For all its drama and the passion it inspires among its devotees, at its heart the FIA World Rally Championship is a hard nosed, money-led sport, and this means that, from a driver’s point of view at least, second chances are hard to come by. One individual who’s bucked this trend in recent years is Elfyn Evans, and rightly so! The son of Gwyndaf Evans and therefore destined to fling WRC cars with the best of them, 2017 sees Elfyn better placed than ever before to take his career to the next level, and he’s now tasked with wringing the most from Ford‘s most competitive car for years, the Fiesta RS WRC.
We managed to corner Elfyn for a chat about his career so far, his thoughts on this year’s championship and the WRC in general.
TCF: First up, what were your opinions on the 2017 WRC changes when you first learned of them? Were you immediately excited about the prospect of getting behind the wheel?
Hugely exciting, though obviously from a driver’s point of view the number one consideration is making sure you’re in one! It’s clearly a hugely exciting period for the WRC though, both for the drivers and the fans. The technology underpinning the cars is advancing at such a rate, and we’ve not seen cars like this for many years, certainly not since the drop down in car class and engine size a few years back. They’re visibly faster and more dramatic, and that can only be a good thing.
TCF: What are the new cars like to drive in comparison to last year’s, and was the step up from WRC2 a challenging one?
I wouldn’t say the new cars are necessarily more difficult to drive than last year’s, it’s more about adaption than anything else. Adapting to the new cars and all that they can do will take time and will push everyone hard, but there’s no doubting their performance potential. In regard to WRC2, it isn’t perhaps as much as you might think; again, it’s more about adapting to the new cars rather than them being a more challenging proposition, they’re not so different to drive. I also had WRC experience from 2014-2015 and you don’t suddenly loose that after a year away.
TCF: I’ve heard it said that the re-introduction of active differentials will suit the driving styles of certain drivers, how have you found them so far in 2017? Has it been difficult to adapt?
Again, it will take time for all the teams and drivers to really get to grips with this, but I wouldn’t say that the diffs alone make masses of difference from driver to driver. Certainly there’s a lot to understand and a lot to manage, but in this respect I’m helped by driving for M-Sport – the team has a lot of active diff experience from the Focus days ten years ago, though of course the technology has moved on since then.
TCF: Which aspect of the 2017 rules has had the biggest impact on the manner in which the new cars drive: aero, the extra power, the active centre diff or the weight reduction?
There are so many elements that come together to create a functioning WRC car so it’s hard to pinpoint one specific aspect as everything has been designed to work in harmony, to function as one. For example, I think if you took one of last years cars and bolted on the aero and boosted the power to the level we have now then it would be…harder. I won’t say un-drivable, but it would be too much to be a truly effective package. This isn’t the case with the new era WRC cars as the engineers have had the time and freedom to make them work as one. They’ve maximised the full potential of the regulations, so much so that our car, the Fiesta, feels like a race car when on dry tarmac.
TCF: Most WRC fans are quick to cite Rally Finland and Rally Poland when asked about the events that they’re most looking forward to seeing the new cars tackle, but which are you most eager to experience? Do you think Finland will be a challenge?
Even though it’s not a rally I’ve especially loved in previous years, the answer is probably Catalunya. I can’t wait to see how the new cars handle the dry, fast flowing tarmac. It will maximise the potential of their new aerodynamic parts and will generally be a great place to see them. I think Corsica will also be interesting. It’s where I got my best ever result in 2015, 2nd overall, but it’s still a very tricky rally to get right thanks to the variable weather conditions, especially as we’re now going in April. The nature of the island means that the rally can be almost Monte Carlo like in terms of tyre choice and unpredictability, meaning that one side of the mountain can be dry while the other is soaking wet, but at least with the Monte you know to expect it!
TCF: How have you felt you’ve performed on the first 2 rallies of the season, bearing in mind both Monte Carlo and Sweden are known for being specialised and very difficult to get right?
Monte proved that we’ve got the speed to be competitive; I set a pair of fastest stage times on SS12 on Saturday and that certainly felt good. Sections of that particular stage have always felt seriously quick though, I remember thinking they were damn fast in last year’s cars, so the 2017 spec machines have upped the ante even further!
Sweden was tricky as it always is, it’s the only full snow event of the year so as non-scandinavian building experience is difficult, especially with a new car. The lack of snow meant a lack of compacted snow banks as well, so we had less of an insurance policy. We were dragged into a snow bank on the first stage and lost something like 1min 30 seconds, and I remember thinking ‘keep driving and I’ll get away with it,’ except we didn’t that time. There were flashes of speed of course, but it’s fair to say that we struggled overall.
