Elfyn Evans didn’t understand what all the fuss was about – to be fair, as one of the most grounded drivers in the World Rally Championship, when does he ever?
But he was surprised we were all surprised.
Speaking to DirtFish at the end of the Monte Carlo Rally, he said: “Everyone seems a bit surprised but I think they forget I was leading Japan two months ago, it’s as if…”
David Evans then interjected to assure his fellow Evans that he wasn’t surprised by the Toyota driver’s pace, suggesting that maybe the surprise lay instead with how Elfyn bounced back immediately from his puncture.
“Things were just fine this weekend, things were working fine so there was nothing to change.”
After a season that under-delivered on the hype – and failed to net Evans a rally win for the first time in the Toyota chapter of his career – the question that hung over him at the beginning of 2023 was whether he’d be back.
Could Evans be a title contender again?
The evidence from Monte Carlo was a resounding yes. Before the flat tire that rather deflated the potential from his weekend, Evans was the only driver able to live with team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
But from his perspective, Evans is right to question our interest in this. He was leading Rally Japan on the final morning before, again, a puncture cost him a better result than he got. He led on more than half of last year’s rallies and scored more second places than anybody else.
But of course we’re all aware of the struggles Evans had been having with the GR Yaris Rally1 compared to his old office, the Yaris WRC. And that was where the question really centered: had Evans finally got on top of it? It looks like yes, as he seemed to have done in Japan.
However, this week’s Rally Sweden will give us a true read of whether Evans has fully turned a corner, or if there’s still more work to be done. Why?
It’s all very well (and encouraging) performing on twisty, technical asphalt rallies – but there are only two of them on the calendar and the next one isn’t until November. The lightning-fast frozen forests around Umeå will provide a very different challenge – and test of Evans’ credentials.
Sweden will be the litmus test of Evans’ progress adapting to the Rally1 car.
The five-time WRC event winner has now become quite versed in explaining that he’s never happy with any result unless it’s first, but that particularly rings true this week.
Sweden is a rally Evans has excelled on of late; not least in 2020 when he won on just his second Toyota start and beat fellow mover Ogier to be first to win in Toyota colors.
And last year, although it ultimately went wrong – first with that bizarre trip through a snowbank and off the road at the finish of Saturday’s final stage and then with that smack into a bank and hybrid failure on Sunday – he was bang on the pace with team-mate and eventual winner Kalle Rovanperä.
The expectation has to be for Evans to be running right at the pointy end on round two, not least because his road position is superior to both Rovanperä and Thierry Neuville.
But should some alarm bells be ringing from this comment, drawn from Toyota’s interview with him during his pre-event test?
“We’re working through some options, of course things can always be better,” he said. “I think we’re always looking for the ultimate set-up so we’re just working through those options at the moment.”
Sounds a lot like 2022-spec Evans doesn’t it?
“When you come to Rally Sweden it’s always impossible to have a perfect car all the time,” Evans reasonsed.
“It’s about having a car that’s adaptable to ultra-high grip when the tires are new and then very low grip potentially when you’re at the end of the loop and the tires are coming to the end of their life.
“That’s of course not easy finding a car that’s adaptable to all those solutions.”
And with just one day of testing – almost two weeks ago now – Evans didn’t have long to get it right. But that’s of course not a hurdle specific to him.
In reality, it’s the fruits of the labor between Spain and Japan last year and then over the off-season that we’re about to validate – not the work Evans did on his pre-event test for Sweden.
We know both Evans and the Toyota team have worked hard to tighten the relationship between Evans and the GR Yaris Rally1. What we don’t know is if it will prove enough to make Evans a rally winner again.
“There’s plenty of guys that are fast,” Evans shrewdly told DirtFish. “Thierry’s fast in Sweden, Ott [Tänak] is fast obviously, so you know it’s just business as usual really, but let’s see.”
It may be business as usual in his eyes, but apologies in advance Elfyn; we’re all going to be watching with plenty of interest to see if you pass the litmus test.
My guess is that you will.