I’d like to start this column off with a proviso. Mikko Hirvonen was a great World Rally Championship driver who, back in my childhood when I watched the WRC purely as a fan, I often supported in his fights against Sébastien Loeb.
But, as you know as well as I, Hirvonen never quite managed to add his name to the illustrious list of drivers to have become World Rally Champion. He came tremendously close on a few occasions – not least 2009 where he lost by just one point and the fight went down to the final leg of the final round of the season – but just never quite got over the line.
Elfyn Evans is potentially in danger of a similar fate. Twice – most agonizingly in 2020 when he held the advantage but slipped off the road – he has entered the season finale with a shot at the championship, but on both occasions he lost out to the other Sébastien: Mr Ogier.
Hirvonen and Evans are far from the WRC’s only nearly men – spare a thought for poor Markku Alén. But there’s a strong synergy between the M-Sport team-mates of 2014 given their status when the WRC’s dominator of their respective periods elected to step back.
The trajectory of the 2022 season will dictate whether this Evans/Hirvonen comparison is killed or continues to linger in the future.
When Loeb called time on his permanent WRC career at the end of the 2012 season, Hirvonen looked to be his obvious successor. He’d finished second to him in four of the previous five seasons, and was set to become the de facto number one at Citroën having joined Loeb for his final season.
Evans’ tale is similar, having finished second to Ogier in both 2020 and ’21 as his Toyota team-mate, surely he’ll just go one better in 2022 with Ogier regressing to a part-time program?
That’s exactly what my DirtFish colleague David Evans put to Evans ahead of his final Monte Carlo Rally test on Wednesday. Ogier’s absence makes Evans championship favorite, doesn’t it?
“I don’t know, does it?” came the clever response.
Evans wasn’t taking that bait. He isn’t interested in such mind games – it’s not his style. But he’ll equally be aware that form from a previous season doesn’t guarantee anything for the following year.
It's far, far too early to be making predictions at the momentElfyn Evans
Let’s journey back to 2013 and Hirvonen’s anticipated golden chance to finally get the monkey off his back and win the championship.
And we’ll cut to the chase: 2013 isn’t remembered as a year of Hirvonen domination is it? Instead, it stands out for the Ogier and Volkswagen steamroller firmly announcing itself on the world stage and blitzing the next four seasons.
Hirvonen was theoretically the favorite, but it didn’t materialize. Just like Evans is theoretically the favorite this year, and that means very little. Particularly when – unlike in 2013 when Hirvonen was driving the same DS3 WRC that he did the previous season – the WRC is undergoing a major rules reset like it is today.
“It’s very difficult to know because it’s not only the question of who’s got a good car or who’s not good a good car – maybe everybody’s got a good car, we don’t know – but also who takes to the new cars, who can adapt to the new cars, get the most out of them,” Evans says when this is put to him.
“I would say it’s far, far too early to be making predictions at the moment.”
Evans might – quite rightly – be afraid to make a prediction (at least publicly) but that doesn’t stop us from mulling it over.
Ignoring all the uncertain external factors such as reliability and car performance for just a moment, from a pure driving perspective is Evans really at risk of becoming another Hirvonen and falling from grace just when he should’ve been there to pounce?
It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
The key difference between Evans and Hirvonen is the differing stages they’re at in their careers upon arriving in this prime position.
Back in 2013 Hirvonen had already reached his peak (2009) and had tailed off a touch in 2010 – where he finished a distant sixth – and 2011 where Jari-Matti Latvala’s assistance helped him take the fight to the wire with Loeb who was in a toxic Citroën team alongside Ogier.
When he came to Citroën in 2012 Hirvonen won just once and was largely outperformed by his former team-mate Latvala. Realistically it was only Latvala’s crash-strewn form for Ford that meant Hirvonen beat him to second in the championship.
The jury is still out on whether Evans has already climbed to his ultimate peak. It may be that we look back on that fateful slip down a hillside in the Italian mountains as the moment it all got away from him; an ultimately fitting metaphor given he quite literally slid from a peak.
But if that does prove to be the best of Evans of the WRC, it’s clear that at this moment in time he’s still performing on a similar plane. His 2021 season was admittedly marginally less impressive than 2020, but a lot of that could be put down to raised expectations. And it’s worth remembering his most complete and crushing drive in the WRC yet – his Rally Finland win – came last year.
Before then, he was showing clear signs of progress – the first victory fight in Argentina 2017, first actual victory in Wales a few months later and then that epic Corsica 2019 drive that was cruelly stolen from him by a pothole on the powerstage – but he was a support act to the title fights rather than the star of the show.
Since making the switch from M-Sport to Toyota, Evans has become one of the WRC’s A-listers – and it happened immediately at the first event where he outperformed fellow Toyota newcomer Ogier. It’s therefore only natural that plenty will be looking at him as the 2022 title favorite.
However that must be stated with a major caveat in the form of team-mate Kalle Rovanperä who won just as many rallies as Evans last year and will have his usual experience deficit largely wiped out in 2022 due to the scale of the new driving challenge.
Could it be that the timing is just so unfortunate that when Evans is finally ready to win a title with Ogier out the way, Rovanperä has reached that point too and then does the job over him? And given Rovanperä is 12 years Evans’ junior, is there an accelerated sense that Evans really needs to bag that title now, or it could end up being never?
A drivers' championship is not a free ticket to more. You've got to earn themElfyn Evans
“There’s no big feeling like that,” Evans responds. “I think if you went on that basis then you’d have been pretty upset after all these years not having one.
“Obviously we’re all there to do our best and obviously the last few years it’s been close for us but obviously not quite got there in the end. But of course when you then compare to the years before it’s a lot better, but ultimately the goal is always to be champion and of course Kalle’s getting faster and faster all the time.
“He arrived already very, very fast didn’t he? But as you say the experience is building and his package is getting better and better all the time so of course he’s going to be challenging for the title there’s no doubt.
“But there’s no big race on in my mind to beat that driver or the next driver.
“It’s just the case of concentrating on getting the most out of this year and doing your best in that year.
“Had the championship gone my way in ’20 would it have changed anything this year? I’m not so sure it would’ve done, you know.
“A drivers’ championship is not a free ticket to more. You’ve got to earn them.”
Evans is of course correct. But, whether he agrees with it or not, there can’t be any denying that while in 2020 he was a complete underdog and in 2021 he was a likely challenger, in 2022 he will be expected to perform and potentially go the distance.
It remains to be seen if that extra expectation will only add to the disappointment of a missed opportunity like it did for Hirvonen or simply prove correct as Evans goes on to claim a championship he has already proved he would deserve.