Be honest, who had Elfyn Evans down to be leading this year’s World Rally Championship four rounds in?
After last year’s tricky season, and with there being no real change to the regulations for 2023, it wasn’t a wild assumption to predict Evans to be a contender but not the leader.
Instead, it was reigning champion Kalle Rovanperä, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville and M-Sport’s Ott Tänak who were billed as the favorites.
And there is indeed a championship battle heating up between those three drivers, but for the moment it’s not for the championship lead. It’s for third place.
Instead, eight-time WRC champion Sébastien Ogier and Evans are tied at the top of the table; the pair both having amassed 69 points so far.
Clearly, it’s too early to tell whether Evans will be able to mount a full title challenge in 2023, but there’s nothing to suggest that he can’t.
Evans is always a driver lurking in the shadows. He’s not one to enjoy the limelight, happier to do his talking on the stages, and so it’s often easy to forget just how good he really is.
Naturally, his performances last year did raise some questions about his ability to win the world championship, especially since it was viewed as the best chance of his career to date given the driver that had beaten him for the past two years was stepping back.
But Evans just couldn’t gel with the GR Yaris Rally1 in the same way that his team-mates could in 2022, resulting in accidents and mistakes that contributed to him finishing fourth in the drivers’ standings.
However, this year already, we are starting to see the Evans of old – something Evans has attested to himself.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m in charge, but at least it’s been much more reminiscent of what I was strong at in the past,” he said to DirtFish.
“[I] was always scoring consistently, always being there or thereabouts.
“Of course there’s still work to do and I can’t say I’m satisfied with all the weekend, but nonetheless, it’s good points on the board.”
Croatia was the first time in a while Evans grabbed the headlines, winning his first WRC event since Rally Finland in 2021. But he’s been deceptively strong for the rest of this season too, consistently churning out results.
Fourth on Monte Carlo, fifth in Sweden, third in México and now victory in Croatia.
That’s a good string of results, especially when others around him have had peaks and troughs. Evans’s performances are very quickly returning to his 2020 and 2021 level.
He doesn’t need to be winning rallies regularly. He knows that in order to win multiple rallies month in, month out, he would need to be pushing right to the limit at every given moment. Pushing a car to its limit for a sustained period of time increases the risk of accidents and reliability issues.
Neuville’s crash on Croatia was proof enough of what can happen when a driver’s constantly pushing themself and the car to the limit and beyond.
So Evans plays the long game. He’s back doing what he does best – taking measured risks when needed but doing enough in the car to ensure he’s on the pace with the frontrunners while not driving to the absolute limit.
His relationship with the GR Yaris has clearly improved over the winter and he’s now in a place where he can complete rallies not only error free, but quickly.
Some will say that Evans’s approach to rallying is a boring one. Who really loves following the person assessing risk at any given moment?
But even if you feel Evans’s driving is not the most exciting to watch, his approach is definitely one of the smartest.
Evans is not a driver who is going to be winning the majority of rallies in a season. It’s unlikely that he will ever achieve the type of winning run that Rovanperä managed last year when he emerged victorious in five out of six rallies between Sweden and Estonia.
His greatest talent isn’t being the fastest driver 24/7. It’s about being the fastest when it matters, but also having the awareness to accept when it’s better to be consistent and bank the points.
For that reason, Evans never normally finds himself as first choice when pre-season championship predictions are placed.
But Evans is the dark horse, sneaking in when nobody’s looking.
Quite clearly, 2022 was a blip. You don’t take a championship challenge right down to the wire with Ogier for two years on the trot and then suddenly lose your talent.
Croatia reaffirmed that isn’t the case.
And while his results until then may have gone under the radar, they won’t be any longer.
Discount Evans at your peril. He might lurk in the shadows as the season goes on, but he has a crippling bite – one he won’t think twice to use when the moment is right.