Sunday, January 26, 2014

Subaru Rally Team USA Takes Overall Victory at Sno*Drift

Snow, nor wind nor freezing temperatures would stop the Subaru Rally Team mechanics from keeping their driver on the road. Photo Subaru Rally Team 
Hillman Michigan, David Higgins and Craig Drew of the Subaru Rally Team USA, take the victory at Sno*Drift, the opening round of the 2014 Rally America Championship. They were joined in second place by last year’s winner Antoine L’Estage in the Rockstar Energy Mitsubishi Evo, Antoine’s co-driver for Sno*Drift was Marshal Clarke,  rounding out the podium in third in their SP class Subaru was Laughlin O’ Sullivan and Scott Putman.
This year teams would be faced with blowing snow and some extreme cold temps that dipped to minus 20 c with the wind chill at the Park Expose on Friday, day one of this grueling two day rally.  Although the rally has utilized the same stages for many years, organizers will switch directions from year to year to keep teams on their toes.  This year we would see some better snow banks over prior years, which can be an advantage to slow the cars by hooking a wheel into them but also be disastrous if you hook too deep.
Antoine L’Estage would draw the short straw sending him out first on the road, a difficult position to say the least with the blinding snow and unknown icy conditions.
Higgins and Drew took full advantage of Antoine’s line over the first two stages giving them a pair of stage victories on SS1 and SS2 building a gap on 20 seconds on L’Estage.
Peter Fetela / Grzegorz Dorman were one of the first teams
to fall victim to the icy conditions. They would go off on
the first stage of the rally. Photo Greg Dorman/FB
Heading into SS3 “Eberly-Soden” Higgins and Drew would lose time due to overheating and a drop in power in their Subaru.  
Between stages 3 and 4  they would try to diagnose the issue  without success. With only one stage before service, Higgins would charge into SS4 “McCormick Lake”, apparently they did not properly insert the hood clips resulting in the hood blowing open and cracking the windshield halfway through the 7.2 mile stage.
With the hood now sitting on the windshield blocking his vision, Higgins could do nothing but peer out through the tiny gap at the bottom of the hood or out the side window, “I would just pitch the car a little sideways to see out my side” explained Higgins.
By the end of SS4 as the cars pulled into the first service of the rally, Higgins has erased the advantage he had on L’Estage on the opening stages, due to his problems on SS3 and 4 he was now down 39 seconds to the Canadian.
Any driver who has competed at Sno*drift in the past knows all too well what to expect as they head out for a second pass of any stage, glare ice! and this year would be no exception!.
Still running first on the road, Antoine L’Estage left the service in Lewiston with what would be consider a comfortable lead on Higgins given the conditions.  But on the second pass of “Shoreline” SS5, Antoine would suffer a puncture, rather than changing the wheel within the stage and losing minutes to Higgins, L’Estage pushed on through. Despite his best efforts to keep pace Antoine dropped 31 seconds to Higgins.
Higgins and Drew would continue to pile the pressure on L’Estage over the final stages of day one, heading into the overnight halt they were now up 26 seconds over L’Estage and Clarke.
We had expected to see FY Racings Adam Yeoman in the hunt for an overall podium finish here in his native Michigan, but his rally would get off to a tough start when he got stuck on a snow bank on the very first stage. Adam and co driver Jordan Schulze were eventually able to dig themselves out and get back on the road, but any hopes of a podium finish at Sno*Drift would require divine intervention.
At the end of day one it was rally veteran Laughlin O’Sullivan slotting his SP Subaru into the third overall position. By doing so Laughlin would also lead the hotly contested SP class ahead of Dillon Van Way and 2013 Rookie of the Year Nick Roberts in third, both in Subaru’s.
In 2wd we would see some changes in the Scion and Ford camps for 2014, Andrew Comrie-Picard [ACP] made the switch from Scion Racing to a Team O’Neil /Ford Racing R2 Fiesta.  With Andrews’s departure from Scion it opened the door for Matthew Johnson to make a return to the driver’s seat after a four year hiatus from the sport.  
ACP would get off to a strong start in the R2 Fiesta setting the fast time in 2WD over Johnson in his old Scion on the first 3 stages, but ACP would run aground on a snow bank on SS4 “McCormick Lake”.  Going into the overnight halt ACP had dropped almost 35 minutes to Johnston in the Scion, basically erasing any chance of repeating his 2WD Sno*Drift victory of 2013.  A pair of R2 Fiesta’s driven by Troy Miller and Panos Karpidas would round out the top three in 2WD.
L’Estage would open day two by clipping Higgins by .05 seconds on the opening stage, Higgins would answer the call by taking victories on the next two stages before service.
Coming into the first service on day two; Higgins has increased his lead on L’Estage to 43 seconds. Laughlin O’Sullivan was still holding off Dillon Van Way for third.  Matthew Johnson was holding a commanding overall position at the front of the two wheel drive pack.
Looking back to last year, L’Estage was sitting in much the same position behind Higgins and Drew at the midpoint service on day two, L’Estage and then co-driver Nathalie Richard would start a vicious attack on the closing stages of the rally to snatch victory from Higgins.
With the memories of that crushing defeat in 2013 as fresh as the resent snow fall, Higgins was not going to let history repeat itself this time around.  David Higgins and Craig Drew would not give up a single second to L’Estage over the closing stages of this year’s rally; Higgins would take victory on 10 of the 11 stages on day two to seal his victory on the 2014 Sno*Drift Rally.
Antoine L’Estage and Marshal Clarke would coast home in second with Laughlin O’Sullivan taking the final place on the overall podium.  
"Last year Antoine hurt us really bad when he beat us on the last stage at Sno*Drift," said Higgins, "These difficult conditions can change so quickly and you never know what you are going to get.  That just makes me pleased to set the year off and get the points in the bag. Now I am looking forward to getting on the gravel at the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood."

