Rhys Yates is arguably in the form of his life right now. Consistently fighting at the front and enjoying his driving, he finds himself as the leader of the British Rally Championship as the season nears its halfway stage.
Yates earned that position courtesy of another podium finish – his second from three events – on the Grampian Forest Rally, despite battling a pop-off valve on the first two stages that starved his Ford Fiesta Rally2 of power at vital moments.
“I was happy with my performance from the day and I salvaged what I felt like I could from the frustrating pop-off valve to start the day,” Yates tells Rally Insight.
“I think we could’ve been more in the fight with Osian [Pryce] for second without the issue but I don’t feel like I had the pace to win the event to be honest with you.”
The pop-off issue certainly didn’t help him though, and not just because he was occasionally without boost from the turbo. Issues like that have a major effect on a driver’s rhythm too.
“Up there they’re real, real quick stages and it [the pop-off valve] went off like nine times in two stages which doesn’t sound that much but minimum it’s half a second and probably longer as it did it at the start of a straight, and you can’t afford to lose that time,” Yates explains.
“In stage two it went off less because I was driving the car differently, so you’re not driving the car to the full potential, you’re revving the car more so it doesn’t go off. You’re thinking about the pop-off valve more than your driving and then that combination of things makes your time drop off.
“It is what it is, it was damage limitation. Points make prizes, I do want to be winning events, I don’t want to be picking third but sometimes, like me going into the last two stages with Keith [Cronin] and Keith picked it up a bit, ahead of the last stage I thought ‘I’m having these three extra points I can gain, I’m having this podium.’
“I felt like it was full attack on that last stage and we did end up pipping him.”
Yates and Cronin had entered that sixth and final stage dead level on the time sheets, but Yates emerged a second better off to nick the final podium place at the death.
It was an impressive display of rally management; not getting too frustrated by the issues he had no control over and sensibly picking his battles and punching in the blistering stage times when required.
Those three points earned from sealing third proved vital too, as Yates leads the BRC by just a single point over Osian Pryce. The Grampian was a microcosm of a new Yates, one that’s able to fight with the very best and feel like he belongs.
“I was very happy with my driving,” admits Yates. “Also, on top of that, in the past for me to turn up to an event with really, really fast stages where you’re fast and committed to your notes, I’d normally get battered around something like that.
“But I felt like I did drive well. There’s loads of positives to draw out of it, and on top of it if you can beat a four-time British champion for third position you’re going to take it aren’t you.”
Yates is no stranger to the British Rally Championship, nor indeed the world stage with several WRC2, WRC3 and European Rally Championship starts under his belt. But it’s easy to forget that he’s a relative new-boy to rallying compared to his main BRC rivals.
Defending champion Matt Edwards has lived and breathed rallying his entire life and began competing over 15 years ago. Pryce’s driving career stretches back to 2009, Cronin’s to 2004, Grampian winner Matthew Wilson’s to the same year… the list really does go on.
By comparison, Yates’ first rally was less than a decade ago and yet he has now muscled his way into contention to be one of the major players in the UK.
That first victory however is a monkey that’s still settled on Yates’ back. It probably should’ve come on the opening round this year – the Neil Howard Stages at Oulton Park – but in the end Yates lost out to Sam Moffett by just a second.
The hangover from that could be lethal, as Yates had nominated the event as his Joker round (rewards drivers with an additional five championship points for first place, down to one for fifth or lower) so coming second ultimately cost the M-Sport driver eight championship points. Those could prove vital come the end of the season.
“I haven’t won an event yet and I think there’s a bit of hype behind me to start winning events and stuff, there is,” Yates confesses.
“Of course I want to win an event but at the same time I think we should’ve won Oulton, we were robbed at Oulton and that still stings me now. I just hope those eight points [lost] there don’t cost me the championship which it could do, if it does it does
“I haven’t won an event yet,” he continues, “but at the same time I’m consistently driving well now, setting good stage times against experienced guys – Osian, Matt, Tom Cave, Matt Wilson, Keith Cronin; these guys there.
“I now get compared against those lads which is fine, but they’ve still got seven, eight years experience on me in rallying. I shouldn’t really be where I am with the limited time I’ve had, I shouldn’t be but people forget about that. I forget about that.
“Two years ago if I’d have been battling with Osian and Tom Cave and Matt Wilson down stages I’d never been before, I’d be f****** s******* myself. But I’m disappointed now.
“People say ‘aw you should be winning events’ and this, that and the other which I completely agree with, I’m on the same path. I want to be winning events but sometimes I take a step back after a rally and go ‘you know what I’m happy with that’ because I think about where I’d be two, three years ago.
“We had a six and a half hour drive down after the event so we were chewing the fat, my dad and my mechanic and were looking at eWRC and if you have a look at my results from a few years ago, I was nowhere.
“OK I’ve been to the world championship and gained a lot of experience but I have come quite a way in a short amount of time and it’s great, I want to be competitive and up in the mix getting seeded three, two; it’s good for confidence isn’t it.”
Don’t mistake any of that for a ‘job done’ attitude though. Yates may justifiably feel that he’s performing at a consistently fast level that he hasn’t been able to attain before now, but he’s not resting on his laurels.
There are still areas of his craft he wants to hone, although Yates is quick to admit that finding those last few percentages is becoming increasingly difficult.
“Whatever you do in life you’ll get really good at something quite quickly if you spend a lot of time on it. But to get you to the next bit, where you need to be, takes time,” he explains.
“When you’re two seconds per kilometre off, you’ll find a second through experience. Then you find two tenths with a car, you find two tenths with a bit of knowledge of the stage, a tenth with this, half a tenth with that and all those things build up, and every tenth you get closer that tenth gets harder.
“I was four tenths of a second off if you put it on average over the [Grampian] rally, which, four tenths in a kilometre sounds like nothing, and it is nothing, but it’s a little bit here, it’s a little bit there, it’s not backing off there, it’s not making that stupid mistake through a hairpin left or slightly missing your braking.
“Those guys in front of you, they’re still making a little bit of those mistakes but it’s not as much. I am really happy with my driving at the minute, I feel like I’m doing the right things, it’s just trying to link those things together now.
“I was having this conversation with Chris, my engineer, and I said I’m at the point now where it’s just a load of little things and I need to just compare a little bit to there, and can I carry a little bit of speed there, my braking, my brake pressures, my steering input.
“My consistency has improved. I’m not having these accidents and I’m still pushing to the limit but I feel confident on that edge, confident pushing to the limit because I’m not driving slow down the stage.
“I’m not driving as quick as others because I want to be quicker but it’s just nibbling little bits and being smart, grabbing bits here and grabbing bits there and not being an absolute tit, because anyone can go flying through a corner but eventually in rallying it’s going to catch you out.
“I think I’ve shown my consistency, I can drive at that pace but just not the pace I want to win at.”
One thing is for sure, despite his fun and relaxed demeanour, the 2021-version of Rhys Yates is every bit the championship contender. He wants this as much as the next man, and if he keeps driving like he has been, who’s to say he won’t achieve it?
Trackrod Rally Yorkshire is up next for the BRC at the end of September. As a proud Yorkshireman, securing that first British championship win on his local turf would be an ideal way for Yates to cement his credentials further, wouldn’t it?
Photos courtesy of British Rally Championship