Elfyn Evans has become the first repeat winner of the 2020 World Rally Championship season with victory on Rally Turkey on a weekend when all three of his main championship rivals hit trouble.
Ott Tänak and Sébastien Ogier both retired, while Thierry Neuville lost a likely victory on Sunday morning’s killer Çetibeli test.
Evans’ victory, plus the two points he scored on the powerstage, allowed him to vault into the lead of the championship.
Neuville did however finish second, 35.2 seconds behind Evans, with Sébastien Loeb completing the podium on what could be his final ever WRC appearance.
Evans’ points haul leaves him with an advantage of 18 points over Ogier in the championship, with Tänak and Kalle Rovanperä tied on 70 points, 27 shy of Evans. Neuville is another five points back.
Toyota managed to extend its advantage over Hyundai in the manufacturers’ championship to nine points too, scoring four more than Hyundai in Turkey.
Rally winner Evans said: “It’s been a tough weekend, we’ve been there or thereabouts most of the weekend with the exception of yesterday [Saturday] afternoon so we thought that would be game over in terms of a victory.
“It’s not say the sweetest victory knowing that you’ve been more conservative but it’s the nature of the game. It’s a great result from a points perspective so [I’m] happy.”
Neuville was the quickest driver on the opening stage in Turkey but it was his nine-time world champion team-mate Loeb that led at the end of Friday; hanging dust on SS2 hampering Neuville and team-mate Tänak, much to their outrage.
Tänak therefore found himself starting Saturday down in seventh, but was robbed of the chance to make any time back as he encountered a steering issue aboard his Hyundai on the day’s first test.
He returned on Sunday to claim four points from the powerstage, describing his rally as a “s*** weekend”.
Saturday morning was all about Neuville and Ogier, who were embroiled in an intense fight, with Neuville edging ahead before service.
His lead then ballooned when Ogier’s Toyota let him down, developing an electrical issue that messed with the car’s hydraulics. As a result, he struggled to change gear and was left with just front-wheel-drive only at points.
Ogier therefore started Sunday tied for second with Loeb, over 30s adrift of leader Neuville, with Evans a minute shy of the lead after he was slowed by excessive tire wear on Saturday afternoon.
But Evans checked out on Sunday as the only lead driver to not encounter any problems on the fearsome 23.7-mile Çetibeli stage. With Neuville, Ogier and Loeb ahead of him all suffering punctures, he moved from fourth place into a 46.9s lead that he would duly consolidate for the remainder of the event.
While Neuville and Loeb managed to soldier on to secure podium positions, Ogier was not so lucky. On the repeat pass of the Çetibeli test, the engine in his Toyota Yaris WRC decided it had had enough, with a flicker of flames confirming his rally was done.
Ogier was stranded with nothing to do but contemplate what might have been, retiring from the penultimate stage of the rally with no opportunity to rescue points from the powerstage either.
Team-mate Evans’ victory was an important one: the third of his career, his second for Toyota, it also marked a welcome change of luck for the 31-year-old who has often been on the heart-breaking end of dramatic final-day lead swings in the past.
For Neuville, second overall and a powerstage win was scant consolation as he knew he realistically needed to win – something he had the pace to do – to significantly boost his championship hopes.
“I really have the feeling that we deserved more but finally to be back on the podium is great,” said Neuville, whose last podium came when he won the Monte Carlo Rally back in January.
“I hoped for more and I think we did the job but obviously [we were] unlucky this morning, but it is how it is.”
Loeb’s drive meanwhile was assured and proved that if this is to be his last WRC rally, he will bow out on a high and not a mediocre drive akin to his Monte Carlo Rally performance earlier in the year.
“At the end we are here on the podium, it was hard so I’m happy,” said Loeb.
Rovanperä had a quiet weekend by his exciting standards to finish in fourth place – another to pick up a puncture on Sunday’s opening stage. It didn’t hamper the Finn, though, who lost only time and not position such was the anarchy around him.
“We needed to bring the car home for the team’s championship as we are the second car,” the young Finn said.
Gus Greensmith returned to the scene of his dramatic WRC2 Pro (now WRC2) victory last season – where he rolled and still won the class – to take his best ever WRC finish with fifth overall. The Briton kept his nose clean throughout.
“It’s been a decent weekend in terms of making improvements so for that reason I can be happy,” he said.
That fifth place came with the added bonus of finishing as the top M-Sport runner, with Esapekka Lappi sixth despite nursing an issue on the powerstage.
“I have a broken damper from the previous stage so I just wanted to come to the finish,” Lappi explained. “Without the damper it’s quite rough.”
Lappi was the fifth of five drivers to pick up a puncture on Sunday’s opener, compounding what was another frustrating and lackluster weekend.
Teemu Suninen had been the pacesetter for the M-Sport team once again in Turkey – as he was in Estonia – racing almost a minute clear of his team-mate Lappi at the end of Saturday.
But he was bitten hard by Çetibeli too, breaking a damper with the rear-left wheel on his Fiesta WRC sitting at a 135-degree angle out of the arch. That meant retirement after what had been a very encouraging performance.
Pierre-Louis Loubet was another to be stung on that rude awakening to Sunday morning. It was a stroke of déjà vu for the Hyundai junior driver, who had retired from Rally Estonia on Sunday morning just a fortnight ago.
While in Estonia it was a broken steering arm that put paid to his weekend, it was engine trouble that halted him in Turkey. He surrendered what was ninth position but could’ve been seventh overall at the finish, factoring in Ogier and Suninen’s exits.
The high attrition paved the way clear for the leading four Rally2 cars to claim places in the overall top 10 overall.
Seventh went the way of triple European Rally Champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz, who won WRC3 in his Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, much to his delight.
Pontus Tidemand was eighth and at the head of WRC2, recovering from a puncture on Friday to take the class win when Toksport team-mate Eyvind Brynildsen retired on Saturday and M-Sport rival Adrien Fourmaux collected a puncture of his own.
Fourmaux’s performance was gritty though considering his lack of gravel rallying experience, and he took second in class and ninth overall in his Ford Fiesta Rally2. Brynildsen restarted on Sunday to claim third.
Marco Bulacia took second with “a little bit of sadness” in WRC3 and 10th overall, over two minutes behind class winner Kajetanowicz after a puncture on Sunday but just agonising 3.8s shy of Fourmaux in the overall classification. Local Turkish star Yağiz Avci netted a strong third in WRC3 a Citroën C3 R5.
“After two years without driving a rally it was a good comeback for us,” said Avci.
“In WRC3 we have third position and for our national championship we win so it’s really difficult mentally, and we tried to manage. We are happy.”
Tidemand and Bulacia both profited from former championship leaders Mads Østberg and Jari Huttunen not competing in Turkey to take the points lead in WRC2 and WRC3 respectively.
1 Neuville (Hyundai) 4m20.4s
2 Tanak (Hyundai) +0.4s
3 Rovanperä (Toyota) +1.7s
4 Evans (Toyota) +1.7s
5 Loeb (Hyundai) +5.7s
Final Rally Turkey positions
1 Evans (Toyota) 2h43m02.7s
2 Neuville (Hyundai) +35.2s
3 Loeb (Hyundai) +59.4s
4 Rovanperä (Toyota) +2m35.9s
5 Greensmith (M-Sport Ford) +4m08.3s
6 Lappi (M-Sport Ford) +5m36.2s
7 Kajetanowicz (Škoda) +12m35.5s
8 Tidemand (Škoda) +12m59.7s
9 Fourmaux (M-Sport Ford) +14m42.6s
10 Bulacia (Citroen) +14m46.4s