The win at Sno*Drift will be significant in Higgins bid for yet another Championship title in 2014, taking all things into consideration, another title for Higgins is highly likely in 2014.  
 With Ken Block only contesting three rounds of the Rally America Championship in 2014, he will not factor into Championship contention, regardless if he were to win all of the three rounds that he enters.
Rally America fans will also see the return of Travis Pastrana in 2014, but it’s unlikely he will be on pace with either Higgins or L’Estage for that matter in his first few outings.
It’s also unlikely that Subaru will let Pastrana and Higgins go head to head.  
Although Antoine L’Estage has proven his worth; it has been apparent for some time that his Mitsubishi is no match for the ongoing development budget of the Subaru STI and the Ford Fiesta of Block. Nonetheless, with all that been said, we really do expect to see some great action at each rally this year, regardless of a true challenge on Higgins for the Championship.

In the SP Class, along with his overall podium finish, Lauchlin O’Sullivan took away the victory in SP at Sno*Drift, but he will be feeling the pressure throughout the year from young  guns Dillon Van Way and Nick Roberts who finished respectively in second and third behind Lauchlin.
"It's great to make a comeback after such a difficult 2013 season," said O'Sullivan, "To come out and get this was a work in discipline, especially when there are four up-and-coming SP drivers to compete against. I had to drive in these icy conditions not too fast or too slow. I just had to keep doing my thing and not worry about what the others are doing. I just avoided that one 'gotcha' that could end it."
The return of #46, after a 4 year hiatus, Matt Johnson makes a return to Rally America with a victory at Sno*Drift 2014. Photo Matt Johnson /FB  
In 2WD, Scion Racing Rally xD's new driver, Matthew Johnson, paired with co-driver Jeremy Wimpey took his first victory after spending four seasons away from the sport. Johnson was expecting a challenge from Ford Racing's Andrew Comrie-Picard, but the anticipated battle never materialized following Comrie-Picard losing 35 minutes from getting stuck in a snow bank.
"I'm really happy with this result," commented Johnson, "I've been mentally preparing myself to get back in the driver seat for a couple of years and I'm really fortunate to have this opportunity by Scion Racing. They prepared a great car with a special engine for Sno*Drift, and it really paid off for the team. I couldn't be more excited for the rest of this year!"
James Robinson and Jordan Guitar grab third in
2wd in their B-SPEC Honda. Photo Alex Haugen
Comrie-Picard's misfortune helped move brothers Troy Miller and co-driver Jeremy Miller into second place for their first ever national podium. Troy Miller is in the hunt for the 2014 Rookie of the Year. Honda Performance Development's James Robinson and Jordan Guitar took third for their second 2WD category podium and also took the B-SPEC Class victory in the process. Robinson is the reigning 2013 B-SPEC Champion and he took an important first step in defending his title.
We expect to see ACP come charging back at 100AW next month,  Andrew and Team O’Neil are also expected to debut the new Ford Fiesta R3, which is a turbo charged version.
As mentioned the 100AW rally is next up on the Rally America calendar, although we do not have confirmation yet, we fully expect to see Ken Block and Alex Gelsomeno  on the start line. Travis Pastrana is already on the entry list. Hopefully we will not see the snowy conditions we had in 2013, so drivers can go all out on the fast flowing stages.
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Sources: Rally America.