When Sébastien Ogier bid his final farewell to full-time rallying underneath Monza’s epic raised podium, a new reality would have dawned on Elfyn Evans: 2022 was the year for him to finally clinch his first World Rally Championship title.
But fast forward six months and a serious title challenge doesn’t seem likely at all, for now at least.
Pressure is a curious thing. Some drivers thrive in it, others falter under the weight of it, and at the moment, Evans appears to be struggling to keep it contained. What’s worse for him is that he hasn’t just lost ground to his long-time rivals at Hyundai, but it’s his younger, less experienced team-mate Kalle Rovanperä who has risen to the fore to head up the standings.
It would be very easy to completely write off Evans’ season already. He is, after all, 42 points behind Rovanperä in the championship. But there’s still plenty of time for things to change around, and Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala believes Croatia could be the perfect place for Evans to kickstart his season.
When asked by DirtFish if Latvala has sat down with Evans to discuss the season so far, the Toyota team principal said: “I was planning to have a bit of a chat with him now tonight or tomorrow.
“Of course, I know how it is, the situation, very well myself. I have been in the same position as him.
“I mean, nothing is lost in this point, everything is still open. But I know that you easily create pressure on yourself and yeah, the season has not started maybe as he was expecting.
“So now we are in a situation that we just need to forget the first two events and just focus to do the work here, but like he did last year.
“He was super fast here last year, so I have all the confidence in him that he can fight for the victory.”
Latvala could be right. Evans was bang on the money in Croatia last year, until he lost the rally victory to Ogier on the final stage after a mistake at the penultimate corner.
But Ogier isn’t in Croatia this time and Evans has experience that his team-mate doesn’t. 80% of the stages of the rally are the same as last year’s event, meaning Evans will inherently have confidence through the knowledge of how the roads flow.
And as his boss rightly pointed out, Evans is at his best when tackling changeable conditions on asphalt stages.
“What I see in Elfyn is, he is very strong on the Tarmac, especially when the grip levels are changing,” explained Latvala.
“This is for me his strong area and I think this kind of rally suits him. So I think it would be ideal for him to get back into the championship.
“I know that the beginning is tough because the first couple of stages you can feel a bit of pressure, but that’s the key I think.
“You just need to take it easy maybe on the first stage and you try to build up the confidence, get the feeling. When you get the feeling, you have the confidence and then you can start lifting up the speed. So I think it will come from there.”
But while Latvala is confident his talisman can reboot his season with a victory in Croatia, Evans is naturally more cautious on his prospects, and he is still frustrated by the fact he crashed on Monte Carlo.
“The perfect place was Monte really! But that didn’t quite go to plan, obviously,” Evans said when asked if Croatia was the best place to get his championship challenge back on track. “So yeah, of course, we need to come away from here with good points. There’s no doubt about that.
“It’s possibly difficult starting at the back, you know, with all the mud and the rain that’s expected. So maybe we have to be a little bit realistic about what’s possible.
“We already saw last year here that there was quite a road evolution between the first and the last cars.
“So we have to focus on doing what we can and the main focus really is on doing the best job we can and see what comes at the end.”
It’s understandable that Evans is heading into Croatia with such a cautious attitude, but there is no denying the fact that this rally could be make or break for his season.
A solid result could put him back towards the front, allowing him to begin a title challenge, but if he has another retirement here, then he can kiss goodbye to any hopes of walking away with the crown that he has been so close to clinching for so long.
The stakes couldn’t be any higher, and now is the time Evans really needs to prove that he can contain pressure, and thrive off it.