Elfyn Evans celebrated his debut Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team with an impressive podium finish on this weekend’s Monte Carlo Rally – a thrilling curtain-raiser for the 2020 FIA World Rally Championship which arrives in Wales at the end of October.
Despite lining up alongside six-time world champion Sébastien Ogier at Toyota and having limited pre-event testing time in his new Yaris WRC, the on-from Welshman twice led and came agonisingly close to becoming the first British winner of the notoriously challenging Alpine classic for more than 50 years.
After four days of gripping action on the icy mountain roads above Monaco, Thierry Neuville scored a famous first-ever victory for himself and Hyundai. The fast finishing Belgian winning the final six speed tests in his hard-charging i20 Coupe to overhaul both Evans and Ogier.
Having been consistently among the see-sawing pace-setters throughout and posting four fastest stage times, ultimately Evans and co-driver Scott Martin had to settle for a close third place, just 14.6 seconds adrift of Neuville and less than two seconds adrift of team-mate Ogier. The Frenchman had been gunning for an unprecedented seventh consecutive Monte victory.
Encouragingly for the Welshman and as a fillip for the season ahead, it was his best-ever Monte result and as close as any British driver has come to winning the blue riband event since the famous victories of Paddy Hopkirk and Vic Elford back in the sixties (1964 and 1968 respectively). Neither of Britain’s two World Rally Champions, Colin McRae and Richard Burns, ever won the Monte.
“Overall we had a positive weekend but once you lead a rally your expectations are raised, so I’m a little disappointed as we had the potential to win,” admitted Evans at the finish. “We still have some work to do but it’s a solid start to the season.”
Neuville’s maiden Monte was the stand-out highlight of a mixed weekend for his Hyundai team. Nine-time champion (and seven time Monte winner) Sébastien Loeb was never on the pace of the leaders and finally finished sixth more than five minutes adrift, while new signing Ott Tänak crashed out spectacularly on the second morning. The defending world champion survived the high speed accident unscathed but, with his i20 damaged well beyond repair, failed to score any points.
There were mixed fortunes, too, for the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team. Esapekka Lappi enjoyed an increasingly competitive debut finally finishing fourth, albeit more than three minutes off victory. After early troubles, team-mate Teemu Suninen fought back to eighth but Gus Greensmith was not so lucky aboard the third of the Fiesta WRCs. The young British driver’s rally came to an untimely end following a slow speed spin on ice into a roadside ditch.
After such a rousing start to what promises to be another fiercely-fought series, this year’s World Rally Championship switches to the frozen forests of Sweden (13-16 February) before the rival teams travel further afield to the gravel roads of Mexico and Argentina.
Having moved back to a more traditional end-of-season date, Wales Rally GB (Thursday 29 October and Sunday 1 November) is the penultimate date on the 2020 WRC calendar.
The event will once again be based in north Wales, with the majority of the spectacular speed tests set on the challenging tracks of the Welsh forests, widely acclaimed as some of the most demanding stages on the entire WRC calendar.
Full details will be confirmed when the competitive route is announced later this year. Ticket sales will commence at the same time.
• Highlights of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship will return to free-to-air ITV4, predominantly being screened at 20:00 on Tuesday evenings post event. ITV4 will also air daily highlights of Wales Rally GB as well as live coverage of Sunday’s final Power Stage. As in 2019, subscribers to BT Sport will also be able to access the WRC’s comprehensive All Live channel via their Red Button service which is also available to subscribers via the official wrc.com website. BT Sport is also providing regular highlight programmes and live Power Stage coverage from all 13 rounds.