When offered a ride with World Rally Championship driver Elfyn Evans, The Red Bulletin did not envisage a sedate cruise in a distinctly un-souped-up white Ford Focus. But he’s off duty today. There’s no ‘My other car’s a WRC contender’ sticker on his road car. The only hint that he’s one of the world’s best drivers is the fact it’s a left-hand drive, to match the Ford Fiesta RS he races in to keep him rally-ready between events.
Driving along the A66 in Cumbria, the 25-year-old Welshman has flipped a mental switch, from chasing 10ths of seconds to obeying the speed limit. “You have to stick to what feels like crawling,” he says. “What’s completely comfortable to me, to the outside world probably makes me look like a bit of a hooligan.”
Evans is driving back to the M-Sport team HQ in Cockermouth, a grand Grade II-listed country house where he lives and works. Inside the main entrance, in stark contrast to the dark wood panelling, is Colin McRae’s race car from the 1999 Safari Rally, the motorsport legend’s first win with the team. Evans has worked hard to get here. A winner at every level of his career, he was R2 British Rally Champion and WRC Academy champion, the latter earning him five rallies in the second-tier WRC car with M-Sport last year. That season also included a surprise first WRC drive, when Nasser Al-Attiyah pulled out of Rally Italy. Evans took his place, with a co-driver he didn’t know and with no pre-event testing. He finished an unexpected sixth out of 39 drivers.
“To get a sixth place on your debut is a big deal,” he says. “It proved I could be trusted to do a reliable job. But I was a long way behind the leader.” This isn’t modesty, it’s pragmatism, which Evans employs at all times. He seems more mature than his years. Being the best rally driver is his focus. He doesn’t socialise much, his schedule is too tight for films, and he likes “anything” when it comes to music – shorthand for not liking anything that much. On a recent holiday with girlfriend Donna, the first in their six years together, he was “bored stiff” by day three.
“You have to be passionate about rally to do this,” he says. “It’s about achieving something. I still have to pinch myself. I think back to where I’ve come from, and now I’m travelling to 13 countries a year doing what I love. It’s a lot to take in.” Evans shies away from the idea of natural talent, and puts his success down to hours of work outside the car, writing race reports, studying footage, doing physical training. But motorsport is in his blood. His father, Gwyndaf Evans, is a winner of the British Rally Championship, whom Elfyn grew up watching at any opportunity. “I remember seeing my dad race on the Isle of Man when I was about five. Rally was always just part of my life. By 12 I was banger racing against adults, with two cushions under my arse.”
Gwyndaf runs the family business, a Ford dealership in Evans’ hometown, Dollgelau in north-west Wales. He was anything but pushy about his son’s rally career. “He didn’t really want me to do it when I was young,” says Evans. “He knew how hard it would be to get a breakthrough. He tried to make me realistic.” To that end, Evans worked as service manager at the dealership until 2012.
“I was doing that at the same time as I was competing in the junior world championship,” he says. “It was a difficult balance. I was competing against people whose parents had given them the financial backing to do nothing but rally. When I won the WRC Academy, I knew that I had a chance at a career.”
Evans schedule now takes him from Argentina to Australia. His first race this year was a baptism of fire in Monte Carlo’s mountains. “It gave me a new definition of hard. At points it seemed impossible. You’re going at walking pace on slick tyres and the car’s still sliding. One minute you’re on snow and ice, and the next you’re at the bottom of the mountain on dry tarmac. I was glad to see the end of it.”
You wouldn’t know from Evans’s retelling, but he finished with another sixth place. He has since finished fourth in Mexico and fifth in Italy. For a debut season, with instructions just to learn and finish rallies, this is great, but not good enough for Evans. “I don’t get a sense of achievement being sixth,” he says. “I want to prove myself and be one of the top pack. It’s a strange feeling rubbing shoulders with the likes of [reigning champion] Sébastien Ogier.
I get the feeling sometimes that I don’t belong there, as it’s all new. One day I’ll be able to beat the Ogiers of this world.” The final round of WRC 2014 is Wales Rally GB in November. The start line is five miles from Dollgelau. “To be able to drive a World Rally car so close to home is great,” says Evans. “I won there in the WRC-2 championship last year. Your desire to win will never be stronger than at home. I’d love to end the season on a strong note.”
After The Red Bulletin catches the train back to London, Evans calls to say a bag has been left in his car. In a Top Gear-esque challenge, he must now beat a Virgin Pendolino across the 50 miles to Lancaster station to return the bag. Of course he makes it. As the train pulls in, he’s standing casually on the platform with a ‘what took so long?’ look on his face. Though the high-speed service was perfectly on time, The Red Bulletin feels apologetically slow. It’s a feeling that Evans’ WRC rivals may soon have to get used to.
Wales Rally GB, Nov 14-17