It’s one of the oldest cliches in the sporting book but also one which (like most cliches) rings true more often than not; motorsport is a cruel business – if it wasn’t then this interview would have been conducted with the FIA World Rally Championship’s latest rally winner. As it is, Elfyn Evans remains the UK’s brightest young WRC talent, though his stellar performance in Argentina last month means that it can now only a matter of time before he takes his first WRC rally win. We sat down with the 28 year old man from Dolgellau to discuss how his season has progressed, how he’s found the newly improved WRC cars, and how it felt to miss out on a maiden win by 0.7 seconds.
Firstly, congratulations on a great result. You seemed to take the event by the scruff of the neck right from the off, were you aware of pushing harder than usual on Friday to build up a lead, or did things just ‘click?’
Not particularly, no. The first stage was new and also an especially tricky one; it was very rough and caused a few issues to other drivers so to get through in the lead was a good – you feel like you’re ‘in the window,’ so to speak. It made us aware of the need to be quick in the following stages though, with SS2 and SS6 (the latter is a re-run of the former) being particularly crucial as it was such a challenge for everyone, and so we knew there was time to be made up. After that it was a case of getting a reasonable push on while still managing the lead.
Would you say things were perhaps made a little tougher psychologically thanks to your massive, near 1 minute lead at the end of Friday?
Yes, to an extent, it certainly changes the manner in which you approach certain stages. The first stage on Saturday was a lot wider and smoother than some of the others, which meant I was able to drive quickly but also within my comfort zone, hence why we were fastest.
The following stages were narrower and rougher with lots of rocks jutting out from the verges and into the road, so it was a case of driving as fast as possible but without incurring too many punctures, something we were unable to do. The second puncture was definitely the worst though, as as we were already running on the spare we were forced to drive the whole 60km road section on a flat, all the while trying to keep it from de-laminating.
There seemed to be an impressive amount of variation between the Argentine stages, did this impact the manner in which you drove the rally?
Not just between stages but also within individual stages! This was most noticeable on Friday’s loop of stages, SS2/SS6 in particular: the first 3-4km or so are almost flat out and very, very fast, whereas the closing kilometers are more typical of Rally Argentina, so think larger rocks and rougher roads. The rock that both Kris (Meeke) and Craig (Breen) hit was on this stage, and that shows just how varied one bit of road can be.
What happened to the brakes midway through El Condor?
Well the cars only arrived back in the UK this morning so we don’t actually know yet! I felt there was a certain amount of play in the peddle at the top of the hill so we bled them, which only ended up making it worse – the pedal was going to the floor at the start of the stage when the system was cold, but then behaving almost normally when it was hotter. Far from ideal from a confidence point of view!
I noticed both yourself and Mads Ostberg lost your rear diffusers in water splashes. With the extra power and reliance on aero this year can you feel the difference in terms of handling?
It was noticeable but not exactly a massive problem, it just reduced the amount of rear end grip and stability available, which admittedly is less than ideal. We still don’t really know what the root cause was, as the guys discovered a bent suspension bracket at the same time so it’s hard to know how much was due to the that or the loss of aero efficiency.
Those bridges on Sunday’s power stage ultimately played a key role in your rally, were you aware of the loss of momentum at the time, or was it simply a case of discounting it and looking to the rest of the stage?
I’d taken a fair amount of life out of my tyres in the preceding stage so the rear of the car was already sliding about more than I’d have liked, and I remember having to be fairly patient getting back on the throttle a good 4km before the bridge section. This played a part in us clipping the bridge and losing about a second, time I’d probably have been able to make back up again with fresher tyres, but that’s just the way it goes. The only other option would’ve been a full spin, something which would only have cost us more time overall.
On a more personal level, do you get more of a thrill from tackling iconic stages like El Condor, specifically driving through ‘set piece locations’ like the rocks at the start of the stage, or is just another bit of road to hammer down?
