Elfyn Evans, without doubt, has the pace and ability to win the World Rally Championship but as he licks his wounds following an unfortunate exit from his home rally, the Dolgellau’s born driver’s future is yet to be confirmed. Will he stay at M-Sport, whose own future is up in the air, or move to another team? Dai Sport’s Rally expert, Paul Evans, looks at the Welshman’s options.
His performances this year have attracted the attention of every World Rally Championship team manager, but a big question remains – what team will Elfyn Evans be driving for in 2019?
If the 29-year old star from Dolgellau knows, then he’s keeping very tight lipped.
With just two rounds of this year’s series remaining, more driver announcements are expected in the coming days and weeks – but seldom has winter arrived with so much uncertainty in the WRC. Good grief, we don’t even know what the 2019 WRC calendar is, or how many manufacturer teams there will be, or who will be driving for them!
Evans is one of a handful of drivers with the experience to win any round of the WRC. He’s contested the full series six times, four times in a World Rally Car, and he is equally as fast on asphalt and gravel.
A potential world champion? Absolutely.
So what are Evans’ options for next year?
Some say that only Sébastien Ogier can get the most out of the Ford Fiesta WRC, and that no other driver could have won Wales Rally GB in the car – but that’s not true. After the opening Friday morning loop of stages, Evans (in 2nd) was 19 seconds ahead of Ogier (in 8th) and the only driver able to keep up with Ott Tänak. Evans was just 8.9 seconds behind leader Tänak when his car conked out on the road section to Clocaenog 2.
Tänak retired the next day after stretching his lead to 41.9 seconds and Ogier went on to win. It’s too simplistic to conclude that Evans would have therefore beaten Ogier and won Wales Rally GB if he’d been able to keep going, but he’d have been up there fighting for victory, that’s for sure. It’s a pace Evans has driven at all season, before and after returning under Rally 2 rules.
Finland’s Teemu Suninen is the only driver with an M-Sport contract for next year, although team boss Malcolm Wilson dropped a bombshell by saying that without more financial investment from Ford, to help run the team and develop the Fiesta WRC, there is no guarantee of an M-Sport Ford WRC team next year. It must be a pretty serious situation for Wilson to so publically put the ball in Ford’s court, and with Monte Carlo in January, there is precious little time to thrash out a multi-million dollar deal.
In part because of the lack of commitment from Ford, Ogier is leaving M-Sport for Citroen, and he might well be taking sponsor Red Bull with him. The five time world champion and Evans (also a Red Bull athlete) have very similar driving styles and work well together on car set-up. They have a fantastic working relationship, and Evans has gone beyond the call of duty to help his team-mate out this year, like in Rally Turkey, when he stopped to help Ogier and then worked on his own car in service while the M-Sport mechanics concentrated on the number one Ford. Could the Ogier-Evans dream team continue in red next year? It would be the type of strong driver line-up that Citroen needs to get back to the top, although Craig Breen has done an excellent job for Citroen this year and it is rumoured that Esapekka Lappi might be heading to the French team.
There might be a new home for Evans at Toyota. It’s rumoured that Toyota has retained Jari-Matti Latvala and that team principal Tommi Mäkinen has signed Kris Meeke – news which may not please Tänak, the driver with a Toyota contract for next year and who doesn’t want a new favourite coming into camp. The trio of available Yaris WRCs looked filled, but are they?
It’s always looked a bit crowded over at Hyundai, with four drivers in a three-car team and a young driver programme to boot. The one thing we know for sure is that Thierry Neuville has signed a three-year extension to his existing contract that will keep him in the team until the end of 2021. What Andreas Mikkelsen’s plans are, or for that matter Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo, who share the third car, are less clear. It might need at least two of the current drivers to leave Hyundai before Evans could join.
Evans could return to rally an R5 car. He did this in 2016, winning the British Rally Championship title and the WRC2 category in Monte Carlo, Sweden and Corsica. But his age and experience puts him at the prime of his career. Evans wants to be world champion, not a support act, and having bounced back so brilliantly from a demotion three years ago, it would be a huge injustice to place him in a similar position again.
His experience makes him a highly sought after test driver. It’s not a high-profile job, but Evans would be a massive asset to any team and it would at least keep him at the forefront of World Rally Car development – and in pole position for any new opportunities that came up.
Worst-case scenario would be retirement, temporary or otherwise, from the sport. It’s a situation that doesn’t bare thinking about, but Evans isn’t the sort of sportsman who’d drive for anyone, just to make up the numbers. Nor should he. He’s a proven winner and one of the fastest drivers in the WRC. He’s had a terribly unlucky season, the latest being retiring on a road section not far from home for goodness sake, but that bad luck can’t last forever. Given the opportunity, Evans could challenge for the world title in 2019 – without any doubt whatsoever.