It might be so obvious as to border on the cliché, but the first victory is always the hardest. It can sometimes feel as if top-tier sports stars, and drivers especially, need to ‘break their duck,’ to get the first outright win done and dusted, in order to progress and to rack up further successes with regularity and to mount a sustained and effective title challenge.
For all these reasons and many more, we’re over the moon to be able to begin this interview by introducing the first home-grown winner of Wales Rally GB, Elfyn Evans.
TCF: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question plenty of times over the course of the last few months, what does it feel like to be the first Welshman to have won a WRC round?
EE: It actually took a long time to sink in, largely as I was firmly in ‘Rally Mode’ until the end of the very last stage, and even then not for a little while. It was probably only on the drive back home that I had enough time and perspective to take stock, to realise why we’d managed to achieve.
TCF: Another question I’m sure you’ve been asked plenty of times, do you feel that winning a WRC event, your home round no less, will alter the manner in which you approach rallying? Do you feel more confident now that you’ve got the toughest one ‘out of the way with’ so to speak?
EE: It’s very important to take experience from all rallies, good and bad, but I wouldn’t say that having won one event will change the manner I approach the whole season. That doesn’t mean that the hunger for more isn’t there – you don’t have to look hard to find examples of drivers who’ve won their first event and gone onto score more, and I’d like to do the same. At the end of the day I need to win and win consistently if I’m to fight for the title this year, so that’s what I’ll aim to do. Having done it before can’t hurt my chances.
TCF: It looked like no-one could touch you for pace from the moment you were comfortably fastest through shakedown, how much of this would you say was down to confidence in your DMACK tyres and the added grip they seemed to give you?
EE: The DMACK’s played a big part in the win as they were optimised for the event; we knew that they’d give us an edge on the kind of conditions normally found in Wales, even more so when the weather took a turn for the worse on Saturday.
TCF: I was in Aberhirnant on the first run through in the morning and again for the last run through at night, and it looked about as misty and treacherous as a stage can get. Was it especially stressful trying to conserve a lead in such testing conditions?
EE: Well I really like driving in low-level conditions so that wasn’t much of an issue, but the fog and mist definitely were – we could barely see the edges of the road! Going into those Saturday stages with such a handy lead was also tricky as we had to preserve it as best as possible, all while trying to judge the pace of everyone else.
Saturday was also the longest single loop of stages in last year’s championship without a service point, meaning there was a lot for us to think about in terms of preserving the car, changing tyres and scooping as much mud out of the arches as possible, all to save weight.
TCF: Do you feel a sense of achievement before you’ve even started the new season, bearing in mind you’re finally in the perfect position to fight for the championship with a works drive on Michelin tyres? It must be satisfying to be starting from such a strong position.
EE: No I don’t think you can, I certainly don’t. I’ve been in good positions previously in my career so I’m only to aware that you can’t take these kind of things for granted, and that’s before we get to the toughest part – beating Sébastien [Ogier].
TCF: Will you approach the 2018 season differently from the last time your were driving one of the official, M-Sport liveried Fiesta back in 2015?
EE: Yes, mainly as I’ve learned a huge amount since then, and as we all know, experience counts for more in rallying than pretty much any other form of motorsport. 2015 actually started pretty well, and by the 5th round of the season I think we were in something like fourth place overall in the standings, but obviously things began to go awry soon afterwards. It’s experience that teaches you how to strike the correct balance between out-and-out pace and consistency, and that’s something I’m certainly more adept at now than I was 3 years ago.
TCF: How easy or hard has it been to adapt to Michelin tyres in the run up to the new season? Are they markedly different from DMACK’s rubber?
EE: It hasn’t been as dramatic a change as you might have imagined, bearing in mind I’ve only driven on the Michelin tarmac tyre so far. I think the difference between the two will become more apparent as the season progresses and we encounter different surfaces, the hot gravel of places like Mexico for example. I anticipate tyre management being more of a factor there, that and the crossover between soft and hard compounds.
TCF: You’ve said before how valuable having Sebastian Ogier as your team mate has been in terms of development, but has your relationship with him changed now that you’re a WRC winner and mounting a title push of your own?
EE: It hasn’t and I don’t envision it doing so, we’re both too confident in our respective driving abilities for that to happen. It’s also worth remembering that Ott [Tanak] pushed Seb [Ogier] hard for most of last year and that didn’t impact the team or the relationship between us, the drivers.
TCF: The conditions on the Monte look to be typically tricky to judge, certainly going on the snowy Sisteron photos from last week and your largely dry test footage from this past weekend. How much of a difference would extra snow make to your pre-event preparations and how much of a bearing will it have on the infamous ‘tyre lottery?’
EE: Well it’s always hard to tell precisely what kind of conditions you’re going to be greeted with, but then that’s part of what makes the Monte such a special event. So far I’ve tested on full snow, wet tarmac and drying tarmac – everything but ice, basically. What’s interesting is that we often find it easier to drive faster on icy tarmac roads than we do just soaking wet ones, as our studded tyres are able to dig in and provide grip. When it’s merely wet there’s always a danger of aqua-planing. We’ll only truly know what we’re dealing with in the days leading up to the event, but there’s no denying that the unpredictable nature of the weather plays a key role.
TCF: You’ve contested the Monte Carlo Rally in a WRC car for a number of seasons now, how much of a factor would you say this experience will have in your ability to fight at the front this time out?
EE: As I mentioned above, experience is a huge factor in rallying, even more so on the Monte. I’d say that having tackled the event before I’m better equipped to balance car setup, tyre choice and to manage just how hard to push at any given moment, all of which are hugely important. Looking back to my first year in the WRC in 2014 is a good example, I probably played it too safe; we took a pair of snow tyres with us for the loop but didn’t fit them, which is a shame as if we had we might well have been leading had we made the call, but then that’s the way this rally often goes.
TCF: Last year’s Monte Carlo Rally seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag for you, can you shed any light on why that was?
EE: It was an interesting event for sure, and the tyres played a part, particularly on those stages on Friday covered by hard-packed snow. We couldn’t get any grip at all and really struggled, but our DMACK’s were more at home on Saturday’s tarmac sections which is why we were able to set a few fastest stage times.
TCF: Obviously you’re not allowed to make massive changes to the car between one season to the next, but are there any key developments on the Fiesta that you anticipate making a difference in 2018?
EE: There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, it’s been frenetic pretty much since we got back from Australia. The rules are very strict regarding car development and we’re only allowed to play 6 ‘jokers’ this year, 3 for the engine and 3 for the chassis, which ensures that there’s no such thing as a ‘clean sheet’ design. It means that we have to make lots of little steps in the hope that they’ll add up, but of course every other team will be doing the exact same.
TCF: Obviously one of the biggest stories of the off-season was the extent of Ford’s involvement in the WRC in general and M-Sport in particular. How do you feel knowing that you’re effectively driving for a works Ford team?
EE: It’s good news all round, really. Good for the sport and obviously great for M-Sport, but also myself and my family; we’ve a long standing relationship with Ford through myself and my dad’s respective careers, and also the family dealership.
TCF: Do you feel increased pressure now that you’re driving for a team tasked with defending its Manufacturers’ title?
EE: No increase in pressure, no. Myself, Sebastian [Ogier] and Ott [Tanak] were competitive pretty much from the off last year so we quickly got used to dealing with the pressure of fighting for a championship.
Good luck in 2018!
To find out more about Elfyn Evans, visit his athlete profile on www.redbull.com