Elfyn Evans didn’t need telling. He knew. His eyes gave the game away. Close. Again.
A couple of hundred meters away, one Toyota driver’s despair was another’s utter delight. Sébastien Ogier. Again. For the 51st time.
But this one was special. Special for a different reason. This wasn’t about Ogier carving out a lead and leaving the best of the rest frustrated in his wake. It wasn’t a three-day street fight over tenths of seconds. It wasn’t a magnificent fightback from an early issue.
Ogier’s Rally Croatia win was one drawn deep from the reserves of an elite athlete who lives his life on another level.
Mentally, Sunday was Ogier’s Everest.
Is that a bit much?
OK, let’s make it the Eiger North Face. Without ropes. Or oxygen.
When Ogier’s Toyota Yaris WRC made contact with a BMW 1 Series on the road out of Zagreb on Sunday morning, it set in motion a whole chain of events that would have distracted a lesser driver sufficiently that even a podium would have been a solid result.
Ogier jarred his back, wounded his car and suffered a run in with the Croatian cops.
Then he watched as Evans reeled him in, taking time out of him on three successive stages to start the powerstage 3.9s ahead of him.
The sensible thinking in the service park ahead of Sunday’s powerstage was more about whether the seven-time champion was secure in second, with just 4.1s splitting him and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville.
Nobody, it appeared, gave serious consideration that Ogier could overcome his Sunday to win. Not even himself.
He’d done it 50 times before, but never with a mindset quite like this. Nothing was normal for Ogier on Sunday
“When I was going to the second last stage I thought: ‘If I don’t win this one [stage] then the fight is over’,” he told DirtFish.
He didn’t win that stage.
Ogier knows himself better than that. He dug deeper, risked even more and landed one of the finest wins of his career.
As you will have read, DirtFish trailed Ogier through Sunday, keeping an eye on an unfolding news story that started with that unfortunate road traffic accident around seven on Sunday morning.
We watched him onto and out of stages and then observed as he stopped to work on the car, patching Julien Ingrassia’s door in the hope of keeping 100mph force-fed airflow from slapping a seven-time world champion co-driver between the eyes.
The FIA’s Appendix S COVID-19 regulations still prohibit any interviews or contact with the crews outside of the service park, so talking to Ogier or Ingrassia wasn’t going to be an option.
At times like this, just filming the Toyota men seemed intrusive, but this was no time for sensitivity. Like him, we had a job to do. Our job was to relay this developing drama to the watching world.
His job was to determine how our story would end.
Ultimately, there wasn’t anything original in the sign-off. He’d done it 50 times before. But never with a mindset quite like this. Nothing was normal for Ogier on Sunday.
A regroup meant there would be nowhere to hide ahead of the powerstage, but he did find a quiet corner of Zagreb suburbia to tuck away his Yaris WRC before the penultimate test. We waited down the road and watched.
Then, when the moment came, he fired the Toyota up and drove through capital city traffic with the adroit confidence of somebody operating at the very top of their game. He was brisk without being forceful, but there was no dithering, no dillydallying and no delay.
The self-assured approach was carried onto the powerstage.
Let’s pause here for a moment.
Fifty or so hours before this point in proceedings, the #1 Yaris WRC had escaped Ogier’s grasp at precisely the same point where Kalle Rovanperä had hurled the sister car into the trees at 60mph just six minutes earlier. That Ogier hadn’t joined him was a matter of very, very good fortune.
A square rock embedded firmly into Croatia had pinged the Toyota straight again. That rock was three centimeters from the edge Rovanperä had tumbled from. That rock saved the champion’s rally.
Through Saturday, there were three separate tire-rim-related incidents, all of which cost time and played firmly on Ogier’s mind ahead of Sunday.
Then, pulling away from traffic lights on the outskirts of Zagreb on Sunday morning, Ogier saw a bus stop and moved across the road to check something on his car.
Bang. BMW meets million-dollar rally car.
Back to the regroup and time to gather thoughts, safe in the knowledge that, courtesy of social media, the wider world was busy deciding his fate.
And it wasn’t looking good: there wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy coming his way. Everybody, as we know, is an expert.
Ogier steered clear of the socials and instead used the time to clear his head and prepare himself for the final eight and a half miles. The usual spring in the step was missing. There would be less frivolity and much, much more focus.
At 2:02pm, Ogier dropped the clutch, forgot everything and did what he does best.
