The fifth round of the FIA WRC Academy at Rallye de France Alsace will be one to remember for Elfyn Evans as a fourth successive victory saw the Welshman claim the coveted 2012 FIA WRC Academy crown* in style. With championship rivals subject to misfortune over the weekend’s competitive action, a mature drive saw Evans keep his cool to seal the deal with a win over Spain’s Jose Suárez in second and John MacCrone who claimed the final podium position in third.
As the longest event on the WRC Academy calendar, and with the championship laurels at stake, Rallye de France was predicted to make history this weekend. And history was indeed made as the sport’s latest star emerged victorious.
Moreover, although Evans may have provisionally wrapped up the championship, the fact that seven of the eight competing crews scored a stage win only goes to prove just how competitive the WRC Academy remains.
As the rally kick-started with a new-for-2012 special stage through the streets of Strasbourg, Alastair Fisher took an early lead. With both Evans and Brendan Reeves less than a second adrift, the scene was set for a close-fought battle between the three championship contenders.
Elsewhere however, there was early misfortune for Timo Van der Marel who was forced to accept a time penalty after running wide on a mixture of Pirelli’s soft and hard compound tyre through the opening stage. Losing a wheel from his Ford Fiesta R2, the Dutchman was forced to restart under Rally 2 regulations.
Embarking on the first full day of competition, the crews tackled 146 km of stages varying in altitude and character. Evans was soon back in control – claiming the first two stage wins, the Welshman eked out more than a 30 second lead through the opening loop.
But there was heartache for his championship rivals as Reeves suffered a puncture on SS2 and a season of cruel misfortunes and tortuous bad luck continued for former leader Fisher. Incurring problems with the engine of his Ford Fiesta R2 on SS3, the Northern Irishman was forced to retire from the event – depriving fans of what was sure to be one of the most intense and exciting battles of the season.
With Fisher’s retirement and Reeves’ loss of time, Tarmac specialist Suárez was propelled into second position thanks to a string of top-three stage times during the morning action. Claiming a stage win through the first pass of Souitzeren – Pays Welche, MacCrone was on course to repeat his podium finish in Germany with Swedes Fredrik Åhlin and Pontus Tidemand going well on the unfamiliar surface in fourth and fifth.
Returning for the second pass and the end of day dash through the town of Mulhouse, Evans extended his lead at the head of the field as both Suárez and MacCrone encountered trouble. Losing second gear on SS5, the Scot had to endure the remaining four stages at reduced speed. But as Suárez suffered a puncture on the final test of the day (SS8), the pairing were separated by just nine seconds going into the final day – leaving the stage set for an ardent battle between the two Tarmac specialists.
Despite the two Swedes encountering some issues – Tidemand losing time with a loose electrical connection on SS5 and Åhlin going off the road and damaging the windscreen of his Ford Fiesta R2 on SS4 – the pairing were finding their feet on asphalt and showing some clear improvement from the previous sealed-surface round in Germany.
Recovering from his early puncture, Reeves claimed the stage win on SS8 to propel him back up to fifth. Just 0.7 seconds adrift of a championship point through the final stage, Van der Marel was setting a good pace and gaining confidence after his earlier off.
The final and longest day of competitive rallying was arguably the most challenging with crews tackling a mammoth 192 km of two loops of four identical stages – including the 43 km of Pays d’Ormont that commands precise pacenotes and total commitment and concentration from the drivers.
However with SS10 and SS12 cancelled, the Academy crews would contest just two of the morning’s four stages. As Evans backed off the pace to consolidate his strong lead in the hunt for championship glory, it was the Swedish pairing who impressed. Taking his first stage win on Tarmac, Tidemand collected the bonus championship point through SS11 with Åhlin just 1.3 seconds behind in second.
Embarking on the final four stages, and clearly getting to grips with the art of asphalt rallying, the Swedes impressed once again with another fastest stage time through SS13 for Tidemand and Åhlin claiming the victory on SS14 to leave him just 4.2 seconds adrift of a podium finish.
But disaster was to strike the two Scandinavians on SS15 when an earlier engine problem recurred to haunt Tidemand and a puncture put a sharp end to Åhlin’s charge.
