Former Pirelli Star Driver Elfyn Evans claimed a dominant victory on last weekend's Neste Oil Rally Finland, round three of the Pirelli-backed WRC Academy.
Evans' win marks the Briton's second consecutive victory in this year's highly-competitive series after his success in Greece last time out, and came after he drove a near-perfect rally from start to finish, racking up eight stage wins at the wheel of his Ford Fiesta R2. The 23-year old's sterling performance was rewarded with an 18-point championship lead at the season's halfway point.
Rally Finland is renowned for being one of the fastest event on the world rally calendar, with its super-quick forest stages that are lined with endless trees, crests and hidden 'yumps',, and challenged the eleven WRC Academy crews with 17 special stages covering 106 kilometres. As part of their preparations for the event, Evans and co-driver Phil Pugh had tackled a round of the Finnish Championship, finishing second in class, and the experience of competing on fast, flowing Finnish gravel roads meant the pair were able to finalise settings and fine-tune their pacenote style.
Setting the fastest time on one of the opening loop of three stages, the Welsh pair were clearly determined to repeat their Acropolis result on an event traditionally dominated by Nordic crews. Despite the challenges posed by such a specialist event, they then went quickest on six of the nine stages on day two to start the final day with a 1min 10secs lead. The final day's five stages saw Evans adopt a slightly more cautious approach to preserve the car and guarantee the win.
“I'm over the moon to have won in Finland, it's such an incredible feeling,” British Rally Championship leader Evans admitted, "I had a lot of fun this weekend and we're learning a lot all the time.
“We went to Finland after having had some excellent preparation on the OK Auto-Ralli, had a great start by setting the fastest time on one of the first day's stages and then followed that by going quickest on the first stage on day two. Alastair Fisher was keeping us honest but, when he had his puncture, it became a matter of balancing the pace and keeping out of trouble.
“We knew that some of Saturday's stages had the potential of being quite rough away from the main roads, so the day was a balancing act between not taking risks and keeping up the pace. The win is a huge boost to the championship for us. I've had a good first half of the season and I'm looking forward to pushing for more victories during the second half. We now face some very different challenges in the second half of the year, but I'm really looking forward to going to Germany in only a few weeks time.”
Pontus Tidemand claimed the second step of the podium following five stage wins on his debut in Finland. The 21-year old Swede reached the finish line 55.3secs adrift of Evans, while another former Pirelli Star Driver, Brendan Reeves, claimed the final podium spot, reaching the finish a further 32.1secs adrift. Timo van der Marel was lying third until an incident on the day's closing Ouninpohja stage saw the disappointed Dutchman forced to retire from the event. Spain's Jose Suarez finished fourth and was followed closely home by Scotland's John MacCrone who rounded off the top five. Sixth place was awarded to America's Chris Duplessis with Jose Silva finishing seventh after a troubled rally. Ashley Haigh-Smith claimed the eighth spot.
Fellow Briton Alastair Fisher was battling with Evans for the victory before a throttle problem put him out of winning contention. Fisher was able to return under Rally 2 and finished ninth. The driver now drops to third in the overall standings, three points behind second-placed Reeves.
“Everything started really well and the battle was shaping up nicely with Elfyn,” Fisher said at the finish, “But then we picked up a puncture on stage five after hitting a rock which caused us problems with the throttle. We couldn't carry on, but we were pleased to come back today. Now we're going to keep our head down, there's still three rounds remaining and we're ready for Germany. We competed there last year so we've got some good experience of the stages.”