Elfyn Evans has been backed to become Wales’ latest sporting world champion this weekend – joining the likes of Joe Calzaghe, Colin Jackson, Nicole Cooke, Jade Jones and a handful of others. If he makes it, there is no doubting it will have been a remarkable journey as Paul Evans outlines.
And after a remarkable first season with the Toyota team, the 31-year old Dolgellau ace doesn’t need to win the event to secure the title.
If Evans finishes first or second, the title is his and third place might even do it – sparking celebrations among the Welsh motor sport fraternity watching events in Italy, which are live on S4C.
It’s an incredible turnaround for a driver who, before he won the Junior World Rally Championship in 2012, had never considered rallying as a career.
Content working in the family’s car dealership business, Evans took the biggest gamble of his life in 2013 and moved to Cumbria, committing himself to turning his hobby into a high-profile occupation with the M-Sport team.
— Toyota GAZOO Racing WRT (@TGR_WRC) December 2, 2020
Most of his time was spent working in the workshop, but his big break came when he was asked to replace Nasser Al-Attiyah in Sardinia in 2013, finishing sixth on his debut in a world rally car.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing after that either.
Being demoted back into a R5 car for the 2016 season would have demoralised a lesser driver, but his performances – including winning the British rally title – saw him return the year after to the WRC top tier.
Evans repaid the faith showed in him by scoring his maiden WRC victory on home soil the following year, and he’s just gone from strength to strength ever since – to the point where he no longer arrives at any round of the series as an underdog. Far from it.
Moving from M-Sport to Toyota for the 2020 season was another calculated gamble, and a difficult decision for one so loyal. But it’s one that has paid off better than anyone could have dreamed.
Whilst many thought Sébastien Ogier, another new recruit to the Toyota strike force for 2020, would have the upper hand, it’s been Evans who quickly settled into the Yaris WRC and has driven consistently fast and faultlessly all year.
And needless to say, 2020 hasn’t been the easiest of seasons.
With rallies cancelled, including Wales Rally GB, and new events coming in at relatively short notice, not knowing what event is coming next – or if there is even is a next event – has made it extremely difficult to maintain any sort of rhythm.
Yet Evans has dealt with a Covid-19 interrupted calendar better than anyone else – never finishing outside the top four, winning in Sweden and Turkey and scoring a podium on the notoriously difficult Rally Monte Carlo.
Four drivers can still win the title, but Evans holds the aces as he takes a 14-point lead into Rally Monza.
If Evans finishes first or second, the title is his. Third and bonus points on the Power Stage would do it to – even if Ogier wins.
Hyundai drivers Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak also have a chance of winning the title, although their finishing positions are more likely to influence which Toyota driver becomes world champion, with Evans holding the advantage.
Rally Monza might be an unusual round of the WRC, but it’s unusual times.
It’s largely a single venue event, except for a day of competition away from the track.
And as the event has never been run before, it’s not easy to prepare for.
There is a fear of snow, there might be some gravel sections – but wet and slippery asphalt is likely to be the dominant factor, which is the most unpredictable surface any rally driver can face. Evans would have preferred this title shootout to be in the Welsh forests – not just because he knows them, but because even gravel gives better and more consistent grip.
Check out the conditions that our crews are discovering during the recce of Saturday's stages! 😲❄️ https://t.co/8lFP5tO4fF
— Toyota GAZOO Racing WRT (@TGR_WRC) December 2, 2020
“I’m just trying to stay focused on getting the job done and getting the most out of the final round – although a lot of people see the points gap as quite big, it’s ultimately all still very open,” says Evans.
“We know the reward for winning a rally and maximum Power Stage points gives you a lot of points, so we know we have to be at our best when we arrive at Monza.
“We know what we need to do, and the easiest way to achieve that is to prepare as best we can and be prepared to go to the final round and give it our all.
“Rally Monza is a new event and information is pretty thin at the moment, so we’re trying to find out as much about it as possible. It’s proving quite difficult to prepare accurately.
“We have plenty of footage from the Monza Rally Show and how the stages were set up there, but we don’t know if they’ll be set up in the same way and there is talk of some gravel sections in the circuit stages as well.
“We have a bit more ideal about the stages outside, but it’s difficult to know what to expect.
“We’ve had very little mileage in the Yaris on Tarmac, so we’re still finding our feet with the car’s set-up.