By split one at 3.64 miles, he’d already had 1.4s out of Evans’s 3.9s lead. A shade under three miles further up the road and Evans only had half a second left. Ogier was 3.4s quicker and coming to get the leader.
Then came that wobble: a sizey moment when the Yaris snapped one way then the other under braking. Ogier saved it from diving headlong into somebody’s front room and kept the hammer down. The final split reflected that, he was ‘only’ 2.9 faster. With 0.8 miles remaining Evans still had a second in hand.
He wasn’t going to lose that.
The final left-hander, like all the corners in Croatia, was lined by loose. With a smidge too much gas, the dragon-flagged Yaris inched agonisingly wide and into the gravel on the outside. Once there, momentum, physics and horrible understeer took over.
Less than a minute later Evans crossed the line and knew. He just knew.
Not given to big shows of emotion, Evans’s eyes did the talking. They said he was crushed. They weren’t lying.
The mutual respect between Ogier and Evans has grown since they shared a couple of seasons at M-Sport in 2017 and 2018. It’s massive now.
Ogier knew that this one hurt the man he’d beaten by six tenths of a second. Overtaken by emotions of his own, Ogier struggled to register this one.
“Still, in this moment, it’s crazy. I didn’t expect to win this rally with everything happening. And, OK, in this moment I feel for Elfyn – he was very strong the whole weekend. This stage was crazy for the conditions.
“It’s the kind of stage where things can happen and differences can be made and we’ve seen on the first loop that Elfyn had an incredible time. We had to push because the plan was to at least save my second place and then good surprise that it transformed into a victory.
“I was flat out.”
There was a pause, almost like more of what he’d done had sunk in.
“But I don’t think we stole that one either.”
Then came the acceptance that there had been more at stake than a rally.
Punishment fit the crime? For me, I’m afraid notDavid Evans on Ogier's suspended event ban
“At the end of the day,” he added, “the most important isn’t the 1-2 [for Toyota], but that everyone is safe from this morning.”
Typically, Evans was utterly magnanimous in defeat. And full of praise for what we saw in that final stage.
“It was very, very special,” said Evans. “Incredible.”
He’s right. Every now and then, you just have to stop and doff your cap to a moment of genuine sporting brilliance. That’s what we saw on Sunday afternoon.
But then came the moment of reckoning.
From the middle seat in the post-event press conference, Ogier was joined in the stewards’ room by Ingrassia and Toyota sporting director Kaj Lindström. They gave their side. From there, they headed off for a meeting with the police and the promise of contact with the BMW driver to offer apologies to both.
The stewards decided to relieve Ogier of €7000 and ban him for one round, should he bounce his car off another member of the public’s in the next six months.
And that was that.
Punishment fit the crime? For me, I’m afraid not.
The accident was just that, a genuine accident. What followed was unacceptable. I’m a massive fan of Ogier and all of the above respects genuine admiration for him as a driver and as a human being. But, as far I’m concerned, in the heat of the moment he got his response to the police all wrong.
Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of who’s telling you what to do, there’s simply no defense for driving away when a policeman has his hands on the bonnet of your car trying to stop you.
Anybody who thinks otherwise, give it a go and then drop us a line from a Zagreb cell.
Yes, it was the heat of the moment, the event was progressing without him and he knew he’d incur a time penalty if he didn’t shift the long arm of the Croatian law from the front of his Toyota.
But I’ve got a couple of questions here: what if that policeman had stumbled in front of Ogier’s car? And secondly, what kind of example are we setting here? This leaves an uncomfortable precedent.
Not to mention a further uncomfortable moment when FIA president and the United Nation’s special envoy for road safety Jean Todt fist bumped and handed Ogier his trophy for winning Rally Croatia.
Ogier knows he got it wrong. There was genuine contrition from him as he talked DirtFish through his day.
But I suspect he knows he’s also dodged a bullet on this one. A €7000 fine won’t touch the sides and the suspended one-event ban means very little – he has no intention of pinging another BMW any time soon.
So what should it have been? To my mind, it had to be exclusion.
I genuinely sat and stewed over this one for a very long time. I know I risk the wrath of the championship leader and I’m very well aware that he may well swerve any of my questions in the future. But this corner of cyberspace calls for an honest opinion here and what totally convinced me was when my son watched the footage.
“But Daddy,” Ollie said, “he’s a policeman!”
Ogier remains a bloody good bloke, but one who made a serious error in judgement shortly before delivering the drive of his life.