Virtue of his two wins in Sweden and Turkey and the absence of any retirements, Elfyn Evans’ name tops the World Rally Championship standings with likely just two rounds in Italy and Belgium remaining – although the latter has a cloud of doubt due to an increase in coronavirus cases in the country. Evans’ advantage stands at an, at-first-glance, healthy 18 points over Toyota team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
But here’s the rub: the challenge for Evans is only just beginning. How well equipped the Welshman is at dealing with the pressure of a nation that craves its first World Rally Champion and how successfully he finds the balance between driving for points but also driving for results will be key.
Managing this shouldn’t prove too much of a task though, based on what we’ve seen and heard of him so far in 2020. Frequently journalists have tried to prize that ultimate line from him about his title prospects, but repeatedly he bats it away. “There’s still a long way to go,” he’ll say. Or: “I’m just taking it rally by rally.”
Lady Luck could yet still intervene and dictate the destiny of Evans’ season and make this talk nothing short of academic, but she certainly did him a favor in Turkey at least, with rivals Ogier, Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville all encountering terminal problems or mishaps last month.
Indeed, Evans appeared immune from the drama as he sailed from fourth to first on Sunday morning, meaning some will no doubt claim that should he go on from here and claim the ultimate prize in rallying, then he won’t be deserving of it.
There’s a definite element of making your own luck in this game, and who can forget the heartbreaking loss of several rally wins on powerstages Evans has suffered in recent years?
As another example, while undoubtedly not all of the various crashes, mechanical disasters and setbacks Neuville has been afflicted with in recent years on his quest to become champion have been his fault, it certainly can’t solely be 100% a coincidence that it’s Tänak and Ogier who have shared the gold between them of late.
But let’s adopt Evans’ tactic and not get carried away here. Let’s steer away from the longer-term objective and focus on Rally Italy and assess the job Toyota’s star has to do in Sardinia because, let’s be honest, it’s a mighty one.
Every point will always matter in any season of world rallying, but in a year running at just 50% of its intended capacity, you don’t need us to tell you how vital each rally now is in 2020. And that intensity only ramps up when the title run-in is in full swing like we are now.
Theoretically, Evans can walk away from Sardinia as champion but the chances of that appear incredibly slim. To do so he’d need to score 12 more points than Ogier, three more than both Tänak and Kalle Rovanperä – which, again at first glance, seems more achievable – and can actually afford to cede four points to Neuville to put him out of contention.
But then there’s the added caveat of whether Sardinia is indeed the penultimate round of the season. With talks of Croatia and Monza entering the fray, nothing is guaranteed, rendering the above nothing other than gossip.
And that’s why Evans is right to not worry about the bigger picture as it can all flip in a heartbeat. What he has to do is do what he’s been doing all season long: playing the percentage game and producing a sensible drive to bag as many points as possible but not risking an accident. It’s telling that his only crash for Toyota so far has come on a non-championship rally.
Mother Nature could help or hinder this strategy for Evans in Sardinia though. Starting first on the road – which he will on Friday as points leader – could be an advantage if it rains but if it’s dry, expect him to be slipping down the leaderboard.
Fortunately for Evans, Ogier will be second and Tänak third but there are other threats to worry about. M-Sport Ford pairing Esapekka Lappi, Teemu Suninen, Evans’ team-mate and theoretical title player Rovanperä and Hyundai’s third man – and defending Rally Italy winner – Dani Sordo could all muscle themselves into play and put cars and consequently larger points deficits in between Evans and his chief rivals.
Neuville is an interesting proposition as he occupies a mixed ground of guaranteed dangerman and also a blunt threat. Starting down in fifth on the road, and with a solid record in Italy with two wins, he seems an obvious favorite for victory this weekend but is an increasingly distant player in the championship. But his impact can’t be downplayed, even if he isn’t directly influencing his own championship chances.
The big killer for Evans would be if he were to suffer a non-score. The law of averages would perhaps suggest he’s due one, and Sardinia hasn’t traditionally been the happiest of hunting grounds for him with a best finish of fourth last year and in 2015. If Evans were to retire on Friday and Saturday and Ogier for example wins, regardless of powerstage bonus points it would be Ogier heading to Belgium top of the tree. It really can all change that quickly.
And then there’s the further added complication of Ypres itself, as none of the title contenders apart from Neuville know what to expect in Flanders. A big points boost in Sardinia for Neuville and a poorer rally for the rest, and suddenly he’s back in the game with Ypres very much his to lose. And word has it that first on the road is where you want to be starting there, not further back.
In case you’re still needing proof as to why this championship is very much still wide open, let’s now get mathematical.
Heading into the penultimate round of the season last year, Tänak was enjoying a 15-point lead at the summit over Ogier’s Citroën with Neuville’s Hyundai 30 points back. A win in Wales and second in Spain did the job for Tänak, who won his maiden world crown by 36 points over Neuville as Ogier slid to third, some 46 points shy as he scored less than half what either Tänak and Neuville could manage on the final two rallies.
The year before meanwhile – when the title went all the way to the final round in Australia – Neuville was enjoying a five point advantage over Ogier at the head of the field with two to go. An in-form Tänak 21 points behind. But then factor in the final two rounds and it’s Ogier who is champion, some 18 points clear of Neuville with Tänak finishing up 38 points shy.
What does this prove? Literally anything is possible in rallying – just ask Carlos Sainz who came a few hundred meters from clinching the 1998 title.
It would be easy to assume that the world title is signed, sealed and delivered for Evans who became the first man in 2020 to build any sort of a meaningful gap at the top with his Rally Turkey performance. But don’t fall into the trap. He hasn’t; so follow his lead, and then it just might happen.