Most of the iconic WRC stages are iconic for a reason, normally because of the spectacular scenery they offer of the challenge they represent. El Condor is a bit of both to be honest; the rocks at the start are very well known but the stage itself is very rough and very narrow, and this was compounded by the pace with which I was forced to tackle it this year – I’ve not had to be quite as committed on previous occasions! It’s certainly a nice stage to drive in a WRC car, and hopefully the experience garnered this year will help me in the future.
How tricky is it ‘pacing yourself’ on a round like Argentina, and would you say that it’s tougher to defend rather than attack when it comes to making up ground?
There isn’t a whole lot of pacing going on if I’m honest, not if you want to be in with a chance of doing well! The cars are very strong nowadays so you can be fully committed most of the time, though it’s certainly true that it can be easier to attack than to defend. Defending a position, particularly a good position like we had in Argentina, is harder as you need to judge how much you can relax and when to give it everything.
The next round is in Portugal, another gravel rally with a long and storied WRC history. Are you feeling confident ahead of it? It looks to be a rally which will suit your D-Mack tyres.
There are some similarities between the two events with both being made up of soft gravel, so yes, we are looking forward to it. I’m feeling confident that the tyres will work well and that we’ll be competitive.
How are you finding the new Fiesta now you’ve had a few rounds to get to grips with it, and are there any key development parts in the works?
I think the good results we’ve had so far this year speak for themselves – it’s certainly a fun car to drive. It will also be interesting to see how it performs on the coming events though, rallies like Portugal and Italy, conventional gravel tests that are something or a known quantity. That’s in stark contrast to some of the rallies we’ve already tackled, many of which are a bit more specialised in nature – the snow of Sweden and the high altitude of Mexico for example.
How do you set about preparing for a rally, and how do you tailor your training regime to account for specific WRC rounds?
It’s less about preparing for individual rounds and more about consistent training to build up your overall fitness level, as it’s that base level of core strength and stamina that really helps at the end of the day. OK so it isn’t like we’re motocross riders who fall off every other round and collect major injuries, but being in a WRC still puts your body through a lot, so anything you can do to minimise that is certainly worth doing.
Getting into a training routine when I’m back home isn’t really so hard, in fact I normally train at least twice a day. It gets a bit trickier once the season begins though, when I’m all over the world and in all manner of different environment. Even when I am back home I’m generally carrying out testing so yes, fitting it all in can be a challenge.
Do you have any pre-stage rituals or techniques to prepare yourself?
There are a few things I do before setting of, most of them to prepare physically and emotionally for the task ahead. Red Bull is a key part of my pre-stage preparation as it helps me stay focussed on the task at hand, plus there’s the more obvious energy benefit, something which has come in handy plenty of times so far! I also carry out a battery of rituals and check-lists in the moments immediately preceding the stage to make sure that the car is optimised and in the correct engine mode.
You’ve challenged for the lead and come very close to winning already this year, has this affected how you view the rest of the championship, or will it be a case of getting your head down and trying to bank as many points as possible?
You can’t let it change the way you approach an event, that would be counterproductive. We go into each event aiming to get the most out of it, to extract as much pace and as many points as possible, and we’ve always viewed it this way. That said, I’d be lying if I said Argentina didn’t give the whole team a bit of a boost and some extra momentum, and we certainly feel we can challenge for contention on more than one or two of the events we’ve still to contest.
Finally, you’re allowed to use any car from any era of the WRC, and on any stage from any rally – which do you choose?
It would be one of the F2 ‘Kit Cars’ from the ’90s as these were the ones I grew up around, they were what my dad was driving at the time. It would probably be an Escort Maxi on a tarmac round, probably Corsica. The F2 cars were designed specifically to dominate French asphalt rallies, so to drive one on ‘home turf’ so to speak would be something else!
The next stop on the 2017 WRC calendar is Portugal, an event which runs from May 18-21, and one which has played a pivotal role in the sport over the decades. It is also a round we can expect the D-Mack shod Fiesta to excel on, and The Checkered Flag would like to extend its best wishes to Elfyn Evans, Dan Barritt and everyone associated with the D-Mack rally team. It can only be a matter of time before Elfyn becomes the first Welshman to take to the top step of a WRC podium!
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 18 May via the redbull.tv website or the dedicated Red Bull TV app.