Elfyn Evans' 2020 WRC season: Mud, sweat and tears

Corks were ready to fly for the first British WRC champion since Richard Burns 20 years ago. Anthony Peacock speaks to Elfyn Evans about his bittersweet experience and why the season was more than a glorious failure

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Elfyn Evans has his feet firmly on the ground – but most people who come from Dinas Mawddwy do. It’s a quiet and unpretentious village, home to around 600 people, close to Machynlleth in mid-Wales, and surrounded by stunning countryside: heaven for mountain biking and outdoor training. Evans’ grandfather founded a motor dealership there in 1930, which expanded over time and in 1983 was renamed after Elfyn’s father: Gwyndaf Evans Motors.

Elfyn used to work there himself – “before the whole rallying thing took over” – but he’s still grateful to have it there in the background. “As a rally driver, your career is relatively short,” he points out. “So it’s always good to have something to come back to.”

Gwyndaf – a cult hero himself – still does his son’s gravel notes, checking the pace notes ahead of the competing cars. It’s very much a family business, in every sense.

This means that you won’t find Elfyn moving to anywhere like Monaco either, now that he’s achieved the fame and fortune of being a world championship contender. Perhaps even world champion by this time next year – as so nearly happened this season.

He is also pragmatic about the fact that he so cruelly lost out on the world championship this year: 25 years on from Colin McRae winning the title.

“I knew we stood a good chance. Sweden was a turning point”
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After a six-month break, the season picked up again at Estonia in September. Evans was fourth and trailed
Ogier by nine points

“That wasn’t a statistic that I thought about myself, although a few people reminded me of it in the build-up to the final round,” says Elfyn. “I can’t say it affected me that much. I’m just going to have to try and win the title 26 years after Colin first did it now.”

Elfyn came into the hastily rescheduled decider at Monza in Italy with a 14-point advantage over his team-mate Sébastien Ogier. So he just needed a solid finish, but Monza was anything but an ordinary rally. The stages around Italy were covered in ice and snow, making it more reminiscent of Rallye Monte Carlo than anything you would find at the home of the Italian Grand Prix.

Nonetheless, Evans was doing exactly what was needed, in third overall – right up until a tightening right-hander on SS11, Gerosa.

“It wasn’t a particularly fast corner, but I was too fast for the conditions,” remembers Evans. “What happened was that there was a surface change under the snow that completely altered the level of grip. I lost the back end, and although I tried to get it back, we ended up going off and I knew it was all over.”

As any driver in a similar showdown situation will tell you, to win a title you still have to drive normally to win. And Evans was actually 4.5secs up on Ogier when he went off. It was just bad luck that the Welshman had to try and bring the title home on what turned out to be one of the most varied and unpredictable events of the year.

“I don’t see it that way,” Evans points out. “As a rally driver, you have to be quick everywhere. So no excuses.”

It was precisely those qualities that endeared Evans to Toyota, as he made the jump to the Japanese squad after spending the entirety of his career to date at M-Sport Ford. “I didn’t really know what to expect, as it was a complete change of scene for me,” he adds. “But in 2019 I knew that we’d been best of the rest, despite missing three rallies with a back injury. So I hoped we could be competitive.”

That was a massive understatement. Evans made a flying start to life as a Toyota driver. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Ogier who won the opening Thursday night stage of Rallye Monte-Carlo. But over the next two days in the Hautes-Alpes, it was Evans who actually looked more at home in his new Yaris. Particularly impressive were his three stage wins out of three on Friday morning, and a time 7.6secs quicker than anyone else in one particularly icy test on Saturday. Only 4.9secs split Evans and Ogier on arrival in Monaco on Saturday night – but Thierry Neuville was only 1.5sec further back. The Belgian then monstered Sunday’s ice-free stages in the same Hyundai he’d been driving for three years already. Toyota went the wrong way with set up, leaving Ogier second and Evans third.