“That brings in yet another dimension of uncertainty – so we’ll be looking to make sure we have a car that works in the mountain sections of the rally, which makes up the bulk of the event.”
The only Welshman to know what it’s like to be crowned world rally champion is Phil Mills, who won the co-drivers’ world title in 2003.
After a successful career, winning 13 WRC events and the title with Petter Solberg, Mills came out of retirement in 2018 to co-drive for Evans on the Tour of Corsica, replacing an injured Daniel Barritt.
Despite it being his first rally for eight years, Mills guided Evans to a magnificent fifth place finish.
That puts Mills in a unique position to assess what Evans might be feeling heading into the final round of the series, and what becoming Wales’ first world drivers’ champion will do for both him and the sport in Wales.
“I was very nervous going into the final round, knowing that we had to finish in the top three win the title, because it felt like we had everything to lose,” says 57-year old Mills, who now runs his own very successful historic rally car preparations firm, Viking Motorsport.
“When we crossed the finish line to win the event and stood on the bonnet of the car as world champions, it was a surreal feeling, as I’d dreamed of that moment a thousand times and thought to myself ‘oh, this is really it’.
“That happened on the first weekend of November and we were launched into a whirlwind of PR activities and then testing for the start of the following season, so I didn’t have time to think about it. It wasn’t until Christmas week, when I had a quiet moment to myself at home, that what I’d actually achieved sank in.
“Becoming world champion didn’t change me. I was still Phil from Trefeglwys and all I wanted to do was win the title again!
“And the following year felt like I could walk on water. We were on the top of our game and we led every rally until the car let us down. Not winning the title in 2004 was the biggest disappointment of my career, because I was so hungry for it.”
And Mills believes Evans deserves to be world champion this year.
“Motorsport can be cruel – look at Carlos Sainz in 1998, he was a hundred yards away from becoming world champion when his car stopped in Margam Park, so it’s never over until it’s over,” adds Mills.
“But without a doubt Elfyn deserves to be world champion this year and it would be incredibly unfair if someone else took it away from him.
“He won in Sweden and Turkey, finished on the podium in Monte Carlo and hasn’t put a foot wrong all year.
“I think it would be a huge boost for Welsh motorsport if Elfyn becomes world champion. It could inspire the next generation to get involved in the sport and let’s face it, we all could do with something fantastic to celebrate in 2020.”
The ACI Rally Monza contains 16 stages, totalling 150 stage miles.
The high-speed action begins on Thursday 3 December with a short afternoon Monza King of Show curtain-raising speed test.
Friday (4 December) is the first full day of competition, comprising of five special stages at the parkland circuit near Milan, affectionately known as the Temple of Speed, and featuring the world famous corners such as Parabolica and Lesmo.
Two morning passes through the 8.25 mile test are followed by a double run over the 10 mile stage. The leg closes with the single 4.5 mile blast along the Formula 1 Grand Prix track – but unlike anything Lewis Hamilton has faced, this lap will be tackled in darkness.
Saturday (5 December) sees the rally leave Monza circuit and head north-east for the longest leg of the event on twisty and narrow mountain roads close to Lake Como, north of Bergamo.
The Selvino (16.4 miles), Gerosa (7 miles) and Costa Valle Imagna (13.75 miles) stages are first run in the morning, and then repeated after a lunchtime service halt back in Monza, with the day’s action coming to an end with another run around the Grand Prix track.
The remaining three stages take place on Sunday (6 December), all located within the Monza circuit complex. The day starts with the now familiar Grand Prix stage, followed by two runs over a 9.3 mile stage.
The concluding Power Stage, which offers potentially championship-winning bonus points, will be broadcast live on S4C’s Ralïo programme, starting at 11.00.
S4C – Sunday: 11.00
Ralio 2020 – Rally Monza
Live coverage of the Monza Rally, northern Italy for the final leg of the season, and at the end of the Serraglio stage someone will be crowned 2020 World Champion. Live commentary by Rhys ap William and Howard Davies.
Ralïo is broadcast in Wales on S4C and is available on Freeview 4, Sky 104, Virgin TV 166 and Freesat 104.
In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, S4C is available on Sky 134, Freesat 120 and Virgin TV 166.
S4C is available on-line and on demand at s4c.cymru, BBC iPlayer, YouView, tvcatchup.com, TVPlayer.com and other platforms, throughout the UK, and can be accessed through the S4C App for Apple and Android devices.