The stage is set for round one in the Ontario Performance Rally Championship, with 22 teams on the start list for Rallye Perce Neige in Maniwaki, Quebec. The first round is going to be frigid with the forecasted temperatures being -27 and -19 degrees celsius as a high on Friday and Saturday respectively. Giving drivers, co-drivers and even the service crew yet another obstacle to overcome in attempting to complete the rally. On the start list we have everything from new drivers to drivers returning to action after a long hiatus. With all the new faces and a few of last year’s top drivers rumoured to be taking the year off, let’s take a closer look at both the 4WD and 2WD classes.
4WD has 16 cars in the class with a few drivers being the clear favourites for the outright win - Jean-Sébastien Besner being one of those drivers. Besner is arguably the driver with most experience in the class with over 1 hundred rallies under his belt. With his neat and tidy driving style he will be tough to beat. One driver that will surely be right on Besner’s bumper is Simon Vincent. We haven’t seen Vincent in a rally car since 2018, but he shouldn’t take long to get back up to speed as he was competing in the Nissan Micra Cup during his absence from rally. Vincent Trudel is another one of those drivers vying for the outright win. Trudel’s 2022 campaign was plagued with mechanic DNFs, but when everything works out we often see him on the podium. Another two drivers that had bad luck in 2022 were Sylvain Erickson and Sebastien Clark who finished only one of the 8 rallies between the two of them. With all their experience and possibly a little more luck from the rally gods, either one of them could take the win at Rallye Perce Neige.
Following our clear favourites we have a strong contingent of drivers in the 4WD class. Gabriel Monette along with Simon Aube are a couple drivers in that contingent. After battling in 2022 for the Novice Championship, Monette took the title of 2022 OPRC Novice Champion. They will have to continue the fight alongside the top cars in 4WD, with neither of them being classed as a novice in 2023. Two drivers that are novice drivers in 2023 are Francois Rioux and William Pardiac. Either Rioux or Pardiac could be looking to claim the title Monette currently holds, but first on their agenda should be to finish the rally at hand.
From the state of Massachusetts we have Emmanuel Cecchet, Margaret Sharron and Phil Cherok. Both Cecchet and Sharron are becoming regular competitors in Eastern Canada and have proven neither of them should be counted out of an event. With every OPRC event within driving distance of Massachusetts there is a good chance we will see them trading stage times in many events this year. The third American, Cherok, is classed as a novice but has been honing his skills south of the border in both rally and rally sprint events.
Rounding out the 4WD class are Cedric Tanguay and Michel Drapeau. Tanguay may seem like a new face to some with his last rally being 2017’s Rallye Defi and before that events pre 2010. Drapeau is a new face, well at least to performance rally. Drapeau is entering his first rally after winning the Quebec Rallycross Championship last year.
In the class where the engine only powers two wheels, otherwise known as 2WD, we find 6 drivers crazy enough to attempt to rally a 2WD car through the snow and ice covered roads that surround Maniwaki. Leading the class over the start ramp will be Mathieu Leblanc in a very quick Honda Civic. Leblanc has over 30 starts as a driver on his resume and with that experience and a quick little Honda, there is a good chance he will be the one the rest of the class is chasing. The one driver that could turn that chase into an all-out race is Kurtis Duddy in his Nissan Sentra SpecV. In 2022 Duddy was turning heads as he entertained us all in his first year of performance rally. Not only is Duddy entertaining, he also knows how to use everything his Sentra has to offer and then some. After piloting his SpecV to the 2022 2WD OPRC title, I don’t expect Duddy to just let Leblanc take it away without a fight. Alongside Duddy in another Sentra is Mathieu Royer and like Duddy, Royer also started his performance rally career in 2022. Although he entered a limited number of events last year he will still be looking to make a name for himself in the 2WD class. There is another driver in the 2WD class with a tremendous amount of experience in a rally car - Charles Hammer. Hammer's resume goes back to the early days of stage rally in Canada. In 2022, driving his Volvo 242, Hammer finished third in class in the championship. Narrowly missing second place by only one point, he showed the competition they shouldn’t count a car out just because of it's age!
Rounding out the start list and 2WD class are the only two drivers that indicate their hometown being within the province of Ontario. The first of those two is Sean McConnachie, who campaigned his Ford Fiesta a limited amount in 2022, entering only half of the championship events - which resulted in him finding himself down the standing by the end of the year. Word on the rally road is that McConnachie plans to campaign his Fiesta for the entire duration of the championship in 2023. He will be looking to take on the front runners for the 2023 crown and will be one to keep an eye on this year. The other entrant residing in Ontario is Zvonimir Bracika, entering his first rally as a driver. Bracika has been a co-driver for the last 5 years but has finally got his chance to take a stab as driver, driving the same Plymouth Neon that was driven by Crawford New last year. He and New have decided to swap seats for 2023 and see if he can best New’s results from 2022.
Road conditions are a big change in the right direction from last year now that the event is back in its original spot on the calendar. With Canadian Rally Championship media team posting pictures of the road conditions around Maniwaki, it's clear there's some true wintery conditions. Big snow banks and some fresh snow mean it's sure to be a great time out in the forests!
Rally is unpredictable and many times what you think will happen doesn’t quite happen. Who will start the championship on the right foot and who will make it look as though they have two left feet? Let’s hope everyone makes a good first step and opens 2023 strong!
Competitor photos have been provided by Tavernier Clément Photographie
Road Condition photos provided by Canadian Rally Championship