“In heavy rain, even the stages at Monza itself proved difficult”

On his first visit to the Monte podium, Evans cut a frustrated figure, ruing the missed opportunity. But he had already proven he was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Yaris. And the next chance for glory was less than three weeks away in Sweden.

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Evans went into the final rally leading the championship. Conditions in Italy were, at times, more reminiscent of Sweden

Evans led this one from start to finish. Ongoing mild weather meant the rally was shortened to 11 stages from the planned 19, but Evans also had to deal with more unpredictable grip levels than usual and the need to preserve the studs in his tyres. Sunday’s rain-hit final stage was particularly tricky, resembling Wales in November more than Sweden in February, but Evans made it through to take his second WRC victory and first outside his homeland.

“It was probably then that I knew we stood a good chance,” he remembers. “Monte was good, but Sweden was a bit of a turning point.”

He was also now the championship leader for the first time in his career, tied on points with Neuville but ahead on countback. That gave him the unenviable position of sweeping the gravel roads of Mexico on the Friday of round three. Given that, fourth place at the end of the weekend (cut short by a day to make sure the teams could return to Europe as the pandemic took hold and borders began to close) was a perfectly respectable result. A sixth Mexico win in eight years for Ogier put the Frenchman top of the standings over the unplanned break of nearly sixth months that followed. This gave Evans plenty of time to think about how he could get the lead back.

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Snow to the north of Monza

With Rally Finland among the events scrubbed, in came Rally Estonia to host the restart in September. That Ott Tänak won in his backyard was no surprise. That Toyota had to make do with third, fourth and fifth behind Tänak’s Hyundai team-mate Craig Breen was somewhat less expected on such quick roads. Evans, who escaped a high-speed crash on a test event two weeks prior, came away with fourth place behind Ogier and ahead of teen sensation Kalle Rovanperä, who had been the quickest of Toyota’s trio aside from a puncture and a time penalty.

Tyres were an even bigger talking point in Turkey. Evans slipped from second to fourth with extreme tyre wear on Saturday afternoon, and perhaps that influenced his approach to Sunday’s first remarkably rough opening stage. He made it through the 23 miles of Cetibeli unscathed and vaulted from fourth to first after others had to stop and change tyres. Another slice of good fortune followed when Ogier stopped with an engine issue. Evans won the rally and moved 18 points ahead of his team-mate at the top of the standings.

On a rescheduled visit to Sardinia, Evans once more had to open the road, and once again came away with a solid fourth place, thus conceding only four points of his championship margin to Ogier. The two events left on the calendar would both take place on asphalt, where running first on the road could be an advantage. Then a WRC debut for the Ypres Rally was cancelled when Belgium went back into Covid lockdown.

That left Rally Monza: an annual end-of-season exhibition event at the Italian Grand Prix venue, this year upgraded to WRC status with an added day’s stages in the mountains above Bergamo.

In heavy rain, even the stages at Monza itself proved difficult. Evans made it to the end of Friday in fourth place, still looking good for the 2020  championship title. In the mountains on Saturday, the crews discovered Monte-like wintery conditions. Ogier looked at home and quickly moved into the lead, but Evans also seemed comfortable. Until that corner on an icy and slushy SS11.

What speaks volumes about Evans, his co-driver Scott Martin, and their team spirit as well as sportsmanship, was that their first reaction was to get out and stand by the side of the road to warn Ogier – who was coming up behind them – about the tricky corner. Had the British pair not done that, he could well have followed them into the ditch – and Evans would be champion.

But that’s not how he does things.

“In the end, it’s been a good year,” he concludes. “There are always things you think you could have done differently or better, but I got to grips with the team and the car quite quickly – which was probably the biggest question mark heading into the season – and I think we did a good job. We just need to do a better one next year.”

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In the Italian mountains disaster struck; Evans and Martin were quickly out of their Yaris to warn Ogier about the dangerous bend.