Not this time. Not. This. Time. Four Sundays on from losing a World Rally Championship win to Sébastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans wasn’t up for a Croatian re-run in Portugal.
Ahead of Saturday night’s final stage, a largely meaningless two-mile run up Porto’s seafront, the Toyota driver was 16.4 seconds ahead of Dani Sordo. With just the short asphalt dash and Sunday’s stages to come, odds firmly favored Evans.
Then Sordo slashed 5.7s out of the lead. Yikes. Suddenly Sunday wasn’t quite so straightforward.
Then Andrea Adamo offered his opinion. In typical forceful fashion, he told DirtFish Sordo would win the rally because he was driving the fastest car. Lob in a couple of F-bombs and you have the essence of what he was saying.
Would any of this rattle Evans? Would he let a dynamite time from Sordo and words of wisdom from the Spaniard’s boss get under his skin?
All would be revealed on Felgueiras, the only all-new stage on the event’s 2021 itinerary – scheduled for a first run at a handful of minutes after 7am on Sunday morning.
Come 7.36am, all was very much revealed. At split one 7.28km (4.52 miles), Evans was 7.5s faster. Every 1000 meters, the Toyota had whipped another second out of the i20.
On the seafront 12 hours earlier, Sordo had landed a perfectly weighted jab on Evans’ jaw. Fast forward to a gravel road north-east of the Matosinhos service park and watch the leader step up and swing a stunner of a haymaker. By the end of the road another 2.1s had gone Evans way. The difference now 20.3s. The contest effectively over.
Frustration was writ large across Sordo’s face when he came to the end of Sunday’s opener. He hadn’t found the confidence he needed from the Hyundai. On top of that, the Adamo message appeared to have developed overnight. Win it or bin it had been tempered into do what you want, but bring the car home.
By this point, the Spanish-flagged Hyundai was the only one left in the running after Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak retired from Friday and Saturday respectively. The weight of responsibility weighed heavy on Sordo. The mistake he was so fearful of would cost the team 18 points.
Keen to develop his own ability as a Sunday assassin, Evans had Sordo and top spot between the crosshairs. Just after lunch in Fafe, he pulled the trigger. The win. Done
Sordo is one of the most consistently quick and reliable drivers in the history of the WRC. A final-day killer he’s not.
Evans’s arrival at the end of Felgueiras told another story. Told his time, there wasn’t a flicker of emotion. Barely a smile. Instead a desire to go through the motions, admit to being happy with the time, then move on.
Keen to develop his own ability as a Sunday assassin, he had Sordo and top spot between the crosshairs. Just after lunch in the famous town of Fafe, he pulled the trigger.
The win. Done. And done in some style.
It was, however, telling that Evans still wasn’t completely satisfied with the weekend. Yes, he’d won, but it was impossible to ignore the Hyundai’s pace last weekend.
“Maybe we weren’t always the fastest,” he said, “maybe we weren’t always on the pace of the Hyundais. But there were no big, massive drops like we’ve perhaps seen in previous rallies.”
It’s true, the #33 Yaris won six stages, but crucially Evans was in the top-three times on 11 of the 20.
Most satisfying for Evans was the 22 miles of Amarante. It would be unfair to say he’d struggled there in the past, but it’s rarely flowed in the way he would have wanted. Last weekend? Second quickest, then fastest.
“Amarante’s not always been my forte, but I did a lot of work on this one – a lot of studying – and it paid off,” said Evans. “I’m happy about that.
“We do have work to do this week and nothing should be off the table while we’re getting ready for Sardinia. But I’m happy with this one.
“Going into Sunday, I wasn’t going to fall victim to anybody again.”
Instead, he comprehensively claimed a victim of his own.
How did Hyundai drop this one?
Arganil is a place familiar with towering World Rally Championship reputation. It’s a place where Walter Röhrl crafted a win that has gone down in rallying’s legend, hauling close to four minutes out of the best of the rest with a staggering run through 26 miles of pitch black 1980 fogginess.
As the modern day WRC rolled into the town 41 years later, Hyundai was the new Fiat – much to the delight of the all-Italian Adamo.
