Elfyn Evans took overall honors to win Wales Rally GB last weekend, in the process becoming the first Welshman to have won a WRC round. His first victory was richly deserved, and made all the more remarkable for having been secured a mere 33 miles from his home town of Dolgellau. Has any WRC winner ever triumphed so close to home?
Of course Elfyn’s victory, impressive and indeed deserved as it was, was actually no more than the supporting event, an appetizer to the big showdown between Sebastian Ogier and Thierry Neuville, with Ott Tanak still in with a mathematical chance should either drop the ball. It was Hyundai’s last throw of the dice in terms of the manufacturers’ title; the Korean firm still had a chance heading to Wales, but it was slight at best. It was one of those championship conclusions which we as fans of motorsport dream of yet so rarely get, and one which was accompanied by more than its fair share of twists and turns (and fog) along the way.
Not that the winner of the event was ever truly in doubt, not really. Evans began the weekend by stamping his authority the shakedown stage, a run through Clocaenog. Evans was a full 2.3 seconds faster than second fastest placed man Neuville, pace which proved both how much he wanted the win and how well suited his DMACK tyres were to the conditions at hand. That awful weekend in Spain last time out must have seemed a bad dream.
The DMACK shod Fiesta shot into a lead it was to occupy for the rest of the rally come Monday morning, with Elfyn looking totally at home and supremely confident. The Welshman made hay throughout Friday’s opening loop of stages, fastest on both runs through Myherin and the second blast through Hafren (where he was a full 4 seconds quicker than anyone else), though even when not quickest he was on the pace, remaining in the hunt and already working hard to preserve his advantage. He’d end the day 24.6 seconds ahead of Ott Tanak in second and 26.8 seconds ahead of Sebastian Ogier in third.
Neuville’s slender title ambitions were dealt a 10-second blow thanks to a timing penalty on Thursday night, though the furious Belgian managed to channel his anger into pace come Friday. He picked up pace as the day progressed to come home quickest through SS7 and ended Friday in fourth place overall, ahead of the Toyota Yaris of Jari-Matti-Latvala and the Citroen of Kris Meeke a few seconds further back.
Saturday was actually the longest single day of rallying in the 2017 championship, and Elfyn Evans used the high stage mileage to further cement his position at the top of the leaderboard. Indeed, he ended the morning having won 4 stages and pulled out a handy 49.3 second lead, a comforting thought given the night runs through Aberhirnant and Dyfnant still to come.
Those same, pitch-black passes would prove instrumental in resolving what little uncertainty remained in the title fight, with second placed Thierry Neuville struggling in the thick mists which enveloped SS15, Aberhirnant. The Belgian could only manage ninth fastest and was over half a minute down on Latvala by the end of the 13.91km stage, forcing him from second overall to third. It was only a return to pre-fog form on the final stage of the day, Dyfnant, which bolstered Neuville’s position and prevented him from slipping further. Tanak fell further still, all but dropping out of the title fight by plummeting from second to sixth.
Ogier went off the road and picked up a puncture midway through Aberhirnant, which for anyone else would’ve been a massive disadvantage, but not Seb. Instead he blasted through the stage down on brakes but high on commitment, emerging as fourth fastest and a massive 20 seconds quicker than both Neuville and Ogier. The effort caused his left-front brake to all but throw in the towel and he was forced to complete Dyfnant on three brakes, some artful bodging holding the front end together, yet was still fifth quickest (somehow) and lost just 2.5 seconds to Neuville.
The two quickest men in the pitch black were Latvala and Hayden Paddon, the former pipping the Kiwi by just 0.5 seconds in SS15. Both slipped down the timing sheets on the final run through Dyfnant though, a stage won by Elfyn Evans. The Welshman’s lead at the end of the day was 53.1 seconds, plus the comforting thought that Sunday was far shorter in terms of event mileage and would all be conducted in daylight.
Evans had done the hard work by the time Sunday morning dawned and merely had to protect his lead, hence why he drove conservatively on the opening loop of stages. He was unfazed by the pace which allowed Neuville to consolidate second place ahead of team-mate Ogier, putting in a mature, text-book drive, all while conserving his DMACK rubber.
Neuville’s fading title hopes demanded he be blisteringly fast all day, and that’s precisely what he was; second quickest through SS18 Brenig and quickest of all through both Gwydir and Brenig 2, the Power Stage. Neuville knew that he’d done all he could by bagging the maximum haul of 5 bonus points, and therefore had to wait and see whether Ogier would be deposed from the bottom step of the podium by the charging Latvala, Mikkelsen and Tanak, all three covered by less than 8 seconds.
Ogier’s been doing this championship-winning thing for the better part of half a decade though, and there was simply no way he was going to let the 2017 title fight carry forward to Australia. Ogier was fourth fastest through Brenig 2 and picked up a couple of bonus points in the process, enough to put his fifth consecutive championship beyond doubt. He was followed home by Andrea Mikkelsen (the Norwegian looking increasingly at home in his new car, so much so he could well be a title contender in 2018), Latvala and Tanak (who dutifully slowed on the Power Stage to enable Ogier to take more points). Kris Meeke completed a fairly unremarkable rally (despite showing flashes of pace on Friday) to come home seventh, with Paddon almost a minute further back in eighth
Ogier’s third overall means that you still have to go all the way back to Petter Solberg in 2003 to find the last time the WRC Drivers’ title was won by someone other than a Frenchman named Seb. In doing so Ogier joined Ari Vatanen in having won the WRC’s highest prize with a privateer team, going one better than the Finn by having also enabled M-Sport to claim the manufacturers’ gong. It was the Cumbrian outfit’s first since ceasing to be an official Ford entry, indeed the first time ever as a private outfit, and you could clearly see how much it meant to each and every M-Sport employee. Not a soul in parc ferme would begrudge Malcolm and his team their finest hour in front of a home crowd.
Scarcely believably when you consider that even Malcolm Wilson had a tear in his eye, the real emotions of Sunday afternoon were reserved for Elfyn Evans. His eventual winning margin of 37.3 seconds belied how comprehensively Evans stamped his authority on his home event, and he became the first Welshman ever to win a WRC round. That he did it within spitting distance of his home town and in front of his nearest and dearest was simply the icing on the cake, and he’ll no doubt relish the prospect of adding to it next year.
2017 Wales Rally GB Results
Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC 2017 – 2:57.00.6
Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 2:57:37.9
Sebastian Ogier- Ford Fiesta WRC 2017 – 2:57:54.8
Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 2:57:50.4
Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:57:50.9
Ott Tanak – Ford Fiesta WRC 2017 – 2:58:02.9
Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC – 2:58.21.1
Hayden Paddon – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 2:59:16.9
Esapekka Lapi – Toyota Yaris WRC – 2:59:47.1
Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – 3:00:51.1