Racing Lines: Elfyn Evans’ flying Finnish

99 Racing Lines Rally Finland jump

Perfect win in Finland was a special achievement for Welsh rally hero

Colin McRae and Richard Burns? They didn’t manage it. Kris Meeke was the first, in 2016. Now Elfyn Evans has joined him as the only other British driver in 70 years to have won Rally Finland, following a magnificent performance that has reignited his World Rally Championship bid ahead of the penultimate round this weekend in Spain.

Rally Finland, formerly the 1000 Lakes, is one of rallying’s ‘majors’ beside the Monte Carlo Rally, the Safari and Rally GB. In the old days, only Finns and the odd Swede tended to win it, until Carlos Sainz Sr broke the hegemony in 1990. Since then, the French have tasted success thanks to Didier Auriol and the two Sébastiens, Loeb and Ogier, while neighbouring Estonians Markko Märtin and more recently Ott Tänak – winner in 2018 and 2019 – have conquered the fast gravel roads too.

Now Evans has followed in Meeke’s wheel tracks, in a performance that ranks as high as anything achieved by a British sportsperson in any field of play this year – but because the general media ignores rallying most of the time, the Welshman won’t receive the wider recognition he thoroughly deserves.

Evans is modest to a fault and only when pushed did he admit his drive “probably ranks the highest” in his career, although the first of his five WRC victories is likely to always be the most special, coming as it did on home soil in Wales on Rally GB in 2017. But winning in Finland? It’s the one all rally drivers crave, on the fastest and most challenging gravel stages in the world. This year had added jeopardy too.

For the first time, Finland welcomed the WRC not in its traditional summer slot but on a cold, dry autumn weekend, to allow fans back now pandemic restrictions have been lifted. The views were stunning as the forests dazzled in myriad shades of green and gold, the later date also opening up the prospect of stages running into darkness for the first time. The event was cancelled last year because of Covid, so anticipation was already high. Night stages and the use of some unfamiliar roads from the distant past shot excitement into the stratosphere.

It was on the classic Oittila stage at the end of the first day where Evans began to show his hand. The on-board footage was mesmerising (Daniel Ricciardo described it on social media as “bloody awesome”) as the bright lights of Evans’ Gazoo Racing Toyota Yaris blazed a narrow trail through trees shrouded in total darkness. Rally people don’t tend to gush, especially when they are Scandinavian, but Toyota’s team boss said enough to show how impressed he was. “Elfyn found another gear in the Oittila darkness and since then we were in a much better zone,” said Jari-Matti Latvala, himself a three-time Rally Finland winner. “He can be really proud of what he did here.”

A clean sweep of all four stages on Saturday morning was the bedrock of victory. Tänak was the only driver who could live with him and hit back with a hat-trick of stage wins in the afternoon, but Evans responded on the penultimate test, then they were in a dead heat on the last one. On the final day, Evans blitzed three of the four remaining stages, choosing to keep his foot in to score maximum bonus points on the Power Stage finale, such was his soaring confidence. Tänak and Hyundai had no answer, defeated by 14.1sec.

What was Tänak missing from his previous two victorious visits? “Speed,” he deadpanned. “I had about 14 seconds of speed missing. That’s what it takes.” Ask an Estonian a silly question…

As Evans flew, team-mate Ogier put in a muted showing by his high standards, finishing a distant fifth. He didn’t even score a bonus point on the Power Stage when his Yaris faltered, leading to a 20-point swing at the top of the championship. Evans is the only driver who can stop Ogier claiming an eighth WRC crown, but the gap is still 24 points with just two rallies to go – and both are on asphalt, the surface on which the maestro is most at home.

When asked whether he believed he still had a shot at the crown, Evans said: “I don’t believe. I don’t think too much about it, to be honest. After the Acropolis Rally [where Ogier finished third and Evans only sixth], it was a mathematical chance for me and now it’s slightly more realistic. It would only take Séb to have one retirement and it’s all open. But I don’t wish that and all we can worry about is our performance on the next two rallies.”

A first WRC title might remain out of reach, a year on from the Welshman’s near miss at the 2020 Monza finale. Never mind: he’ll always have Rally Finland 2021. But what a pity one of those final rounds isn’t Rally GB, a glaring omission fromtheWRCthisyear. Takingonandperhaps beating Ogier to a world crown in Wales? Just imagine what we’re missing.

There was also a tinge of sadness on Rally Finland because it marked the final gravel event for the current generation of high-tech World Rally Cars. The Rally1 hybrids that replace them next year have more power, but the complexity has been stripped out in the interests of cost reduction and the drivers will miss the level of sophistication they enjoy today.

Gus Greensmith, sixth on Rally Finland in his M-Sport Fiesta, said: “These cars are pretty special. The new cars are also exciting but as a driver I don’t think it gets much better than what we are driving now.”

It’s beyond time for the WRC to embrace hybrids and cut costs in our fast-evolving world. But change is never easy, especially it seems when the drivers don’t think it will be for the better.