There was every reason to believe that Elfyn Evans could claim a first World Rally Championship title heading into the year – or, at the very least, contend strongly for one.
For two years he tried and failed to beat Toyota team-mate Sébastien Ogier. But he came close. Very, very close.
It will have hurt to have slid down that ditch in the hills north of Bergamo on that ice-cold afternoon in December 2020. His points lead had vanished and Ogier had bested him.
But there was reason to believe. It really had been bad luck. He’d been doing enough to secure the title until then.
Ogier knew he’d gotten lucky. Evans had started the stage ahead of him, so he’d had the accident instead.
“First reaction – I can do the same,” reacted Ogier mere minutes after passing Evans’ stranded Yaris. “It was incredible, there is nothing Elfyn could do. I am very sorry for him.”
Yes, Evans had lost. But he’d shown he could take on the dominant driver of his era and run him extremely close. Becoming world champion looked attainable, if only for a little luck going the opposite way.
A year and a half has passed since. That feeling of attainability might be starting to slip.
Kalle Rovanperä’s record this season is stunning in its own right. Five wins, a second place, and a pair of top fives on the rare occasions that he hasn’t graced the podium steps.
But when you turn that into a direct comparison between Rovanperä and Evans, the numbers look incredibly bleak for the two-time championship runner-up.
Not once all year has Evans finished ahead of Rovanperä. Even when Rovanperä was slumming it with the Rally2 cars on the first day in Monte Carlo and playing catch-up, even when the championship leader fell backwards sweeping gravel in Sardinia, Evans ended the weekend behind.
It begs the question. Toyota appears to have an era-defining driver in its stable with Rovanperä. Is it still confident Evans can one day become world champion?
Tom Fowler, the team’s technical director, has a firm and immediate reply.
Those two years battling Ogier alluded to as much. But will he actually become world champion?
“That’s a different story,” he concedes.
Such an outcome will have to wait for 2023 at the earliest. 2022 was supposed to be the year all the stars aligned – Ogier would be gone and it was Evans’ title to take.
Instead, Evans has now gone 10 months without a WRC win.
But Evans’ pace has been by no means an unmitigated disaster. There’s an argument that 50/50 situations have had a habit of going one way for one driver and another for the other. Evans’ toast has been dropped a few times this year – and it’s always landed butter-side down.
“I think that’s fair, yeah,” Fowler agrees.
For the briefest of moments during the Monte Carlo season opener, Evans looked to be his team’s leading light in the championship. While Rovanperä was struggling on the first evening, Evans was the only driver challenging the two Sébastiens out front.
But Evans’ hopes ended when he turned in a fraction too early to a right-hander, clipping a hillside and getting stuck on a verge.
“I think that was a bit of a ‘these things happen’ situation,” said Fowler. “But then it spiraled a bit out of control after that, and it can easily happen because then you say ‘ah now I need to do a bit more because I didn’t get last time.’”
Doing more didn’t work. He crashed while chasing Rovanperä in Sweden – twice. A meager fifth place in Croatia put a cinderblock around his ankles in the championship fight; while Rovanperä led the way on 79 points after three rounds, Evans had scored only 17.
A 62-point deficit after only three rounds, for a driver thinking he’d be competing for the world title, has to be crushing. And to be sharing an awning with the runaway leader, doubly so. There must surely be a Rovanperä effect on Evans’ season.
“I think there always has to be, in any team, some effect,” says Fowler.
“Of course our team strategy is to minimize that, but I think if your team’s other driver is Sébastien Ogier, like it was for two years, maybe it’s a way of coming to rallies with less expectation.”
What’s clear is that Toyota isn’t suddenly going to give up on Evans and send him marching. He still has a future of some description ahead of him with the world champions – even without a single win to his name in 2022 thus far.
He could, hypothetically, keep bringing the car home for solid points and contribute to more manufacturers’ titles for Toyota. Settle in, earn a tidy sum and do a job for the team. He’d still be a highly valuable asset that way.
But Fowler is quick to dismiss such a notion: “I hope he doesn’t do that,” he retorts.
“I think it’s still there. People have bad seasons sometimes.”
A year of Rovanperä’s toast landing butter-side down might be all Evans needs.