Antoine L’Estage knows how to drive.
He has won the Canadian Rally Championship eight times, including the past six years in a row. He has also won the North American Rally Cup several times and is a previous Rally America champion.
In case his rally dominance wasn’t already enough, for the 2105 season, L’Estage joined Subaru Canada as the factory driver for the Rocket Rally Racing WRX STI Rally car. Having already secured yet another driver and manufacturer championship, I was invited up to Bancroft, Ontario, by Subaru Canada to witness the final stop on the Canadian Rally Championship, the 2015 Rally of the Tall Pines.
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Before the event began, I had some time to sit down with L’Estage and discuss what makes him such a dominant rally driver. Are the skills needed to be the best at bombing through forest roads much the same as those needed in everyday driving? His answer is yes. What makes for a good driver is the same regardless of the situation. He pointed out five skills he hones for rallying events that everyone should be utilizing on the road to make themselves better drivers in general.
L’Estage learned early on about the importance of anticipation when driving. Knowing what’s ahead, what might be ahead, and being ready to react is essential. In rallying, grip and surfaces can change in a split second.
On the road, the same can be true, especially during winter driving. Knowing how the road surface is changing and how to react helps exponentially in driving. If people anticipated more during everyday driving, fewer collisions may occur. It’s all about being prepared.
2. Feel the Grip
Anticipating how conditions might change is important, but being able to feel these changes and how they affect the car’s grip is crucial. People don’t always feel the grip that’s available during different conditions and just assume or guess what it may be. Under the snow there could be ice, asphalt or water. Without knowing this for certain, it’s impossible to know how much braking, acceleration or cornering grip is available.
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A good way to feel the grip is to try to ease into the brakes when stopping in unknown conditions, to find the point where grip ends and the wheels start slipping. Don’t just hammer down on the brakes. Same thing when accelerating away from a stop or approaching a corner — steady, smooth application of the throttle and brakes will help you maximize grip. It’s easier to lose traction if you are jerky or too hasty with the pedals.
3. Concentrate and Focus
It may sound obvious, but it’s important to pay attention to what you’re doing behind the wheel. Drivers must know where they’re going and what the car is doing. Many people aren’t 100% concentrating on driving and in today’s overly distracted world, and it’s only getting worse.
Full concentration is must when rallying to stay on course, as obstacles blast by mere inches away. But just because speeds are much slower during regular driving, it doesn’t mean that any less focus is needed. Concentrating on the task at hand only makes you a better driver.
4. Be Well Rested
In racing, it’s imperative to be in good shape and to be well rested before an event to have full energy and proper focus, especially at night. Racing is a high-energy, high-adrenaline sport that wears on all your senses throughout the duration of a day. It’s exhausting work.
The same is true when driving on the street. The longer you spend behind the wheel, the more it’s going to wear you down. At night, visibility is reduced and many people climb behind the wheel tired and/or groggy. Be alert, rested and aware whenever driving.
5. Prepare Your Car for the Conditions
The best driver in the world isn’t going to win a rally if their car isn’t properly set up for the road conditions. Driving on dirt, gravel, ice and snow all require certain choices in terms of tire and chassis setup.
Although you are not going to alter your car every day, ensuring it has the right tires and fluids for the season are critical. You need winter tires if you’re going to be driving in the cold. As well, ensure all maintenance is up to date so your car will perform at its best.