Elfyn Evans is on the cusp of being the first Welsh driver to be crowned World Rally Champion and only the third Brit in history after Colin McRae in 1995 and Richard Burns in 2001. Dai Sport spoke to Motorsport UK chairman David Richards, who grew-up and raced cars in Ruthin as a member of Clwyd Vale Motor Club, about what it means for Welsh motorsport.
The last few weeks have been a time of remembrance for British motorsport.
Articles have been written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Scotland’s Colin McRae becoming Britain’s first World Rally Champion.
And the sport has been remembering Richard Burns who tragically died 15 years ago last month just four years after also winning the World Rally crown.
But in Monza on Sunday the sport in Wales and Britain will hopefully be celebrating Dolgellau’s very own Elfyn Evans joining that roll-call of world champions.
“It is a very sad time in many respects but hopefully we will have something to celebrate this weekend,” said Motorsport UK chairman David Richards, who founded the Prodrive group that led Subaru’s WRC programme that saw McRae and Burns crowned champs in the famous 555-embossed overalls.
“Rallying in particular need a boost at the moment. We have, I would say, been in the doldrums a little bit for the last decade.
“We’ve had French dominance at driver level in the World Championships and Elfyn is the first ray of light we have seen in recent times.
“To win the World Championship would, I hope, start to bring back a lot of the interest in the World Rally Championship, with younger drivers participating and build from there.”
Richards, instrumental in the rally careers of both McRae and Burns, was told about a decade ago to watch-out for a young Welsh rally ace from Dolgellau.
But his relationship with Evans’ father Gwyndaf, the 1996 British Rally Champion, goes back even further to the time when he used to stop for petrol at the family garage at Dinas Mawddwy.
“I know his father, Gwyndaf, very well,” added the 68-year-old. “My wife (Karen) is from down Dolgellau way and I used to go to the garage and pick up fuel from him.
“I must have known Gwyndaf for 50 years from when he used to help his Dad out on the petrol pumps as a 16-year-old.
“I’ve watched Elfyn in the last decade. I’m very good friends with Richard Parry Jones (former Group Vice-President with the Ford Motor Company).
“Richard made me aware of Elfyn and I think he helped him in his early days.
“He said ‘keep an eye on this young guy, he is going to be good’, and he has lived up to expectation.
“There have been a few false dawns, but winning Wales Rally GB (2017) was a great starting point.
“Then this year getting in the right car now has been the big opportunity for him.”
An Evans victory would help end the spell of French dominance – at WRC level at any rate – which saw Sebastien Loeb crowned champ nine years in succession from 2004-2012.
He was succeeded by countryman Sebastien Ogier, the six-time champ (2013-2018) who will be hoping to regain the title from Estonia’s Ott Tanak at the expense of Evans, his Toyota team-mate.
Evans leads the standings by 14 points going into the last round in Italy in a season that has been badly-affected by COVID-19 with several rounds cancelled, including Wales Rally GB.
There had also been fears that Rally Monza, which starts on Thursday, would fall victim to the pandemic just as the planned penultimate rally in Belgium which had was scrapped.
Despite the problems with the calendar, Richards insists Evans will be a deserving champion having revelled in his first season at Toyota.
He is the only driver to have won multiple rounds in 2020 after his victories in Sweden then Turkey where he took that crucial lead in the standings.
“Elfyn has taken the chance he’s got this year very well, that’s what you have got to do in life. Sometimes you have to put yourself forward and he has done that extremely well.
“He will be a well-deserving champion – even if the rally in Monza had not gone ahead.
“No-one should ever take anything away from him. I have been very impressed by his performances this year.
“Those were very nostalgic days with Colin and Richard, but you can’t live in the past, you have got to look to the future now.
“The future is never the same as it was in your youth and we have got to think on how to build on this if Elfyn wins the championship.
“Even if he doesn’t win the championship he has done a great job and Wales is still very enthusiastic for rallying.
“We face some uphill battles, we face environmental issues we have got to tackle, the investment in the sport, the cost of rallying these days.”
Sadly, it is highly-unlikely that Evans’ defence of the title will include a rally on the forest tracks of his beloved Wales next year.
This year’s event, due to take place at the end of October, had to be cancelled due to COVID-19 while Northern Ireland are keen to take over in 2021 though the August date is causing issues.
Richards added: “This year has been chaos with COVID and thank goodness we made the decision to cancel when we did.
“As it turned out the weekend when the rally would have been on was a complete lockdown in Wales and nobody would have been allowed to travel.
“Had we ploughed on we’d have spent all the money without having a rally at all.
“Next year, the date we have been given is in August which to my understanding does not work for Wales.
“It’s in the school holidays and at a time when it’s difficult to have cars running in the forest.
“There have been discussions with Northern Ireland.
“I fear we will take a year out from Wales whatever happens but hopefully be back in future years.”