Certain WRC rounds have warranted reputations for turning up surprise results, and Argentina is unquestionably a good example of this. It was here that Hayden Paddon took to the top step of the WRC podium last year, and also here that Kris Meeke took his maiden victory in 2015. It’s an uncompromisingly tough event largely made up of boulders, sheer drops, dust and, of course, water-splashes! For most of this past weekend it seemed as if it would once again fall to Argentina to permit another WRC young-gun, Elfyn Evans, to take to the top of the podium for the first time, but it was not to be. As we’ll soon see though, the Welshman drove impeccably and it can now only be a matter of ‘when’ he will take his first win, not ‘if.’
There’s no getting around the fact that Elfyn Evans will be gutted by the way Sunday turned out, sniped to his first WRC win by a resurgent Thierry Neuville by a mere 0.7 seconds, yet there’s much for him to be positive about on leaving South America. Yes he was aided by running order and therefore didn’t need to concern himself with road sweeping duties, and yes his D-Mack soft compound tyres proved the rubber to beat for most of the rally, but Evans was still easily the fastest, the most consistent and most complete of all the M-Sport drivers in Argentina. You could practically hear Malcolm Wilson‘s hands rubbing together with sheer delight!
Evans proved his speed and maturity right from the off, keeping team mate Sébastien Ogier honest on Thursday night’s Cordoba super special, before launching a commanding performance on Friday. He was richly rewarded for his efforts, eking out a 55.7 second advantage over the privately entered Fiesta of Mads Østberg, setting the pace throughout the day and generally looking like he had the measure of the event.
As is so often the case in Argentina, chaos blighted drivers up and down the field, with Friday morning being especially bonkers. Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon dealt his chances of a repeat victory a blow by executing a slow, crunchy roll midway through the first stage, while team mates Dani Sordo and Neuville were also slowed by a broken steering arm and shattered damper respectively. Ogier lost some essential aero early on on Friday and struggled thereafter (he was also first on the road), though he was up to fourth by the end of the day, seconds behind a resurgent Neuville and barely ahead of team mate Ott Tanak. Both Toyotas suffered from overheating issues which forced them to compete several stages in safety mode (much like Mexico a few weeks ago), and this caused team leader Jari-Matti Latvala to tumble down the order, all the way to sixth by the end of the day. Team mate Juho Hanninen‘s miserable season continued, he was back in ninth.
Friday’s real chaos champions were Citroen though, with team leader Kris Meeke’s exit partway through SS4 being particularly violent. The Northern Irishman was keeping Evans honest early on and looked scintillatingly quick, yet he was caught out by a bump midway through a bend Meeke himself termed ‘a nothing corner.’ It was enough to pitch the C3 into the brush and caused considerable damage, and also lost him six and half minutes. Team mate Craig Breen then managed to clout his gearbox on the very same lump of bedrock, jamming it in fifth! Both Citroens were forced to retire from Friday’s remaining stages though (thanks to some truly excellent spannering from the team) both were back under Rally 2 rules the following day.
Saturday brought the rally leader mixed blessings; a stage win on Tanti allowed him to lead by over a minute, an incredible achievement baring in mind the brutal nature of the roads and the calibre of the opposition. Sadly things became rather tougher for Elfyn as Saturday progressed thanks to a series of punctures, the second of which put him firmly in the sights of second place man Neuville. The Belgian had managed to put Friday’s damper dramas behind him and was on a charge, wasting little time in overhauling the handbrake and diffuser-less M-Sport Fiesta of Ostberg, then setting his sights further up the leaderboard to the D-Mack car.
Evans’ Fiesta also parted company with its rear diffuser on Saturday afternoon and this, coupled with the punctures, meant that his lead began to drop. It also underlined just how vital aerodynamics are to these new breed of WRC machines, and meant that Evans ended the day a mere 11.5 seconds to the good, with Tanak back in third a further 15.3 seconds off Neuville’s Hyundai. Ogier ended the day in fourth and a full 23.1 seconds behind Tanak; the world champion struggled with road order, rhythm and stray dogs intent on jumping out in front of his Fiesta, issues which prevented him from ever truly feeling at home on this demanding slog of an event. The other Fiesta of Ostberg had already retired after an argument with a rock and a host of other gremlins, leaving the Yaris of Latvala in fifth, the Hyundai of Paddon in sixth and the other Toyota of Hänninen in seventh.
Quite what was going through Elfyn Evans’ head on Saturday night is hard to guess, but his scant advantage over Neuville can’t have been exactly comforting. The Welshman’s lead was further cut on Sunday’s opening two stages, with the chasing Hyundai especially fast over the daunting pass through Mina Clavero. Evans was also suffering from a number of issues outside his control, noting that his brakes largely disappeared midway through El Condor – only for them to return towards the end of the stage, ‘like some form of miracle,’ as the man himself noted! It ensured that Neuville was just six tenths of a second down on Evans with just the Power Stage to run, with Tanak just over half a minute behind him in third.
Brake and handling issues aside, Evans initially looked to have the measure of Neuville, and he was up 2.5 seconds at the first split. Sadly it wasn’t to last, and the combination of a poor entry into a bridge and the subsequent loss of momentum (not forgetting his prior handling woes) allowed the hard-charging Neuville to take the Power Stage and the win by a staggeringly close 0.7 seconds. Ott Tanak consolidated his third spot by pulling further ahead of a struggling Ogier (Argentina remains the only current WRC round the Frenchman has yet to win), with Latvala, Paddon and Hänninen in fifth, sixth and seventh respectively.
Citroen’s disastrous rally was capped off by an even bigger roll for Meeke on Sunday afternoon (the largest of his career to date), and while Breen also returned under Sunday’s Rally 2 rules the team opted to withdraw him before the final control in order to give themselves more freedom to work on the car before the next round. It caps off a season opening littered with missed opportunities for Meeke and the rest of the team, and there will doubtless be plenty of soul searching and perhaps a few choice words back in Versailles.
Sunday will have been a hard pill to swallow for Evans, but the Welshman will no doubt take solace in his sheer pace; he looked to have the measure of the best drivers in the world for the majority of the rally, and was only finally overhauled through a mix of reliability niggles, ill timed punctures and the speed of Neuville, a driver with the bit very much between his teeth after his victory in Corsica last month. The best bit as far as Evans is concerned? There’s a very good chance that his D-Mack tyres will be equally well suited to the next round of the championship, Portugal on the 18-21 May.