Even in an era of compressed stages, reduced running and central servicing, Wales Rally GB stands apart as a uniquely challenging event, one as steeped in rallying legend as it as in mist! Countless promising results have been dashed on the North Wales gravel, with even the most experienced of drivers readily admitting to these forestry commission gravel tests being among the most unpredictable stages anywhere in the world. Said challenge is rendered all the more daunting when the late October weather is factored in; rain, fog, mist and even snow have all been known to make an appearance, and that’s before we touch upon the final piece of the puzzle, the night stages!
It’s a unique event which encourages a unique kind of spectator, not to mention some of the most committed rally driving found on the WRC calendar. With this in mind, we sat down to chat with Wales’ foremost rallying son and a man enjoying his most competitive season in the FIA World Rally Championship to date, Elfyn Evans.
2017 RallyRACC – Rally de Espana
TCF: You appeared to struggle for pace throughout Rally Spain earlier in the month and much of this was deemed to be the fault of your tyres. How did you feel your DMACK rubber performed?
EE: I don’t think it’s any secret that we planned to re-adjust our tyres from this point in the season onwards, so we effectively played our ‘joker’ to get it out of the way with in Spain. Our lack of pace in Spain wasn’t that much of a surprise, either; we knew that our DMACK tyres weren’t anything like as competitive as the Michelins when running in extremely hot, dry weather, and that’s precisely what we got last time out.
TCF: How much of a disadvantage were your tyres in Spain and were you able to improve as the rally progressed?
EE: Quite a big one actually; we reckoned we were losing the equivalent of one second per kilometer on some of the longer stages like Tera Alta, and this made the whole event that much tougher. We were able to make progress on Saturday and Sunday, true, but this was as much down to our being able to benefit from the misfortune of others, particularly the Hyundais and Toyotas. We’ve generally struggled all year on tarmac unless we’re running the soft compound tyre.
TCF: Is it any trickier setting up the Fiesta WRC for Spain’s mixed surface running than other, more conventional rallies?
EE: Not especially, no. We’re given extra time to switch between loose surface and sealed surface suspension setups on Friday evening, and that’s before we get onto our mechanics – they’re pretty much miracle workers and can sort most setup issues in no time at all. It’s also worth remembering that Spain is a standalone event when it comes to transmissions, which is why we’re able to specify gravel and tarmac differentials for different days and different road surfaces.
2017 Wales Rally GB
TCF: We’ve seen all manner of M-Sport pre-event test footage over the last week or so, how has it been so far and have you managed to dial in a good setup for the Fiesta?
EE: Pretty good so far, yes. I’ve conducted my own testing at M-Sport’s test facility up in Cumbria while Ott (Tanak) and Sebastian (Ogier) were down in Wales so there might be a few small differences between our cars because of that, but on the whole all 3 Fiestas are looking very similar setup-wise. We’re feeling confident ahead of our home event, certainly.
TCF: Having tested in the UK in the run up to the event, do you feel that your tyres will be better suited to Wales than Spain?
EE: We’ve been running a new tyre in the tests leading up to the rally and it feels much better, but of course there are so many other variables which could impact our performance and tyre life. It appears to have held up pretty well over the course of the test mileage but of course Wales will be different, and that’s before we touch on the variety of different weather conditions the event’s late October date can throw up and the impact they can have on tyre life.
TCF: Do you have any particularly fond memories of rallying in Wales, bearing in mind so many of the stages now pass so close to your home town? You must know places like Sweet Lamb like the back of your hand!
EE: Plenty from my time growing up, particularly on national rallies like the Plains and the Bulldog. They’re amazingly involving, flowing roads that reward those who’re committed and drive with confidence…which I have, but so do the rest of the WRC guys so it’s a fairly even playing field. Regarding Sweet Lamb, it’s a stage and facility that I know well and used to use for half-day testing and competition earlier on in my career, but it’s been a while now, so much so that I’ve probably only driven it for Wales Rally GB for the last 4 years or so. It means that I again have about as much experience of it as everyone else in the WRC.
TCF: Is there any advantage to ‘rallying at home’ and how aware of the local fans are you?
EE: I guess it’s the same as the Scandinavians get on events like the Swedish and Finland – there’s definitely a sixth sense and awareness of the stages and the mud around you, but I’m not sure you could say it gives you an advantage as such. You’re certainly aware of the presence of passionate spectators as you drive through the stages though, and there’s no doubt that that atmosphere gives you a massive buzz.
TCF: On the face of it Wales seems to be a pretty straightforward fast gravel event but it doesn’t take long for terms like ‘polishing’ to come into play; would you say weather and grip are more of a factor here than in most events?
EE: Yes and no; on the face of it Wales seems easy – it’s wet and damp and you normally have to run a fairly soft setup so it’s generally harder to get wrong than somewhere like Spain for example, where you have to select the correct compound to tackle gravel and tarmac. It’s the variables that can make optimising a setup for Wales so much harder; the fog, rain and the generally slipperiness always catch someone out, especially after the front running cars have been through and the stage begins to ‘polish’ and the bedrock is exposed. I’d say that it isn’t an especially tricky rally in terms of setup and prep, but it certainly is from a driver’s perspective, keeping your concentration can be tough.
TCF: Do you look forward to those stages run early in the morning or in the evening, where darkness becomes an extra variable
EE: Rallying at dawn, twilight and even almost total darkness is certainly one of the most special aspects of Wales Rally GB, if only as it forces the driver to concentrate that bit harder. It also lends the stage itself a very special atmosphere.
The conventional wisdom regarding running order goes out of the window and running first on the road becomes a big advantage, especially if its wet…which it normally is of course. This means that the early morning stages, those which begin in total darkness and progress to daylight, can actually lend those guys further down the order a bit of advantage. They’re always a challenge and a key part of what makes rallying in Wales so special.
TCF: This year sees Wales Rally GB take in some long (for the modern era) stages with Saturday looking to be especially grueling thanks to its early start and late finish. How do you prefer for extended days like this?
EE: This year we’ll be doing our night running on Saturday and it promises to be a real marathon of a day, it’s actually the longest loop of the season – a full 110km all in. We start with Aberhirnant at 7.55am and finish with Dyfnant at 7.47pm, not forgetting the long road sections back to the single service. It’s a long day by the modern WRC’s standards and one which puts us under a fair bit of strain, which is why it’s normally the day when diet and energy become more significant – I eat well and often have a Red Bull before starting the night stages.
TCF: Sebastian has led each and every KM of every Rally GB since 2013 and won every time, do you think you can take the challenge to him in 2017 and do you think that team orders will be a factor?
EE: He has an amazing record here and he also starts first on the road, and as I’ve already said, that’s potentially quite a big advantage if it’s wet and the grip levels become marginal. It would be a brave man who’d bet against him doing well, let’s put it that way, but I’ll certainly do my best to take the fight to both him and Ott. I don’t imagine team orders will be a factor as Sebastian already had a good lead in the championship over Ott, so they’re probably the least of my worries!
2018 FIA World Rally Championship
TCF: Obviously the news of Ott Tanak’s departure has left a space vacant at M-Sport, who would you most like to have as your team mate?
EE: Seb, he’d be ideal! In all honest, I’d have been over the moon if the whole line-up stayed the same as this year, though obviously I wish Ott all the best in his move to Toyota. Sebastian is a brilliant guy and a great team mate, it’s always good to have someone with so much experience in the same team; he never takes anything for granted and gets what he wants, and that’s certainly an effective way of driving M-Sport forward.
TCF: Looking ahead to next year, are you looking forward to having an extended role in the continued development of the Fiesta WRC?
EE: It’s actually more or less fully developed but of course there are still improvements to be made and time to be found, so yes, I am looking forward to it. I had a hand in developing the Fiesta R5, last year’s WRC car and had a certain amount of input in the current car so I can’t wait to get back to it over the winter months.
Based in Deeside, Wales Rally GB takes place from the 26–29 October and will see the WRC’s top crews tackle a series of legendary gravel stages in mid and north Wales, plus a single trip over the border to Cholmondeley Castle. The rally will play host to the finale of what has been a thrilling championship duel between Sebastian Ogier, Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville and is therefore a must-watch for motorsport fans of all stripes!
Those not able to make it to the rally in person should keep up to date via Red Bull TV and its excellent event coverage, the first showing of which airs on Friday at 10pm BST. There’s also a live stage on Saturday 11.50am BST. www.redbull.tv