TCF: Both yourself and Ott Tanak have suffered from mechanical gremlins this year, have M-Sport got to the bottom of why the Fiesta likes to run on 3 cylinders from time to time?
That actually proved to be something really simple, a faulty coil. It was easily fixed and we’re all glad it wasn’t something far more serious or inherently wrong with the engine.
TCF: How do you see the future of the WRC now that the new rules are in place, and do you feel that the FIA has done a good job overall?
From a driver’s perspective the answer is yes, absolutely. The cars are fast and fun to drive, they look and sound spectacular and bode well for the future of rallying. The Sweden average speed ruling, that I’m not so sure about…
TCF: M-Sport appears to have adapted very well to the new rules and there seems to be a tangible buzz about the team this year, do you feel you can mount a collective title challenge?
We certainly feel we can do well and do ourselves and the car justice. M-Sport have built the Fiesta from the ground up, so it’s a completely new, clean sheet design with a huge amount of potential. M-Sport have a habit of winning with new cars right out of the box, and Sebastian maintained that record at the Monte! There’s a lot of work to do but there’s also a lot of potential, and the early signs are overwhelmingly positive.
TCF: What’s it like having Sebastian Ogier as a team mate?
Brilliant. His experience, his track record and his knowledge are all superb, and he’s just so thorough – a good person to have in the team!
TCF: How much input were you allowed over the new Fiesta and did it change much between your first test session and the opening round of the championship?
Not very much, actually. My own WRC programme was only confirmed very late in the day and after the bulk of the engineering for the new car had been undertaken and signed off, so it fell to Ott (Tanak) to tackle the development, and he’s done a great job. I had my first test of the new car back in October, long before I signed up to drive it. That was an altitude tarmac test, then I had a gravel one later in the year…well I say gravel, it was actually mostly snow at the time!
TCF: You’re obviously going to be running Dmack tyres as opposed to the Michelins used by both Ott and Sebastian, how do the two differ and do you feel that Dmack have managed to address some of their weaknesses that became apparent last year?
They’re a really refreshing outfit to work with and this was brought home to me when I tackled the BRC with them last year. Obviously they’re a small tyre company fighting against the might of Michelin in the WRC this year, but they’re always coming up with new ideas and new products in an effort to gain an advantage. Ott proved last year that there were also a number of rallies were Dmack were at least the equal of Michelin and the gap is closing all the time. It’s very impressive, particularly when you realise that their first WRC event was something like 6 years ago.
TCF: I’ve seen some pre-Rally Mexico test footage from Spain emerging in recent days, so what are the new cars like to drive on gravel and will the high altitude of the Mexican stages make much of a difference in terms of engine performance?
The restrictions on testing mean that there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, but that’s what the Spanish gravel run was all about – to try to simulate the high altitude conditions found in Mexico to the best of our ability. It’s one of the first proper gravel tests I’ve had in the new car, and it felt really good.
TCF: Gravel or tarmac?
Which one am I stronger overall on? Well the results seem to suggest tarmac, my best being 2nd on Corsica a few years ago, and coming from Wales this tends to surprise people! I wouldn’t say I preferred driving on one over the other though, and at the end of the day you need to master both to succeed in the championship.
TCF: With 2 rallies down and all 4 works teams looking fairly closely matched, how confident are you that you’ll be able to claim your first outright WRC win in 2017?
Who knows! Monte showed that the speed is there and on Sweden we were quick at various points but ultimately struggled, so we’ll have to see how the rest of the season pans out. It depends on how I drive and how things fall, luck tends to play a part in these things.
The 2017 World Rally Championship is already in full swing and has produced a pair of hugely exciting (not to mention unpredictable) events in both Monte Carlo and Sweden. The championship’s next halt is the first of many long haul events, Rally Mexico which runs from the 9th to the 12th of March. An event characterised by technical, sun-bleached gravel stages winding their way high into the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountain ranges, Rally Mexico promises to be a must watch event for WRC fans of all ages, and one which everyone at The Checkered Flag would like to wish Elfyn the very best of luck on!
Those not fortunate enough to be spectating the rally for themselves can catch up with all the action through Red Bull’s excellent live coverage and highlights packages, both available from 10 March via the redbull.tv website or the dedicated Red Bull TV app.