At lunchtime on Friday, the i20s were seemingly taking time at will out of their opponents. Sordo had played the running order card perfectly to move to the front. Tänak wasn’t quite comfortable, but still had the pace to slot in behind his team-mate. Neuville’s speed second on the road to Ogier was perhaps the most mighty.
Just over 30 miles into the event and Evans’s lead Toyota was already 17s off the front.
Stage seven – the first and only shot at Mortágua – was where the firm’s event started to unravel. A mistake on the recce left Neuville tearing into a left-hander too quickly. The i20 slid wide and tripped over a bank on the outside. He and Martijn Wydaeghe popped it back onto its wheels, but the right-rear wheel was wobbling around in a world of its own. They made it through, but retired soon after.
Sordo’s lead was shot when the Hyundai stalled as he pulled the handbrake to ease the i20 through one of the stage’s tighter corners. That issue (which also affected the other cars) combined with a pair of delaminating Pirellis dropped him to third and allowed Evans to infiltrate what had been an apparently impenetrable provisional podium.
A day later and it was the Tänak Hyundai that was overflown by a helicopter to reveal a seriously out of line right-rear. Watching (and re-watching) the Estonian’s onboards from Amarante revealed no significant impact.
Asked about it, Tänak was surprisingly coy.
“Speak to the boss, it’s not up to me to say,” he said. Pause. Confirmation.
“It was not about hitting anything, to be honest.”
Since January, 2019, speaking to the boss about anything remotely technically involved has been an entirely fruitless process. Adamo didn’t disappoint this time around.
Asked if it broke or was broken, the response was repeated. Six times.
“The day I am needing a stress engineer, I will call you…”
My DirtFish colleague Colin Clark gave it a go.
“The day I am needing a junior stress engineer, I will give you a call.”
Word is, it broke.
Hyundai lost last week’s WRC round. It wasn’t quite in the palm of the hand, but it wasn’t far away. And that hurts more than anything as the squad heads east across Europe to its base in Alzenau to regroup ahead of next week’s Rally Italy.
There will be no rest for the Toyota drivers between the rallies, with Evans, Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä all testing ahead of the trip to Sardinia this week.
First on the road in Portugal, Ogier was understandably frustrated, but ultimately quick to admit he dodged a bullet to land the podium’s bottom step and a three-point powerstage effort. His innate ability to make his allocated eight soft Pirellis last remained – as ever – the talk of the service park.
For Rovanperä, this was an event to forget. It may not have had the drama of his Croatian crash, but when a technical issue forced him to turn around and head back to service on Saturday afternoon, the net result was the same.
“I didn’t feel anything with the car in the stage,” Rovanperä told DirtFish. “Only on the road section to the next stage, I saw something and I couldn’t continue. We didn’t hit anything. We were checking the car on the road section and it was not OK to continue.
“This wasn’t such a good rally. When we had the low-grip, I couldn’t be fast… It’s disappointing – especially because I thought this would be the better rally for me out of here and Sardinia.”
A double podium and an extended lead in the makes’ race hardly qualifies as a cloudy event, but if there was a silver lining to any kind of fine, misty, high Toyota cloud, it was Takamoto Katsuta’s pace and fourth place. The Japanese continues to impress mightily.
As did M-Sport Ford runners Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux. The factory Fiesta WRCs rounded out the top six, but demonstrated the sort of growing pace to bring a smile to managing director Malcolm Wilson’s face.
Smiling faces were all around in Portugal last week. For the first time since Estonia last year, spectators were back officially (forget all those picnicking locals in Croatia) at round four. And the organization around the return of the fans was superb.
A few years ago, the FIA’s worst fears of a Rally Portugal returning to the north were realized when too many fans crowded too many corners. The team behind the Porto production were told in no uncertain terms to sort it out.
I had my doubts it could be done, but it was done and done in a fairly forceful fashion, with a fleet of police vans directed towards the stages with strict instructions on who could stand where.
Close to 3000 police were drafted in last weekend to keep spectator numbers to a pre-agreed 30% of capacity.
The people and the police were brilliant. They stuck to the agreement and brought home a fantastic round of the world championship. What’s more, they brought home the first full-length gravel WRC round since Rally Germany in August 2019.
Is that light at the end of the tunnel we can see?