Ott Tänak knows more than most about the pace differential between the World Rally Championship’s two leading teams. After all, he’s the only driver to have ever driven both a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC and a Toyota Yaris WRC in competition.
So when he remarked that “finally” there is “one driver who shows what Toyota is capable of in Finland,” we can take the current Hyundai pilot’s comments seriously. Elfyn Evans has made Saturday in Finland his own.
Toyota’s car was born on these roads, and Hyundai has never scored a podium here in the warmer months. Those two facts alone led to most pundits tipping Toyota for success and Hyundai for a more trying weekend.
But despite there being three Toyotas to two Hyundais in the five-way scrap for the lead on Friday, it was Hyundai that led one-two with Craig Breen ahead of Tänak.
Evans has put that right for the home team. Toyota’s attack might be reduced in quantity – Esapekka Lappi has lost ground and Kalle Rovanperä retired – but Evans’ quality has more than made up for that. It’s left Hyundai scratching its head.
Elfyn aside it's been an amazing morning. He's really found something elseCraig Breen
“Elfyn aside it’s been an amazing morning,” said Breen, who was ousted by Evans for the rally lead on SS8.
“He’s really found something else, perhaps his road position camouflaged his real speed yesterday and he’s in a proper road position today and he’s shown he has the pace.
“Honestly after the first one this morning I still felt quite confident, but his time in Päijälä [SS8] was something very, very special and I at least didn’t have everything that was needed to do a time like that this morning.”
Tänak said of Evans: “He is definitely doing well. It seems like he has the confidence now, and they [Evans and the Toyota] are definitely speaking the same language.”
Evans was consistently there or thereabouts on Friday, but has really found an edge on Saturday. Including his stage win on Friday night, he has now gone unbeaten for five tests in a row – half of the rally so far – and has found the same assurity that almost carried him to world championship glory in 2020.
What’s particularly interesting is that none of Evans’ team-mates have been able to unlock the same potential from the Yaris WRC. Sébastien Ogier is now over a minute behind in sixth, while the closest Lappi’s average stage deficit across the leg so far to Evans stands at 8.1 seconds.
Car set-up would appear to be key.
“There were some areas yesterday perhaps where I didn’t feel perfectly or quite so well,” said Evans.
“We made some very minor changes and managed to not completely rectify but improve those areas quite a lot, and now I have a car that gives quite a lot of confidence so that helps.”
Asked why he was the only Toyota driver able to extract the true pace from the car, Evans said he maybe went “in a slightly different direction to the others in the test”.
Quizzed specifically what was different, he added: “Not a great deal actually in the end, just a few tweaks here and there but it made me happy.”
The question now is, can Evans be caught? The gap is only 5.6s out front, but Evans has been 11.7s faster than Breen across the morning. The second pass should present different (rougher) stage conditions, which may throw a spanner in the works, but it’s clear everyone will keep pushing.
“I’m sure we’re all absolutely flat out, I don’t think anyone can try to pull off [or] hide the fact we’re all flat out,” said Breen.
“Of course I’ll search to see if we can carry a little more speed here and there but I think if we’re at this pace, it’ll continue to put its own pressure on him [Evans. We’ll continue to do that.”
Evans doesn’t sound like he’ll crack: “It feels quite OK inside the car,” he said.
“Of course we’re pushing and of course anything can happen but the feeling’s OK and we have to trust that and go with it.”