Was Spain a triumph or a missed chance for Evans?

Elfyn Evans closed the points gap on Sébastien Ogier again on Rally Spain, but came away disappointed. Should he have been?


Elfyn Evans was naturally conflicted.

There were two ways he could view his Rally Spain performance.

Was it a positive one because he’d prevented Sébastien Ogier from winning the World Rally Championship title early, or a frustrating one because he’d surrendered the lead to Thierry Neuville and then simply watched the Hyundai drive off into the distance?

“We’re a bit disappointed really with the weekend,” Evans answered.

“What we could see is if we managed to get the car in the window we wanted, of course we had a possibility to fight for the win – but we didn’t manage to do that.

“A few things contributed to that happening, and we just weren’t at our best this weekend.”

It proves just how performant Evans at his best is these days that he should consider a weekend where he challenged for the win – and crucially outscored Ogier by seven points – not his best.

But Evans’ assessment was at least consistent with his outward message at the moment. He isn’t interested in the developing championship permutations, even if that’s all the rest of us want to talk about. Instead, Evans only cares about the here and now and what he can control.

“Ultimately everybody’s going on about the championship, and I understand that everybody is because there’s a chance for Séb to clinch it here,” Evans told DirtFish’s Colin Clark ahead of the final two stages in Spain.

“But at the same it’s still quite clear that it’s a massive uphill battle for us and we need everything that we can to climb. It’s miles away and you need every point that you can.

“When I restarted my career in ’17, that was the mentality I had then and it seemed to work a lot better.

“And actually whether you’re fighting for the championship or not, it still works out. Whether you’re fighting for the result or championship, you still have to focus on the stages coming and worry about the rest later.”



The M-Sport driver was punished for a mistake, but his attitude afterwards was sublime

But “the rest” will be exactly what’s on Evans’ mind right now; even if he himself isn’t even aware of it. The season will end with the open title fight all neutrals had been craving, so how could Evans possibly ignore the opportunity he has managed to earn himself?

No matter which way the 2021 chapter of the WRC’s growing history book is written, Rally Finland will be chalked up as an important bookmark. Evans’ victory was ruthless, awesome – and, to be blunt, rather unexpected.

Ogier simply wasn’t at the races over rallying’s most famous crests, leaving the door ajar for Evans – who then blew the door open to almost half his championship deficit from 44 to 24 points.

Game back on. And Evans wasn’t about to wave ‘adios’ to his clinical momentum. The state of the leaderboard after 12.4 asphalt miles of Villaplana was all the proof anybody needed.

“It’s a fact, Elfyn was faster this morning,” said Ogier. Five seconds faster to be precise.


That may not sound like much, but considering the stage victory margin didn’t exceed 1.4s across the next two tests, it’s clear Evans was full of confidence and in the zone.

“Yeah, worked out pretty OK in that opening stage,” was Evans’ typically modest appraisal of his run.

“A bit careful in one or two places at the start, but got into a pretty good rhythm after that. Driving was pretty clean. So yeah, the feeling was good in that first one.

“The stages after? Maybe not so perfect, actually. That new stage in the middle was always going to be a bit of a tricky one. Maybe I didn’t commit quite enough, but still it’s OK.”

It was more than that, the rallying world was at Evans’ feet. After what he had produced in Finland, he was on a real roll. But soon it would be the gods up in the sky that would come to Evans’ rescue following a very “hairy” moment at the beginning of SS5.


“On a very, very flat out section, just on the top of the crest, the car just completely snapped so I just had to try and react when I can,” said Evans of a wayward moment where his Toyota twitched through a cut, ran wide and bounced off an adjacent kerb.

“But of course we touched like a sloping kerb on the left-hand side of the road pretty hard, but thankfully the rims are pretty strong and we got away with it.

“I think luck was on our side for sure.”

However if you wanted to be poetic about it, you could argue that this was where Evans lost the rally. Neuville scorched to a commanding 7.9s stage win and stole the lead from Evans – who was more tentative over the rest of the stage after that scare. From there Neuville wouldn’t be caught, beating Evans on all 12 of the remaining stages to record a 24.1s victory.