A stage win a piece for Suárez and MacCrone – on SS16 and SS15 respectively – secured the final two podium positions, but the final glory was to go to Evans whose fourth successive victory secured him the coveted championship laurels.*
With the co-drivers’ championship yet to be decided, there will be more to play for as the WRC Academy – supported by Ford Racing in Europe and with control tyres from Pirelli – journeys to the season finale in Spain next month.
Elfyn Evans (1st) said:
“Today has gone fine. We have been pretty cautious through the day and certainly through the afternoon we were running at a very safe pace, just to bring it home. We concentrated on keeping it clean and obviously the end result was well worth that!
“I feel absolutely fantastic. To think where we were back in Portugal, and now to turn it around with four wins on the trot is just amazing!
“Everyone has worked so hard and I have to say a big thanks to the whole team and everyone involved.”
Jose Suárez (2nd) said:
“We have had a few problems this weekend, but all in all it has been a good rally. I am happy with the second place, but I would have preferred the win!
“This has been a good result for the championship and I think we are in a good position for Spain now.
“Elfyn [Evans] is a very good driver – he never makes a mistake – and I am very happy for him today.”
John MacCrone (3rd) said:
“It was a good day, the only problem we had was on the long stage [SS14] where we had to stop for a car on fire which cost us about 15 seconds and meant that Fredrik [Åhlin] caught right up to us.
“But we set some good stage times, got a few stages wins, and I’m happy with another podium on Tarmac. It was good to rack up the miles and get some experience of the stages.”
Brendan Reeves (4th) said:
“It was a tricky day. We started back in sixth position, trying to claw our way back from the puncture yesterday. But we pushed on and set some really good stage times. Pontus [Tidemand] and I had a really great battle and then Fredrik [Åhlin] came in on it as well which was good fun.
“We had a little bit of rain on the last stage [SS16], and I thought it was going to be interesting. But then 500 metres in it was bone dry! We pushed hard to see what we could do but about 10 kilometres in we had a spin and lost about 28 seconds which is why the time maybe wasn’t so great.
“We’re improving all the time, but it is just not consistent enough yet. We need to be more consistent on the variety of [Tarmac] surface because there are five or six types of roads on one stage here and in the more open stuff we’re still not getting it quite right. But we’re working on it!”
Fredrik Åhlin (5th) said:
“Today was going very well. We won the long stage [SS14] and we had a bit of a tactic not to go too fast on the first stage so that we could save our speed for the later ones and see how close we could get to John [MacCrone].
“We managed to get within 4.2 seconds of him, but then on SS15 there was a very long flat-left and it was like we hit a curb with the rear wheel and almost spun. I managed to save it but we got a puncture. We drove with it for four kilometres but we were just losing too much time so we had to stop and change it.
“It is a real shame because third position was definitely in sight and it would have been a great result for us after the season we have had! OK, we have proven our speed on Tarmac now, but maybe this year was just not to be.”
Pontus Tidemand (6th) said:
“We had some trouble with the engine this morning, but we also secured our first stage wins on Tarmac which was a really good result and really promising for us.
“Then on SS15 the problem with the engine came back and it was cutting out on almost every left-hand corner – we had to restart the car every time. But this rally has been great experience and I think we have learnt a lot.
“A big congratulations to Elfyn [Evans], he has done a really good job all season. In Spain I think everyone will be flat-out now!”
Timo Van der Marel (7th) said:
“Today has gone pretty well. There is still a bit of a mental issue after our incident on SSS1 – every stage you are trying to go as fast as you can, but with no fight to give you the extra momentum the times just aren’t quite where they should be.
“We had a right-front puncture on SS14 and changed it immediately. I think we hit a rock in a cut which was a bit unfortunate.
“Other than that there were no other mistakes today and we just need to look forward to Spain.”
*Subject to the official confirmation of the results by the FIA.
- Elfyn Evans breaks Fiesta R2 record with the best ever WRC finish
- Dominant performance sees Elfyn Evans maiden FIA WRC Academy victory
- Elfyn Evans wins again in Pirelli-backed WRC Academy
- Elfyn Evans tames the tarmac in Germany to take three in a row
- Elfyn Evans set for Neste Oil Rally Finland after SM O.K Auto-Ralli
- Fearless in Finland: Elfyn Evans makes it two
- Elfyn Evans ends championship with a victory
- WRC Rallye de France Alsace 2012 – Preview
- Elfyn Evans wins Pirelli Star Driver shootout
- Alastair Fisher scoops maiden WRC Academy Cup victory at Rallye de France