Subaru Canada has a long history in rally racing and has established a strong presence in the Canadian circuit.
Story and Photos by Andrew Ling
Rallying has always been a brutally tough motorsport. With wildly uncompromising terrain, conditions that can change in a blink of the eye and constant demands on the cars, it’s one of the most challenging sports in the world.
Many have argued that rally drivers are the best in the world, combining the stamina of a professional athlete, the driving abilities of a Formula 1 driver, the navigating capabilitie of off-road expert, as well as a soupçon of Shadytree backyard mechanics for roadside repairs on the fly.
Having watched the World Rally Championship since I was young, I absolutely jumped at the opportunity when Subaru Canada offered me a behind-the-scenes experience of their Canadian rally involvement during the Pacific Forest Rally in Merritt, BC. After all, when it comes to the rallysport, the words “rally car” and “Subaru” are almost synonymous.
What is the Canadian Rally Championship?
The Canadian Rally Championship is comprised of six events held nationwide in a season that extends from February to November. The series is presented by Subaru Canada and supported by Yokohama Tire Canada. The Canadian Association of Rallysport (CARS) is the official sanctioning body for rallying in Canada.
The Pacific Forest Rally is the first western event on the 2015 Canadian Rally Championship calendar. Snaking along technical roads in the hills surrounding the Nicola Valley, the event takes place over two days and includes significant night time portions of competition. Clear skies (which also meant frigid conditions) and dry roads provided ideal conditions for competition.
Subaru’s History in RallySport
Subaru has always been a unique and characterful Japanese manufacturer whose entire philosophy centres around all-wheel-drive and horizontally-opposed boxer engines (the latter also shared with Porsche). As a niche manufacturer, Subaru didn’t have the marketing horsepower of its larger Japanese rivals, namely Toyota and Honda. Their image was decidedly conservative before they hit the rally scene.
But all of that changed in 1989 when Subaru launched the Legacy where it accomplished an FIA Saunctioned record of 100,000 consecutive kilometres driving at a World Record of 223.345 km/hr. It was also at this juncture that Subaru handed their rally program over to the private UK-based team, Prodrive. The Legacy proved competitive right of the box and the rest, as they say, is history.
In the mid-1990s, with Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz at the helm, the iconic blue Impreza wearing yellow 555 decals became mythical – yielding a cult-like following, similar (to a lesser extent) to that of Ferrari in Formula One; to this day, a good Subaru is a blue Subaru – one with gold rims.
Like Audi, Subaru also popularized the idea of all-wheel-drive in passenger cars. Like Audi, Subaru also used their rally team to showcase its symmetrical all-wheel-drive technology, and has credited the increased sales of its vehicle, particularly the Subaru Impreza WRX, with its successs in the World Rally Championship.
Subaru Rally Team Canada (SRTC)
Due to worldwide economic decline in 2008, Subaru, along with several other manufacturers, pulled out of the World Rally Championship. But fortunately for Canadian rally fans, Subaru Canada has seen fit to continue on supporting the motorsport with their own factory-backed team.
Subaru Canada has a long history in rally racing and has established a strong presence in the Canadian circuit since 1992. In fact in 2014, Subaru Canada strengthened their commitment to Canadian motorsports with a three-year partnership with the legendary Patrick Richard and Rocket Rally Racing based out of Squamish BC. Rocket Rally Racing has since custom built-two 2015 Subaru WRX STIs for the Canadian Rally Championship season.
My extensive tour of the Rocket Rally Racing shop was an absolute revelation. Nestled in quiet Squamish BC is an operation that lives and breathes rallysport to the highest degree. And little did I know that it was hiding right in plain sight.
Championship-winning plaques, photos, and medals adorn the walls of the shop and office. The parts department? Well it’s s a Subaru rally fan’s dream. But this is no grubby grease monkey operation. The shelves, inventory, and layout are more akin to that of a high-end Porsche dealership’s parts department.
At the back of the shop is an enclosed four-wheel-drive capable rolling road (also known as a dyno). This setup’s turbine fans are so powerful that model airplane pilots are able to test their remote control scale models in the specialized room. Next to the dyno room sits a bespoke jig, designed to ensure that the shell of a damaged car is repaired and restored to millimetric precision.
The team? Other than Canadian rally legend Pat Richard, there is also rally engineer Ray Richards, whose background includes work as an R&D engineer for Bilstein Motorsports and as an Aerospace engineer for Crompton technology group. Ray’s expertise in CAD/CAM is part of Rocket Rally’s recipe for success. The company is able to design and fabricate its own strengthened components and sell them to teams all across North America. If any component breaks, they can replicate another version of it without problems.
