Malcolm Wilson grinned the grin of a man who had some very good news. Admittedly, the news wasn’t all good. It was news born out of an unmissable business meeting which forced Nasser Al-Attiyah out of round seven of the 2013 World Rally Championship.
For Elfyn Evans, it was very good news. The best of news.
And, working with M-Sport on a feature at Kirkbride airfield, I was in the right place at the right time.
“Have you told him yet?” I asked Wilson.
“No. What do you think he’ll say?”
The Welshman was elsewhere on the airfield, shaking down the factory Ford Fiesta RS WRCs for Italy’s round of the championship. Little did he know, the shakedown of Fiesta #6 was about to take on greater significance.
Naturally, Evans leapt at the chance to replace Al-Attiyah on the Italian island.
Even more naturally for Elfyn, he took the opportunity in his stride, avoided the big talk – and the small talk, come to think of it – and got on with the job in hand. But he did the rest of those humdrum shakedown acceleration-deceleration cycles with a spring in his step and a grin on his face.
And, in the searing heat (and with Al-Attiyah’s co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini alongside him – M-Sport was only allowed to change one element of the entry at such a late stage) he scored a top six on his debut at rallying’s very highest level.
Back on the island seven years later and things have changed a little bit. Autumn’s the rally’s new summer season, Evans has swapped his Wilson-made Ford for one of Tommi Makinen’s Toyotas.
And he leads the championship by 18 points.
“Sardinia’s always held good memories,” said Evans. “You don’t really forget the first time you drive a works [World Rally Car] in the WRC.”
It’s a special place. And one that could become even more special on Sunday.
Such is the reserved and cautious nature of Evans’ character; you almost don’t want to venture the question about winning the championship this week. But why shouldn’t we? Were this Sebastien Ogier in this position, there would be no doubting the question.
Last time out in Turkey, Evans overturned Ogier’s nine-point lead and pulled an 18-point advantage for himself. A similar result this week and he’ll be on top of the world.
Evans is biting. He smiles and trots out his well-rehearsed line about the potential for anything happening and taking each event one at a time.
And he’s keen to point out that he wouldn’t necessarily want a repeat of Turkey (except big picture, he would, obviously…). The Welshman claimed victory in Marmaris following a mad Sunday morning which wreaked havoc at the sharp end of the leaderboard.
The winner was quick to point to the misfortune of others – focusing his empathy mainly on team-mate Ogier.
“That wasn’t necessarily the way I wanted to win a rally,” he said quietly, both at the time and more recently.
If we’re honest – and listening to Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler – such madness is unlikely to be repeated on the marginally less rocky roads inland from Alghero.
And Evans’ chances will be hampered by running first on the road on Friday – but it doesn’t look like it will be as bad as it’s been in the past. On Wednesday evening, Evans was quick to talk up the precious pre-recce rain which had left some sections damp.
He will need those.
Fortunately for him, his nearest rival – Ogier – is directly behind him on the road and will benefit only marginally from Evans’ work as a high-speed road sweeper.
If we’re honest, Evans job is slightly more straightforward: 18 points affords him some margin to take something of a watching brief. I’m sure he’d disagree wholeheartedly at such a suggestion and, no doubt, point out once again that anything can happen.
But it’s true.
Ogier needs a win. Kalle Rovanpera and Ott Tanak, both 27 points down, need a win and some serious misfortune to hit the top two for them to be back in with a shout. Hyundai Motorsport driver Thierry Neuville, a further five points back, is in a similar position.
M-Sport’s Esapekka Lappi, the only other driver in with a shot at the title, quite frankly needs a miracle of water and win proportions. The Finn needs all five drivers ahead to no-score on both of the remaining rallies, while he needs to win in Italy and in Belgium. And he needs a brace of big five-pointers on the powerstages.
Like we said, miracle territory.
Evans has the cards. It’s vital that Ogier’s pace doesn’t rattle him first thing Friday morning. The six-time champion is the absolute master at containing the time loss running at the front of the field. And, what’s even more fabulous for him and frustrating for his rivals, is that he’ll find that speed from tires softer than anybody else.
If Evans can keep his cool and the cards in his hand, then, if the dream’s not achieved this weekend, it could be a significant step closer for the final round in Ypres.
And if that happens, then surely even Evans himself would have to admit he’s front and center in the race for 2020 greatness.