down by almost 2 minutes to Higgins, a deficit that he would find difficult to recover from on the icy stages of northern Michigan.  Into the night and the first of the stages in the dark, L’Estage would take the bit between his teeth charging hard on the longest and most challenging stage on day-one, SS7 “The Ranch” where he would finally eke out a stage victory over Higgins. David and Antoine would go on to swap times over the final six stages on day one, with Crazy Leo Urlichich grabbing the final stage victory.  

At the end of day-one and twelve very challenging stages behind them, Antoine L’Estage was still holding second place, he had also managed to reel back a little time from Higgins, narrowing the gap now to 1:34.

Despite some hairy moments along the way Crazy Leo Urlichich would hold third overall. 

Despite a damaged steering arm from an off on SS13, Crazy Leo would push on to capture 2nd overall. Photo: Neil McDaid/Rally World News
In 2WD Chris Duplessis the defending 2011 2WD Rally America National Champion was off to a flying start in his quest to retain his 2WD title. Driving the newly developed Team O’Neill Ford Fiesta R2, Chris and his Irish co-driver Karl Atkinson held a commanding lead over the 2WD field, showing a sizable gap to fellow Fiesta driver Dillon Van Way and Jake Blattner at the close of day-one.

After some overnight snow crews were again faced with the guessing game regarding the optimal tire choice.  After the first two stages on day-two it was soon clear that the snow and ice experience of L’Estage and his crew chief, rally legend John Buffum rose to the top. The pair had selected the prime tire for the conditions, Antoine opted for  Yokahama A034s.
L’Estage and co-driver Nathalie Richard would dominate in the RockStar Mitsubishi on the opening stages of day-two as the snow continued to fall. But unfortunately for L’Estage the gap from day-one was a bridge to far. With Higgins on a better tire for the snowy conditions after the mid-day service, Antoine would have to concede victory as he once again struggled to answer the pace of team Subaru and made the choice to maintain his second place podium position over Crazy Leo.

Joseph Burke and Paddy Robinson stayed within the top five throughout the rally despite Burke’s lack of experience on the Ice. Photo: Neil McDaid / Rally World News  
"We may not have won but the outcome of this first rally in 2012 is still pretty positive. On one hand, the new car had no mechanical issues and doesn’t have a scratch on it and on the other hand, we earned second place points in what is promising to be a hotly contested championship" confides Antoine L'Estage, who adds: "the 2012 edition of the SnoDrift Rally was without a doubt the toughest driving conditions I’ve ever been faced with. The icy roads were comparable to an extremely smooth ice rink and it was practically impossible to find any grip. The first loop of stages was especially tough for me before I was able to better adapt to the new car on ice. I also made a mistake by cutting a corner where I shouldn’t have, resulting in a flat tire and another big loss of time" adds the Rockstar Energy Drink driver.

"Congrats to our British rivals David Higgins and Craig Drew – they had an excellent weekend" adds Antoine L'Estage, who concludes: "thanks to Nathalie for another perfect co-driving job, to my entire Rockstar team, and to our sponsors, which now also includes Formica for the 2012 season."

After fighting the extreme conditions of Sno*Drift 2012, David Higgins is off to an excellent start in defending his 2011 Rally America title. Higgins was quick to point out that this was no easy victory,

"The icy roads combined with lack of spiked tires makes this one of the toughest rallies and a challenge I think that is unique in rallying anywhere in the world," explained Higgins. "Mentally it's very draining, as you are constantly on the edge all weekend with the knowledge that any small mistake could just end the rally. The grip levels would go from variable to non-existent in a flash."

Rounding out the overall podium was Crazy Leo, taken into considering the amount of time he lost after a spin on the opening stage of day-two in which his Subaru [AKA “Beast”] sustained steering damage; it truly was a remarkable charge back for the Russian to grab the last podium spot. Unfortunately for Leo, his victory on the stages was stripped due to a technical rules infraction on his car. Leo has appealed the ruling and the final result is pending.


There is little to no doubt that Chris Duplessis [right] is the top 2WD rally driver competing in the USA today. Duplessis with his new co-driver Karl Atkinson[left] were an astounding 5 minutes ahead of their nearest rival at end of Sno*Drift 2012. Photo: Neil McDaid / Rally World News
In 2WD it was total domination by Chris Duplessis and Karl Atkinson in the R2 Fiesta winning a total of 18 of the 24 stages, despite a few spins along the way there never really was a threat from any of the other 2WD cars on Duplessis. Andrew Comrie-Picard and Jeremy Wimpey in the 2011 Scion xD grabbed second away from Ford Racing’s Dillon Van Way in the final stages to round out the 2wd podium.

Crews are already looking forward to round number two of the 2012 Rally America Championship in Missouri, Rally in the 100 Acre Wood. There is much speculation that we will see the return of Ken Block and his Monster World Rally Team Fiesta. Polish Rally legend Krzysztof Holowczyc fresh of an 11th place finish on this year’s Dakar Rally, Krzysztof will be an interesting addition to what’s already shaping up to be a very competitive top 10.

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Full Sno*Drift Rally results: