Twenty years ago Evans ended the wait with BRC win. By Jack Benyon
Have a look back through the rally history books, and find a driver as good as this one who didn’t win a major title for seven years.
Gwyndaf Evans dominated the Group N class in his first full year of British Rally Championship competition in 1988, finishing sixth overall in the standings along with co-driver Howard Davies. Not a bad start in one of the BRC’S most competitive eras.
By 1995, Evans was a works Ford test driver and rightfully respected as one of the top rally drivers in the country. But still a title eluded him.
A strong performance in the previous year had set up a confident Evans for a title charge in 1996,after plenty of development work on the Gordon Spooner-prepared Ford Escort RS2000, as the F2 era was just getting underway. Although Evans counted himself among the favourites, he knew there were challenges coming from Renault, Volkswagen, Nissan and some other Fords. It was game on.
“By that time, the car was almost two years old and there were seven or eight manufacturers, so we were gearing up for a fight,” explains Evans. “We had a good run on the RAC in 1995, and we approached it with the feeling that we had a chance but so did a lot of the other drivers.”
After the first round, it looked like Evans was set for a walkover and that any talk of a real manufacturer battle was over. In the opener – the Vauxhall Rally of Wales in Evans’ backyard – Mark Higgins had gear selection issues on his debut for Nissan and Robbie Head’s co-driver Bryan Thomas lost his place in the notes in Clocaenog, leaving more than a slight dose of tension in the Renault Megane before the head gasket went.
Not that it mattered. On the same stage – Clocaenog Mid – Evans was fastest overall. Let’s just put that into context: the F2 cars were the quickest eligible for the BRC title, but four-wheel-drive Group A World Rally Cars could, and did, still enter. Two Ford Escort Cosworths were frontrunning, including one in the hands of Alister Mcrae, and Evans still went quickest overall. In a front-wheel-drive car. On gravel. It was simply incredible.
Evans cruised to the win in F2 and third overall on the event behind the two Escorts of Mcrae and Ari Mokkonen, but it was a Finn behind that Evans would be keeping an eye on; Jarmo Kytolehto. By this stage in his career he had finished on the podium on a WRC event and was back for more BRC action in 1996 having won the Scottish in the F2 category the year before. Would he hang around for the year? We’d have to wait and see.
But for Evans, the dominant display on the opener left him on a high. “It doesn’t half boost your confidence when you have a good run on the opening round. It puts everybody else on the back foot,” says Evans. “I remember coming through Myherin and the rain was just streaking down. It poured it down all rally. Surprisingly, everything went well and it was a great start to the year.”
The second round, the Pirelli Carlisle Rally, saw one of Evans’ biggest challengers fall. Mark Higgins had ended up second to the Welshman on the Rally of Wales, but a spectacular flip on the Cumbrian event meant that he was airlifted to hospital. He’d fractured bones in his back, but would return later in the year. For now, he was out.
After a win by over four minutes on the previous round, a similar feat was achieved by Evans and Davies as Kytolehto suffered gearbox failure. Serge Jordan (Megane) and Tapio Laukkanen (VW Golf) took wheels off their cars and Head didn’t start, meaning Evans had a free run. However, as he explains, there’s no such thing as an easy run in an F2 car. They were notoriously tail happy despite being powered from the front.
“They were a bloody handful,” says Evans with a chuckle. “Mine had as much steering in the back as it did in the front, like a four-wheel steer. They kept you on your toes and kept you honest.”
Next up was the Scottish Rally, and for the second year in a row Kytolehto was the man to beat in F2. A long battle with Evans ensued but some tyre selection issues, a potentially faulty alternator and a gearbox that was changed in 15 minutes by the GSE boys at service meant Evans missed out. But after all that, he was close.
“Jarmo was a cool boy, he could pedal,” says Evans. “I think he had been in the top five in a world rally before 1996. The Finns are always strong and nothing phases them. I thought we would be stronger on the asphalt as they wouldn’t be quite as familiar with the rounds but, in the forests, there’s no stopping them. They were as strong as anyone.”
It turned out that Evans’ suspected superiority on Tarmac was less important, as Kytolehto was away in the world championship for the next round, the Ulster Rally. Interestingly, Group N competitor and future world rally winner Harri Rovanpera took the car for the rally.
An overall podium was enough for Evans and Davies to seal the title in what had to be one of their easiest years of rallying. They had better battles in other seasons, but it all came together in 1996.
“We probably had big dices and better results in other years,” explains Davies. “But it all came together that year. I think we really boxed clever, head down and didn’t have too many problems. Gordon Spooner did a great job keeping our F2s reliable.”
Evans – after many, many years – finally had a deserved BRC title.
“It’s the first time I won something major and you always treasure those moments and especially when there was decent competition,” he says. “You feel like you’ve beaten some special guys in special cars.
“They say about luck. You have to create your own, but it certainly followed us that year. When luck isn’t quite with you, you can have a small moment and it takes a wheel off. Things like that happen.”
After the Ulster there was still one round to go, and the crew campaigned a development Maxi engine in the RS2000.
It proved very fast, as they led Armin Schwarz in a WRC Toyota Celica before the Ford blew up. They nearly had the 1997 title won too, but the new Escort Maxi was a handful and came down awkwardly over a crest on the title decider – the Manx.
The crew crashed out of the championship lead, leaving Higgins to win the title in his Nissan. But no matter what Gwyndaf remembers the most, he will always have that 1996 triumph to reflect on. ■