Rally of the Tall Pines: Nathalie Richard takes aim at another title

‘It's nice to be going back to my roots and be wearing blue again'

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In 1999, Patrick Richard of Toronto saw coverage of a Canadian rally on TSN and thought it looked like fun. He owned a Subaru at the time, so he installed a roll cage and off he went to compete.

His sister Nathalie was also living in Toronto and went to watch him drive in the Rallye de Charlevoix in Quebec. She was immediately attracted to the sport.

For the 2000 season, Richard campaigned the entire SCCA Pro Rally season with Nathalie as team manager. At a couple of events, the team’s co-driver wasn’t available to compete so the team manager stepped in, as happens from time to time.

Who knew that this brother and sister would go on to become two of the most important competitors in all of North American rallying?

As the pair rose to the upper levels of the sport, Nathalie fell in love with another driver, Antoine L’Estage of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. In 2006, Nathalie Richard left her brother’s blue Subaru to take the seat beside L’Estage in his black Mitsubishi.

They became a couple as well as racing partners and have since dominated the Canadian, U.S. and North American championships.

Those incredible results have positioned Nathalie Richard as being one of the greatest rally co-drivers of all time, having been named North American Rally Champion no less than eight times. That is just one win shy of U.S. rally legend John Buffum’s record.

Most relationships are difficult enough without the added stress of competition.

When Richard and L’Estage broke up as a couple last year, they were determined to keep their competitive partnership alive. It worked for awhile but, calling it the most difficult decision of her life, Richard — now living in Halifax — resigned as L’Estage’s co-driver in the middle of this season.

Interestingly, this came at a time when Patrick Richard did not have a full-time co-driver.

It was announced just days ago that the Richard brother and sister had come full circle and that Natalie would return to the navigator’s seat of the iconic blue Subaru rally car for this weekend’s Rally of the Tall Pines, the most important Canadian rally of the year.

The Tall Pines, as it’s known, has been the final event of the Canadian and North American rally championships for decades and is considered one of the most difficult events on the international calendar.

Held just outside Bancroft in eastern Ontario, the Tall Pines challenges competitors with what has been described as “winter roads with summer ditches.”

There is no margin for error, as there are no snowbanks to prevent errant cars from entering the woods. Typical of November in Ontario cottage country, temperatures in recent years have ranged from a high of 12 Celsius all the way down to -20C.

L’Estage is going into the weekend in the lead for the drivers championship. Accompanied now by Welsh co-driver Craig Parry, he scored his sixth victory of the season earlier this month at the Rocky Mountain Rally, which clinched his sixth North American title and put him in front for the Canadian championship with just the Tall Pines remaining.

Noting the unique dynamic of the two teams, I asked Nathalie Richard whether it was easier to drive with a significant other or a brother?

Richard responded that she and L’Estage approached the organization and preparation side of a rally in the same way, which likely made communication easier.

But does sibling rivalry play a part, now that she’s with her brother? A chuckle on the other end of the line tells me that this may be the case.

Was Subaru Canada part of the decision to bring her back to her brother’s team?

“My involvement with the team couldn’t have happened without Subaru,” she said, adding that, “It is nice to be going back to my roots and be wearing blue again.”

That sentiment was echoed by Brian Hyland of Subaru Canada.

“Nathalie and Pat made up a great team before, so Subaru Canada is looking forward to them reuniting for this last race of the year as Pat goes for the drivers championship.”

Perhaps the most exciting part of having Nathalie Richard back in a car with her brother is that despite missing the past couple of events, she is still very much in the hunt to win the North American Rally Championship for co-drivers.

If she’s successful, it will be her ninth championship, tying Buffum’s record for titles. Pat Richard, now of Squamish, B.C., is also still in the running for the top spot in the Canadian Rally Championship, although it will be difficult to stop L’Estage.

Of the five Canadian rallies held to date, L’Estage and Pat Richard have finished first and second in three of them. Perhaps Nathalie Richard’s talent and experience will help her brother reverse that order this weekend.

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