But it’s not just all seasoned rally veterans that work at Rocket Rally Racing. There were plenty of younger mechanics, interested in the sport or with cars in general. They were all working feverishly to prepare the cars for the championship. These gentlemen represent the future of Rocket Rally Racing, the Canadian Rally Championship, and add a tremendous part to the team. They are, indeed, the backbone of the operation, and everyone plays a part in the orchestra that is “service” when the SRTC WRX STI pulls under the tent between stages.
As for Subaru Rally Team Canada’s driver and co-driver, the dynamic duo consists of 9 time Canadian Rally Champion Antoine L’Estage and Alan Ockwell. Under their stewardship, Subaru Rally Team Canada clinched the manufacturer’s title for an 11th time. This now ties Subaru for the most CRC marque titles in history, placing the brand at the forefront of rallysport.
Why should the public care about Subaru Canada’s involvement in rally?
“Real cars, Real roads, Real fast” was often the phrase that I heard throughout the Pacific Forest Rally weekend.
But why should a potential Subaru customer care about Subaru Canada’s involvement in rallysport? The answer is simple. It all comes down to research and development.
Since rally is an all-season motorsport that sees drivers and their co-drivers taking their modified road cars to the limit over closed-road courses that typically cover more than 125 kilometres of gravel, dirt or snow-covered roads, it is indeed the perfect testing ground for Subaru to fine-tune their unique technologies, and also admittedly a clever marketing tool to gain consumer acceptance in order to popularize the company’s symmetrical all-wheel-drive system.
Subaru has always said that the opinions and feedback from their Subaru World Rally Team drivers have benefited the development of production vehicles. Those developments have, in turn, been added to the rally cars to enhance performance. Since the rally cars are based on production cars, the synergic effects between rally cars and production cars are such that once the production vehicles are improved and upgraded, rallying vehicles too will reflect those further improvements and features.
Moreover, unlike many other forms of motorsport, fans can get up close to their favourite cars and their favourite drivers in the service areas to see the action first hand. And they can truly see the action first hand from designated spectator points located at the best spots on the route.
It is truly a marketer’s dream then, to be able to instil a brand presence so poignantly and with such high frequency to a target audience. For those few days leading up to the Pacific Forest Rally, the town of Merritt was peppered with Subarus of all model years and configurations. From the latest Crosstreks, Outbacks, to Imprezas, it was the land of Subarus for as far as the eye could see. Surely no marketer (or company) would ever have enough budget to buy that sort of brand loyalty.
Ah but it goes much deeper than just brand impressions alone. During the Pacific Forest Rally, when Antoine L’Estage and Alan Ockwell came screaming down the gravel road and took the turn sideways right in front of my eyes, I knew I was hooked. In a flash, the Subaru Rally Team Canada WRX STI was gone, leaving us all in a cloud of fine dust. It made my heart race, my face beam, and the hair of the back of my neck stand up.
Surely you would think that one would be bored by all of the waiting at the side of a dirt road, but the atmosphere as quite the opposite. Hundreds stood in the cold waiting for their favourite cars to tear by, and regardless of age, race, or background, everyone was mesmerized by the experience and the camaraderie.
Memories like these bring a loosely connected set of groups and individuals and shape them into what sociologists call a “communally sacred word experience”.
Subaru Canada’s success in rally is not only the result of developing world class rally cars, but also of turning aspiring young drivers into superb ones. Aside from the SRTC’s WRX STI, my other favourite sighting was that of a previous generation matte black Subaru WRX STI piloted by none other than mountain bike champion and Red Bull-sponsored athlete Brandon Semenuk.
Having grown up in Whistler and always having done a lot of riding and running up the logging roads near Whistler and Squamish, Semenuk would always see rally cars on route and evenutually decided to get into the sport himself by buying a Subaru Impreza WRX as soon as he got his license.
While Semenuk modestly says that he is mostly self-taught, he has also received advice from Rocket Rally Racing’s Pat Richard himself. In fact, Semenuk’s car is also maintained and prepared by the Rocket Rally Racing as well.
David Lapword, the former team boss of Subaru’s World Rally Team, put it like this in the 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, “Engineering the World Rally”. “To get real value out of a motorsports program, you need to be seen to be winners. You don’t have to win every rally, but you have to be keeping your stride right such that you are always perceived to be in the frame. You are always perceived to be a leading team”.
Though there have been challenges, my brief encounter left me no doubt as to the level of passion for motorsport and its technologies that the crew at Rocket Rally Racing and the Subaru Rally Team Canada crew have committed themselves to.
It’s not only the drivers and co-drivers, but also the rally team staff, engineers, and service crews that bring the power and dedication to Subaru Rally Team Canada’s winning history.
The lessons learned through Subaru’s extensive rally heritage are evident in their entire line-up of vehicles, including the rally-bred WRX and WRX STI. After all “WRX” does stand for “World Rally eXperimental”.
And so, while this was the first of my rally thrill experiences, it will certainly not be my last. One thing is for certain though, I’ll definitely remember to pack more than one pair of long underwear the next time.