Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala feels the recent Rally México acted as the clearest proof yet that Elfyn Evans is still operating at the highest level in the World Rally Championship.
After two back-to-back seasons where Evans took the world title fight with Sébastien Ogier down to the final round in 2020 and ’21, the Welshman had a difficult 2022 where he went winless for the first time since joining Toyota and struggled to fully get to grips with the new GR Yaris Rally1.
After a lackluster performance on the penultimate round in Spain, Evans worked hard with the Toyota engineers before Rally Japan which immediately made a difference as he led into the final day only for a puncture to rob him of the win.
Evans started 2023 with intent as the only driver capable of living with Ogier through the early phases of the Monte Carlo Rally, before another puncture cost him a podium finish.
Rally Sweden was a trickier affair as Evans struggled but he was right on the money in México, fighting Dani Sordo for third early on before being promoted to second when Esapekka Lappi crashed.
But he had the other Hyundai of Thierry Neuville hunting him down behind and closing in ahead of the final day.
Evans held Neuville to a 4.3-second deficit ahead of Sunday’s four stages and looked to have successfully repelled the Belgian after edging him on the longest stage of the rally, Otates.
But on that stage Evans damaged a suspension arm, and despite a herculean effort both to fix it and drive quickly with a bodged repair, Neuville usurped Evans by just 0.4s on the final stage.
Third place however was still Evans’ first podium since Ypres Rally Belgium last August, and his performance drew praise from his rival Neuville who said he had “big balls”.
Evans’ team boss Latvala was impressed too, insisting that Evans didn’t bottle it against Neuville – a driver who has previous form of defeating Evans in final-day battles.
“No, I don’t think so, necessarily,” Latvala told DirtFish when asked if Neuville had got in Evans’ head.
“Thierry… how I see this is that when you go second passage of the stages, Thierry is a really strong driver. He’s probably one of the strongest drivers in the championship.
“It is necessarily when you go first passage of the stages, I can see that Elfyn is stronger, but then Thierry on the second passage can be stronger. And for me, Elfyn was fighting really well.
“For me, the really good example was the long stage. He fought it and he was two seconds faster. But then sometimes it can take your self-confidence down if you lose the tight fights quite many times, so you need also those wins to boost your self-confidence.
“But I do believe that Elfyn has it,” Latvala insisted.
“It’s just that we’ve been taking really nice steps with him after the 2022 season and we are just absolutely on the right way, and when he has that 100% confidence he can turn those fights for him.”
Before round three, I said on SPIN, The Rally Pod that given his road position of fourth, Evans needed to beat his title rivals Neuville, Ott Tänak and Kalle Rovanperä in México if he wanted to make a statement that he was a real contender for this year’s title.
And that’s exactly what he did. Evans had the measure of all three of them, even if the final classification says otherwise.
Ypres aside, I think this was the best performance we’ve seen from Evans in a Rally1 car. He never lit the timesheets up, but he was always there and wasn’t flustered by the prospect of a charging Neuville behind him.
I remember interviewing Evans in the final media zone after Spain and he just looked a little bit lost. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t able to produce the times he knew he was capable of.
Rally México was my first WRC event on the ground since then, and he looked an entirely different driver – confident, relaxed and at ease with everything.
That showed in his driving and stage times.
So the narrative about Evans’ confidence no longer seems to exist. Yes, there’ll be rallies where he’ll struggle more than others – but that’s true of most in this Rally1 generation given the cars are less customizable to a driver’s optimum setup than the old World Rally Cars were.
But with a good string of consistent points scores on the board, Evans is back in the position he always used to be – in the thick of the title race.