Ever since the annual excitement of Rally Monte Carlo embered away and the World Rally Championship’s focus switched to Rally Sweden there has been an air of uncertainty floating around world rallying’s elite.
Headlines of canceled pre-event tests were replaced by news of canceled stages and a diminished itinerary. It looked like there was every chance Monte Carlo was going to be the sole rally out of three to run after the cancellation of Rally Australia. Then there’s Rally Chile which was dropped from this year’s WRC calendar due to political unrest.
Let’s be honest we weren’t expecting much from a 171-kilometre Rally Sweden which was clearly lacking in its main selling point – snow.
Step up Elfyn Evans. After his magnificent push for a win on Monte Carlo petered out to a third position he went to Sweden with one thing on his mind. Two years ago Evans was at Sebastian Ogier’s beck and call when M-Sport’s lead-driver needed to rescue a handful of points to aid his title hopes. With the pair back together at Toyota, Evans ensured he was in no position to play second fiddle to his French team-mate this time around.
Five stage wins on the rally’s first seven stages. The other two stages – Evans was second-fastest on both. This was no small turn of pace, this was dominance. And in Scandinavia of all places, the first Briton to win Rally Sweden.
Evans showed form on the snow last year, taking fastest stage times on Hof-Finnskog and Likenas, both of which were included in this year’s shortened route. But that form was taken to a whole new level last weekend.
“I have to give a lot of credit to the team,” said Evans after his win. “For not only giving me a great car but also giving me the support and help in testing for me to get the car to where I wanted it.
“The car is giving me great confidence, and in changeable conditions like we’ve had here, that’s really worth a lot. It has been very enjoyable to drive so far and hopefully we can carry this feeling onto gravel in the events to come.”
Evans’ incredible start to 2020 has provided the perfect positive spin on what could have easily been a disastrous second round for this year’s championship. He’s utilising Toyota’s strengths, maximising his set-ups and influencing his performance during pre-event tests. The efficiencies indwelled within him from the years at M-Sport is producing fruit in the affluence of Toyota’s World Rally Team.
While Evans has come of age at Toyota, his hotshot team-mate Kalle Rovanpera has shown he can mix it with the best at the age of nineteen.
A podium and a power stage win on his second start in the WRC’s highest level, are the years of Sebastian supremacies going to be replaced with a decade of Kalle kingship?
Rovanpera has an amazing future ahead of him, that was never in doubt, but to show his cards so early, I’m not sure many expected that. Battling with Ogier in Sweden, Rovanpera brushed any potential commotion aside. He stuck to what he knew best – drive the stretch of road that lay ahead of him.
Heading into Sunday’s power stage shoot-out Rovanpera was half a second behind Ogier who had stolen third from him on Saturday’s final stage. Fifth in Monte, fourth in Sweden, it doesn’t sound like a bad start to a WRC career. Then came the 22 kilometres of Likenas. An inch perfect drive not only rewarded Rovanpera with a place on the podium but maximum power stage points as he eclipsed the time set by his nearest challenger, Thierry Neuville, by over three seconds.
Rally Monte Carlo winner, Neuville, struggled to match the times set by his rivals on opening day, continuing the trend of the road-opener suffering in Sweden. His push on Likenas wasn’t enough to overhaul Lappi in fifth place.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Hyundai camp, Tanak returned from his horrific accident in Monte Carlo to take second in Sweden. It was a relatively subdued second, Evans’ win was never in doubt but one of huge importance as the Estonian recovered eight of those 30 points lost to Neuville in the French Alps.
With Evans now tied with Neuville at the top of the WRC leaderboard, the Welshman has turned the title into a four horse race. Rovanpera’s power stage performance humbled the once untouchable Ogier. If the teenager can continue his form onto the championship’s mainstay gravel rounds, the 2020 title could well become a battle between five.
That’s the prospect after Sweden. And thanks to Evans and Rovanpera the WRC leaves Sweden feeling much less gloomy than it looked a week ago.