Friday on the Arctic Lapland Rally started well for Elfyn Evans. Crisp, clean snow coated a thick sheet of ice beneath it on Aittajärvi, one of the rally’s classic stages.
“Perfect ice conditions,” he said. “I haven’t driven a snow stage like that for a long time. It was really fantastic.”
The problem? This is about as good as it got for Evans in Rovaniemi, where he was participating in what amounted to a glorified test session for Rally Sweden in a couple of weeks’ time.
Aittajärvi has lots of straight bits. So too do the stages around Rally Sweden host city Umeå. He was only 0.7s off the pace of world champion team-mate Kalle Rovanperä, who like Evans, was there to warm up for Sweden. On paper, a promising start.
There were stage wins on the very short Mäntyvaara and Ounasvaara tests and, let’s not forget, the Welshman did win the rally outright when Rovanperä’s GR Yaris Rally1 hit trouble and retired at the end of the final stage.
None of that mattered. Evans was 0.33 seconds per kilometer off his younger team-mate’s pace across the rally and, crucially, offered a fairly familiar complaint: he lacked the right feeling.
Evans spent around 10 minutes with the assembled media on Saturday night. Listening in, the questions were similar, but every patient response offered less and less hope for the WRC counter ahead. By the last round of questioning, he’d reached the point of conceding any hope of winning the rally on pace alone.
Rovanperä had shown what the car could do, being nearly a minute faster than Evans before his last-minute demise. And that disparity, with road position factored in, was raising a red flag.
“We know the car is capable anyway but it’s getting it in the right window to suit the driving,” said Evans. “That’s the key thing. Kalle’s been able to do it well.”
And then, a well-worn topic made its return. The feeling wasn’t there – total comfort was absent.
“I’m obviously a fussy driver, that’s no secret,” Evans confessed again. “I’ve not found the feeling I was ultimately hoping for even if we’ve made some good steps during the weekend.
“We also know Kalle will have a great road position in Sweden anyway. So, realistically, we’re not going to be fighting with him, I don’t think. We’d like to try but realistically I’m not sure it’s going to happen, based on what we’ve seen.
“What we have to do is make sure we’re in a position to fight those around us in the championship fight.”
I'm keen to find my form of old because some of it seems to be missing at the moment.Elfyn Evans
Does that mean a white flag follows the red one? Kalle can go off and have his fun at the top of the leaderboard, while Evans is focused only on beating the Hyundai pairing clamoring to take a maiden world title out of his grasp. But defeating Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak on snow may also be a tough ask.
Evans and snow have a difficult history together. Look at the record books and you’ll see Evans is a Rally Sweden winner, but that 2020 win was done in conditions more akin to Rally GB. Snow had failed to descend on Värmland; the itinerary was revised and shortened as the rain fell. That win, in a sense, doesn’t really count when it comes to being a winner on snow – and Evans knows it.
“In the past, there’s been some good performances in Sweden,” he said. “OK, we won in 2020 but that was quite a unique set of conditions, let’s say. Since then we’ve definitely had good speed at points but never brought it together. I’m keen to find my form of old because some of it seems to be missing at the moment.”
The year before last was a case in point. It was when the wheels started to come off his 2022 title campaign. After a Monte crash, Evans redoubled his efforts in the snow, only to dump the GR Yaris Rally1 in a snowbank on the final day in Sweden. Perhaps of more concern, on Friday night, he shipped 1.63 seconds per kilometers through the short Umeå Sprint stage – his tires shot after pushing through the second loop of the day.
It’s that second pass that really concerns Toyota’s team leader.
Not getting a chance to test a Rally1 car on as many rutted second-pass Arctic Rally stages as he would have liked meant one of his weaknesses on snow had no chance to be thoroughly evaluated and remedied: “This weekend was really great but there’s been limited second-pass running as such.
“There was only one stage I would say was representative of that. We all know what type of Rally Sweden has become with gravel coming through on second pass so it’s quite a key part of it to get right.”
His troubles from the last two editions, it seems, are yet to be solved: “It seems to have been the case with this car on the snow since the beginning.”
Ask any driver if they’re ready for the challenge ahead and the stock answer is locked and loaded, ready to fire: yes, looking forward to it. Anything else is a rarity.
But Evans put the cliches aside for a moment. The answer was an honest one.
“Not ready yet,” he concluded. “Looks like we still have some speed to find, some work to do. Hopefully we can find that this week.”
He needs to. He made a solid start to the season in Monte Carlo, but those foundations need to be built on quickly.