Toyota technical director Tom Fowler believes Elfyn Evans could’ve won Rally Japan were it not for his puncture, despite Evans’ lack of wet weather tires.
Eventual rally winner Thierry Neuville led the rally by four seconds ahead of Sunday’s final five stages, but Neuville and Hyundai made a different tire choice to Evans and Toyota.
With rain expected for the later stages, Neuville and team-mate Ott Tänak took an equal mix of two soft, two hard and two wet compound Pirellis.
But Evans and his team-mate Sébastien Ogier took three softs and three hards, electing not to take any wets.
On the dry opening stage, Evans narrowed Neuville’s lead to just 0.6 seconds and was therefore looking well placed to retake the lead he had lost on Saturday. But a puncture on SS16 Ena City – caused by running wide when Evans felt he was delivered a pacenote slightly too late – cost him the best part of two minutes and any chance of victory.
Evans eventually finished fifth, just 2.3s clear of M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith, while Neuville won by over a minute.
Given the rain began to batter both the second pass of Ena City and the Asahi Kougen powerstage, an easy conclusion to reach is that Evans would have lost the rally anyway as his rival Neuville had the benefit of two wet compound tires.
At the end of the rally, Evans himself admitted “as it turned out, I think the win was off the cards” given the timing and intensity of the rain.
But Fowler doesn’t subscribe to that theory, instead pointing to the speed of Ogier on the penultimate test as evidence that it may not have been that clear cut.
“I’m not so sure about that. It depends,” Fowler told DirtFish when it was put to him that Evans wasn’t going to win the rally anyway.
“If you look at the stage time Sébastien Ogier just did, Séb only lost eight seconds on that stage whereas Elfyn had punctured one of his softs so only had two, so he had to have two hards on the car.
“Sébastien Ogier has just gone through one of the fastest times of SS18 on three softs and so basically the difference between what we expected and what has happened in terms of condition is not that big.
“We expected SS18 to be potentially damp and rain starting during the stage, and we would be able to, with three softs, go through with a good time because you don’t need the wet until you’re into sort of aquaplaning.
“I think the best possible tire was possibly four softs, on the condition we expected to have,” Fowler added.
“We were expecting to have basically a dark, wet road but not surface water in which case the ideal solution is four softs.
“With the fact you need hard in the morning, you couldn’t take four softs because they’d be dead by that point, so three soft is by my calculation the fastest tire which Séb Ogier pretty much proved.”
So Toyota’s decision not to take wet compound tires wasn’t a repeat of Rally Croatia earlier in the year where its weather information was simply less accurate than Toyota’s. Instead, it was a tactical choice.
Fowler didn’t want to suggest that it 100% would’ve been the rally-winning strategy, but was keen to point out that there was method behind the decision.
“I think there’s still some truth to what you said that probably even if Elfyn hadn’t had the puncture and lost the one soft, probably he wouldn’t have still beaten Thierry because it was a bit wetter, particularly for Elfyn in his road position, the rain was getting worse and he did have a bit more water probably than Séb,” said Fowler.
“But what we expected to happen, in an ideal world, is we go through that stage with our three softs with a dark colored road that’s perfect for a soft tire and that Hyundai would have to go through with a mixture of their wets and softs which they need for the powerstage, and by that time they wouldn’t be wets and softs anymore because they’re so old they’re actually not what you brought.
“By our calculation we can make it over the short powerstage, only 7km, with the advantage we took up to SS18. If you put Séb Ogier in Elfyn’s position, Séb Ogier would’ve been leading the rally.
“So despite [the fact] we might look like idiots at the moment, there’s method behind it so yeah it’s a bit disappointing.
“For sure we can’t take as much credit as maybe that sounded like because the rain definitely became sooner and harder than we thought, which means that it wasn’t exactly as we had hoped but it’s not the disaster that it looks like.”