The DirtFish office has been buzzing with two words since the Acropolis Rally finished two and a half weeks ago. Those two words?
David Evans for one hasn’t shut up about Rovanperä, who turned 21 on Friday. The prediction of a Finnish whitewash from SS1 onwards was understandable. Rovanperä’s driving a car made on these roads, for these roads. He won the World Rally Championship’s last fast gravel round in Estonia and he’s been waiting for this home moment for… well, about 20 years.
Added to that, Toyota’s Yaris WRC has never been beaten in Jyväskylä and Kalle hasn’t been beaten on the WRC dirt since Africa in June.
You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to give him the nod on this one.
And that’s not to say he’s out of it. Fifth might sound a long way from first, but he’s only 7.9 seconds down with plenty of stages to go.
Ahead of him is Ott Tänak in second. The Estonian’s on a hat-trick in Finland, so his presence at the sharp end was telegraphed. And Craig Breen, Elfyn Evans and Esapekka Lappi all have pedigree in this part of the world. But did we expect them all to be ahead of the local boy wonder?
Of Breen, Evans and Lappi, who’s had the best day?
Lappi’s pace in the dark was exceptional
Take a current generation World Rally Car to Sardinia or Portugal and – as a world class driver away from the sharp end for 10 months – you’ll be able to find your feet and the car’s limit fairly quickly.
Come to Finland and it’s a very different ball game. These are the fastest rally cars ever made and, while it might sound a little bit silly, the only way to truly drive them fast is to keep everything pinned. The level of aero on these cars brings a greater reliance on commitment than ever, ever before. The thing will go through the corner at that speed – but you’ve got to send it if you’re expecting downforce to meet you halfway.
That’s the thing that’s most impressive about Esapekka Lappi. To be away and out of the car for so long and to come back and drive at the speed he drove on Friday is hugely impressive. He didn’t think it was possible.
Speaking after his pre-event test, he told me about a new section of road that they introduced after lunch. On the bits he’d been driving all morning, he was Mr Commitment, but when he turned to the new stuff, he was lifting, feathering and shipping tenths at every turn. That’s what he thought he’d be doing on Friday afternoon.
And so did I.
From what I could see, there wasn’t much lifting and feathering going on in the #4 Yaris. And he saved the best for last – second quickest in the darkness was exceptional.
Yes, you can probably say the road’s been getting quicker and offering more grip, more so on the first pass, but still. Lappi’s been the boy on day one.
Breen’s finest Friday yet
Was it Craig Breen’s best every day in a rally car?
“Yeah. I would say that, yeah,” came the verdict from the Hyundai driver. “It’s been really good, I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
“Everything’s clicked, from the first meters of the shakedown this morning everything’s just really worked and I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been a good day.”
Did he end the day leading the rally, in the dark, just months after saying he barely knew where the corners of his Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC lay while in the driving seat? He did indeed.
And the roads, some of those were unfamiliar too with the revised rally route from past years. They’re not roads that Hyundai tests on either, so really there was no excuse on any stage for Toyota to not be at the front with one of its drivers.
The counter-argument is that this was day one, when road order is set by the points order and hands Breen an advantage as a part-timer, and he knows day one says little about who is victory favorite. But that shouldn’t take anything away from his performance.
“We’ve only just scratched the surface on the event, tomorrow is a huge day,” he cautioned. “A really, really big day, some big stages and for sure everybody’s going to be flat to the square right for the whole day tomorrow, but we’ll be one of them.”
Evans put patchy form behind him
Thierry Neuville made quite the statement in the media zone after Friday’s six stages.
“Elfyn has had a very strong day, he was probably the man today,” he said.
“I wouldn’t go maybe that far,” was Evans’ response when Neuville’s comments were put to him. “Obviously there’s quite a few guys still ahead of us. It’s not your day until you’re in the lead.”
At face value, Evans is of course spot on. Surely it’s difficult to claim that he has been the driver of the day when he’s third overall, behind a driver who had never previously led a round of the WRC overnight before in their career?
Those were certainly my initial thoughts when I heard Neuville’s declaration. But then I cast my mind back to SS2 all those hours ago, and a message I’d sent to DirtFish’s online office: “Encouraging from Evans, this.”
He was eventually third fastest, 1.2s shy of Craig Breen’s benchmark but comfortably 3.8s clear of Sébastien Ogier. It’s a theme that continued all day thereafter, as – the Harju opener aside – Evans was never headed by his world championship leading team-mate. It’s not often we’ve been able to say that this season.
And let’s not forget that scorching run in the dark Oittila test. Friday was Evans back to his early 2020 best – making us all sit up and out of our chairs.
If I’m honest, I’d tipped Evans to be the slowest of the five Toyotas this weekend, so for him to conclude the day as the lead car is solid going given two of those Toyotas are being driven by Finns.
I’m not convinced Evans will win the event. Of all the drivers in the five-way fight for victory, I’d actually put the fewest cents on Evans to emerge on top. But the question here isn’t who do I think will win Rally Finland? (Ott Tänak, if you’re asking).
Instead, we’re interested in who’s put in the best performance when all context is considered, and given Evans’ patchy form of late and pre-event belief that he was missing something on fast rallies, did anyone truly expect him to be this well-placed going in Saturday? I know I didn’t.