Neuville deserves more than just a passing mention here, so we’ll give him one. He may now be off the field when it comes to the title match-up, but his Rally Spain performance was compelling evidence that perhaps he wouldn’t be if his Hyundai had been more reliable throughout 2021.


Photo: Hyundai Motorsport

Understeer was the big word of Friday morning in Spain and nobody was more vocal about the problem than Neuville, but he knuckled down after being convinced by his engineer to do “quite a big change” to the car which, as evidenced by his stage times, “worked well”.

The event then came to Neuville. Saturday’s stages were of a different profile – more flowing in nature – than the previous day’s three tests and that seemed to put the longer wheelbase Hyundai at an advantage.

“It’s clear that after so many years we can say that the Toyota and Hyundai are very different cars, designed in a different way. In a kind of Tarmac situation mostly like a racing track, they are mostly better than us. In other situations we are better,” reckoned Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo.

He was right.

While Neuville soared, Evans plummeted; unable to recapture the ultimate feeling he had unlocked from his car on Friday’s stages. With the stages more polluted and less smooth, the Toyotas couldn’t match the Hyundais.


“It wasn’t there,” said Evans of his feeling with the Yaris WRC. “We then took a further bit of a gamble on the lunchtime service, bringing some help to the dirtier parts and to an extent I think we managed to get an improvement to some areas of the car but unfortunately compromised other areas that were working quite OK before.”

However Evans was at least faring better than team-mate Ogier. For the second rally in a row, the seven-time champion just took far too long to gel with his Toyota.

While Evans trailed Neuville by just 0.7s overnight on Friday, Ogier was 18.7s further back and didn’t look like threatening any time soon. All of that bullish pre-event talk about sealing the title for himself with one round to spare was but a distant memory.

“I think you’ve seen that I’m struggling a little bit,” he said on Friday. “It’s been mentioned a lot but understeer, and I didn’t find the perfect set-up yet to give me the confidence to push more.”

Like Evans, Ogier struggled with the dirtier roads and the deep cuts – a surprise factor of this year’s Rally Spain given this isn’t usually a rally where drivers are greedy at the apex – but still things weren’t right with the balance of his car.

He “finally had a good car” by Saturday afternoon but by that point he had no hope of catching Evans, and instead had to fend off an inspired Dani Sordo. An unfortunate stall on the short Salou stage put Ogier within Sordo’s reach and he pounced, winning all four of Sunday’s stages to rip three valuable championship points from Ogier’s grasp.

Evans then boosted his own cause while dampening Ogier’s, pipping his stablemate by 0.3s on the powerstage to take three bonus points – one more than Ogier – to reduce his deficit further to 17 ahead of the season finale.

That of course still means Ogier is the overwhelming favorite for an eighth success next month with just 30 points still up for grabs, but how comfortable is that margin?



The WRC points leader has committed his second traffic-related offence of 2021

Ogier’s aware Spain “will not go down as my best rally ever and by far” but said he will “keep smiling” because “the necessary job is done for the championship and I come to Monza in a very good position”.

But don’t forget Ogier started last year’s Monza Rally 13 points behind and finished it eight points ahead. On an event as unpredictable as this year’s finale, nothing is guaranteed. Particularly when you factor in Ogier’s recent form, which for his lofty standards – road cleaning or no road cleaning – has left a little to be desired.

The 2021 WRC title looked to be a done deal when Ogier recorded victory number four from six events on Safari Rally Kenya. But since, the reigning champion has made a bigger habit of visiting the stewards’ room than the rostrum.

Evans meanwhile has outscored everyone across the last two events and can afford to throw the kitchen sink at round 12. The worst he can do is finish second in the championship standings, a spot he already occupies, while Ogier could surrender a lead and also the perfect ending to a near-perfect full-time rallying career.


“We’ve got to give it everything in Monza but of course, as I’ve said, we always try and do that if we can,” said Evans.

“But a rally like Monza it is a tricky, nadgery thing and maybe, at some points, bigger risks can help in a rally like that. So let’s see.”

This fantastic era of the WRC will end in a fittingly thrilling fashion. Evans has left it late, but not too late to not be causing Ogier some anxious nights over these next few weeks.