Story by Keith Morison/RPAC
As the 2017 WRC season kicked off, there were several Canadians taking part in the traditional opener, Rallye Monte Carlo. Among them was ten-time CRC Champion Antoine L’Estage, who was there trying on a role that was new to him, and decidedly away from the center of attention.
“I was doing ice notes for Gus Greensmith and Craig Parry,” explained L’Estage. “Gus showed great speed last year and he’s now integrated into the M-Sport team for a nine event WRC2 program this year. He’s sort of a young prospect that they’re thinking could climb up the ladder and end up in the world championships.”
While supporting a young driver at a WRC event might seem a world away from his normal role as a driver, the event was a result of some of L’Estage’s connections in the sport. Greensmith’s co-driver, Craig Parry, co-drove for Antoine in 2013 and 2015 in both Canada and the US. The pair stayed in touch, which helped bring this opportunity together. “[Craig] gave me a call right after Big White, at the end of 2017, saying they wanted to make some changes within their team, and he thought of me because of the experience I have on snow and ice with non-studded tires. The team was looking for someone who had the experience with winter conditions as well as having enough experience to be confident in what they would want to be changed.”
There is no question that any WRC event was going to be a big change from what he’s used to in Canada or the USA, and L’Estage said the experience was incredible. “I was working within a team like M Sport and doing the same job as guys like Simon Jean-Joseph – who is doing ice notes for Ogier – and Gwyndaf Evans – who is doing notes for his son Elfyn.”
While he quietly admits to being a bit star-struck around the team and working with drivers he’s followed for years, his professional approach made it easy to ask for help. “I wanted to do a very good job, so I didn’t hesitate to go see them and ask a bunch of questions and they were very nice, we had good chats, we spent time together. It was a great atmosphere.”
“I have followed Simon Jean-Joseph for a long time. Just to have a couple of tips from the guy who’s been doing that job with Ogier for the past five six years was just amazing. You know these guys they’re all good guys, just guys similar to us
“I also talked with Gwyndalf Evans and one of the first thing he said to me was ‘I hate that job and I’m telling you, you’re going to hate it. It’s hard. It’s difficult.’”
The biggest lesson L’Estage says he learned from the experienced crews around him was to take the time to do the job right. “There’s no rush, you have plenty of time. If you need to slow down or you need to stop to correct something with your co-driver, take the time. Sure enough, probably the slowest guys were the top guys.”
The life of the Ice Notes crews is filled with long days, often leaving the hotel as early as 4:00am. That early start doesn’t mean an early end to the day as the crews will wait for the drivers to finish their days so they can review the notes and make sure the changes are making sense.
The job is crucial to the team’s success, but might not involve what most people will expect. While all of the ice notes crews are very experienced drivers and co-drivers, the job isn’t to change the driver’s pace notes. “The drivers will do their two pass recce and they will just focus on the actual road and they won’t worry too much about the surface,” says L’Estage. “When we get to a stage, we have a set of notes, but without any of the changeable conditions. Our job is to add everything that is different in terms of surface, so we go through and we’ll add where it’s wet, where there is mud, where a cut might have changed, where it’s icy, where there’s snow, and so on.
“There are a lot of things to put in but at the same time you have to have a system where it’s feasible for the co-drivers to talk together and make the changes in the notes, and it has to be possible for the actual co-driver to deliver that extra information during the rally.”
Just as the competitors do, the ice notes crews will run every stage twice. The second pass often offers completely different road conditions, making the job even more complex. “Maybe the road was wet the first time for us, and then by the time the team did the stage it was dry, and now there’s mud everywhere. So you have to add stuff and take some stuff away… It can be a real headache.”
Adjusting to another driver’s notes can be challenging, but L’Estage’s co-driver for the task was Steve Lancaster, who’s been working with Gus and Craig for a long time. “Steve was more familiar with the note system, so it was quite easy for him to read the notes, so it made everything easier for me. It was good working with him, a very experienced guy who did more than 50 WRC Events all around the world. He did a very good job, actually making my job easy.”
Something else that made the job easier was a properly equipped car to do the job in. While the pace of the ice note job is slower, L’Estage was able to use one of M-Sport’s legendary S60 Recce cars. Dating back to the early 2000s, the Volvos are four-wheel drive, turbo five-cylinder cars that are and fully prepared with Reiger suspension, a full roll cage, bucket seats, harnesses, rally odometers, and intercom. “I know some people would say these have been around, their old and stuff like that, but for me, it was just something special to drive one of these cars! To be honest, to sit in a proper car like that makes the job a little bit easier because it feels like you’re in a Group N rally car.”
Quietly, L’Estage admits the event was more enjoyable than he let on. “I was making sure to be professional but honestly, within myself, I was just like a kid,” said L’Estage.
When asked what part of the event was the most memorable, it is no surprise to anyone what he said. “The roads were the best thing… such amazing roads. Lots of long stages with a change of rhythm. You’d have a fast section and then a very tricky narrow section, then you go through a little village… driving these roads was the best part.”
With Monte Carlo out of the way, it looks like this might not be the last outing with M-Sport. There will be opportunities to work with Greensmith in the future, and L’Estage feels optimistic that he’ll be asked back. “They were happy with the job and the connection was good, so we’ll see what that brings us for the future.”