There was plenty to celebrate last Sunday evening in the Toyota part of World Rally Championship service park on Rally Estonia. Kalle Rovanperä dominated the weekend, becoming the youngest winner of a WRC round, while Sébastien Ogier managed to extend his lead in the title race to 37 points despite again running first on the road.
But there was less cause for jubilation, on a personal level at least, for the driver he leads in the championship – Elfyn Evans. A fifth-place finish – more than two minutes off the similar Toyota Yaris WRC of rally winner Rovanperä, who’d been cruising since Saturday afternoon – was his most subdued performance of the season so far.
Something wasn’t right from the off. In both loop-end interviews with DirtFish on Friday, Evans was content with the overall balance of the Yaris but admitted he and machine were not at one.
“It’s just been one of those days, really, where you can’t really put your finger on anything that’s been very bad, but it’s just not felt as fluid as it should,” said Evans, who by the end of the day was 20 seconds from Thierry Neuville’s third-placed Hyundai.
“When you’re not easily finding your apexes and getting on the power early, especially on a fast rally like this, you pay such a huge price. That’s the thing on a rally like this; very small, little errors or a lack of carrying momentum costs you dearly because you’ve got long straights after. So you really need things to click and work fully to set the top times.”
But the move away from the high-speed roads and into the more technical, claustrophobic tests in and among the Estonian forests brought little in the way of progress. “Not a lot has changed on that side really” was Evans’s lunchtime assessment, as he considered how he had performed. “Still quite a frustrating morning out there.”
The optimist in him still said the focus was on the podium, though he recognized those hopes were “becoming more and more difficult” to achieve. It wouldn’t come.
A matter of hours later, and preparations for Rally Finland were being mentioned – though in the context of the improvements he and co-driver Scott Martin had been “chipping away at” throughout the event – in an ever-so-slightly frustrated manner, as hopes of advancing up the order on pure pace faded.
Come the end of the rally he was 43.1s adrift of Ogier and not far off a minute from the podium, even with Neuville’s 10-second penalty for a late check-in on the penultimate stage. It marked the first time since last March’s Rally México that he had failed to win a stage on a WRC round.
Granted, that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt; the COVID-19 pandemic has played its part in so much as more rallies would ordinarily have taken place in the intervening time. But Estonia was the 11th round in the 17 months since, so it’s not as if it was a short streak that’s come to an end.
What’s more, it’s atypical of the Evans we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the colors of Toyota, where he has flourished and shown his potential.
The 2020 WRC title runner-up was more sanguine come the rally finish, though still at a loss to really explain his deficit – save for the summary that a sluggish start to the rally might simply have carried over across the weekend.
Obviously when you want to be in the position we want to be in, just being not bad is not where we want to beElfyn Evans
“A bit of spark, a bit of confidence, I would say,” was his response when asked what was missing in Estonia.
“To be honest it was a bad start to the weekend, and maybe after that things just never settled in, [I never] managed to really get out of that. A lot of the time, we were trading times with those around us on the road, so it wasn’t like it was a million miles away. But obviously when you want to be in the position we want to be in, just being not bad is not where we want to be.”
As DirtFish has already summarized, things aren’t going badly but they’re far from perfect. It’s not as if we’re talking about Evans coming off a run of rallies without scoring – he still took 12 points home from the weekend, his powerstage haul included.
But it’s still valid to raise the performance as something of an oddity precisely because of the high standards we’re used to from him. Estonia was a weekend where the fight needed to be taken to Ogier but the punch wasn’t there.
Second in the championship he may be, but there’s some ground to be made up if there’s to be a reversal of last year’s championship one-two. Consider as well how much Hyundai’s missed opportunities have contributed to the current points picture.
Still, there’s a steely fortitude to Evans and, cliche as it might be, the head will be reset ready to go again in a month’s time. The asphalt of Ypres is up next; get the best out of the changeable grip of the sealed surface and he should be in contention for a second win of the 2021 season.
But it will nevertheless be a big test, and the performance in Belgium should give us an indication of how far he will go in this year’s title fight.