His words are as considered as they are heart-felt. He’s coming to the end of a season-long fight with arguably the best in the business. His rival has seven world championships, he has none.
What if it doesn’t happen? Again?
“If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“I’m quite relaxed about it. In a way that’s good… of course, you want to win the championship. But I don’t want to dream or whatever, I just want to focus on every race and do the best I can.”
Those are the words of Red Bull Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen as he looks towards the culmination of his latest battle with Mercedes’ megastar Lewis Hamilton this season.
Statement and sentiment are almost identical from Elfyn Evans, himself chasing a maiden world title up against a seven-timer.
Granted, Evans’ position is different in that he’s the one doing the hunting and – at the time of writing, after the Brazilian Grand Prix – Verstappen remains at the top of the F1 table. But it doesn’t matter, the frame of mind is entirely similar.
Evans isn’t one for big expansive declarations about how he’s been dreaming of this moment since he was a handful of years old ripping up the Welsh countryside on anything with four – or two – wheels. It’s not him.
It wasn’t him last year when he flew into Milan as the red-hot title favorite, 14 points ahead of Sébastien Ogier, and it’s not him this week, when he arrives a net 31 points worse off.
As ever, the Evans feet are firmly planted on the ground ahead of this week’s title decider at the Monza Rally.
For him, it’s a long shot.
Even getting him to admit there’s a shot in sight is tricky.
“Seventeen points,” he tells DirtFish, “is different to 14. It’s a pretty big gap.”
There’s a pause.
Do I want more? Yes.
“There’s not a lot that’s changed really in my mind since Greece,” he continues. “For me it was more or less over then, and of course we’ve just gone to every rally with a view of getting what we can out of them and it’s the same here really. We know if we want a realistic shot we need to win the rally but that’s never been different to any other rally, the aim’s always to try and do the best you can and win.
“It is different to last year, there’s no question about that, but actually this one is not so different to any other rally to me.
“I’ve always said, we go rally-to-rally and see what we can do. We can’t do more than that.”
But what does trying to win look like? Is everything on the limit? Is the car that bit stiffer, that bit racier? Does he lean on the braking points, get on the throttle earlier? Will the #33 Yaris WRC be on the door handles all week long?
“The truth is, yes, you can gain something with a bit of risk here and there,” he says, “but what I really feel, and it’s very true for the result in Finland, is that when you’re really driving well, the car is working with you, the risk element just comes naturally with that because you’re confident.
“If you’re driving well I think that’s where you’ll win a lot more time than doing crazy risks, trying to brake at the very last moment or take a nearly flat corner absolutely pinned.
“Ultimately, the concentration needs to go to application and getting the most out the car and driving well rather than pulling the pin, as it were. I think the pulling pin part just comes naturally anyway when things are working.”
I said at the time and I still stand by the fact that I have no regret that I needed to drive at that speedElfyn Evans on his 2020 Monza accident
Did he pull the pin too soon last year? Going into Saturday’s antepenultimate test, all was well. He was running third and very much on course to be 2020 World Rally Champion when he was caught out. In the blink of an eye, he was off the road, down a bank, title tilt done.
Having spoken to him soon after the shunt last year, I’ve got a good idea of the answer to the next question, but for the context of where Elfyn’s head remains, it’s worth getting an answer on the record.
Has that moment haunted you this year?
“No,” he says, drawing the word out to emphasize the fact that he’s not one to be haunted by anything.
“I was quite at ease to be honest, even at the time. Of course you kick yourself with the circumstance, the fact that it was a chance missed. But at the same time, and I said at the time and I still stand by the fact that I have no regret that I needed to drive at that speed.
“I didn’t foresee the change of grip. Of course, now, if you went back again then you know the surface change is underneath; I had the surface change marked, but you never envisage when it’s fresh snow covering that all of a sudden a bit of a change underneath is going to make such a huge difference.
“I learned something from that particular place and maybe even for a few other areas on the rally if you were to have the same conditions again, but it was a bit like… I don’t like to say ‘one of those things’ but it sort of was one of those things!”
There’s no doubt that Evans has enjoyed the better run in to this week. Since Sébastien Ogier’s last victory on the Safari in June, he has pulled 71 points from the last five rallies. Evans meanwhile has managed 88 and that includes the gearbox issue that confined him to sixth place on the Acropolis. That, and his mistake in Kenya, is what has really hurt him this season.
But arriving off the back of a Finland win and second place in Spain isn’t a bad way to start the Monza weekend.
He agrees: “When you come into a certain rally and you’re on a run of bad results you definitely feel that to a point. As much as you try and put it to the back of your mind, you definitely feel it; rather than thinking that, you know, the world’s at your feet.
“When you’ve had good results, it’s just that you don’t have that slight feeling of pressure from needing a result from the last run of events. Rather than giving you something special, it just takes a bit of pressure away I suppose.”
There’s no doubt Ogier’s approach has been tailored to the needs of an eighth title. There’s been no guns blazing approach to win rallies he didn’t need to win.
Before we get Evans’ take on his team-mate’s recent form, Ogier offers input.
“I was a bit frustrated in the last rallies that I didn’t manage to perform as good as I wanted,” Ogier says.
“It was for various reasons. There was not only this, but, of course, I was thinking a bit too much [about the] championship maybe and a little bit too much on the safe side. Also we were not optimum with a set-up on the last two rallies to start with.
“And maybe I was also not in my best form. I was like physically a little bit tired and especially after Greece.”
Was Evans surprised?
“I don’t think he’s been driving slowly, to be honest,” he smiles. “I don’t mean that he hasn’t been conserving at all, because we know how fast he is when his mind is on things – and I’m sure there’s an element of that [driving with the championship in mind].
“I can’t judge for him, but we know at this level it’s ultra-competitive and the tiniest little edge does make a difference. And it’s that last bit of confidence, last bit of feeling in the car that delivers that normally.”
In the last two rallies, Evans has taken ‘that last bit’ from his pre-event test. Did he come away from the pre-Monza running with the same feeling?
“It was quite OK, actually.
“OK, I had a dry day which, I don’t know, will the rally be dry or not? Honestly I was pretty happy with the car, but I didn’t feel we started [the test] with anything that was really that bad. The challenge in Spain, of course, was we’d never rallied [the Pirelli tire] in that sort of condition before, whereas the mountain stages we have here are a bit more similar to Croatia, even Monte Carlo in the dry.
“So we have a bit more of an idea of the window we need to be in and I think there were some lessons already learned in Spain just for general Tarmac stuff that maybe we could benefit from.
“Even from the start of the test I had a pretty OK feeling in the car and we worked through some small changes and they seemed to just give a bit of help. That said, there’s no guarantee we’re going to be in the same position with the same level of grip on the rally – who knows what the weather will do when we climb into the mountains.”
And who knows what the week will bring? Just like in Formula 1, 2021’s biggest number could be an eight.
But it could very well be a one…