Last year’s Autosport International was a cause for significant optimism for British and Irish rally fans. Kris Meeke, Paul Nagle, Elfyn Evans, Dani Barritt, Craig Breen, Scott Martin and Seb Marshall [Hayden Paddon’s co-driver] were all in Birmingham for the launch of the World Rally Championship and all looking ahead to putting forward a significant challenge.
Admittedly, Marshall’s would be something of a bit-part programme with him and Paddon only tackling half the rallies.
What a difference a year makes. Next month Marshall’s back in Britain’s second city where he will be alongside Meeke and surely ready for a title tilt.
Meeke was in that position last year. After a stop-start season of development, much was expected of the Northern Irishman and his C3. It didn’t go to plan.
Breen was the first of the three to make the podium, with the Waterford star finishing round two in Sweden in a stunning second place. And he’d done it without, apparently, breaking too much of a sweat. Unfortunately for Breen, that career best result would only serve to pile on the frustration as he was benched for the next two rallies in Mexico and Corsica to make way for the returning Sebastien Loeb.
Citroen’s inbound team principal Pierre Budar made it quite clear this was the policy of his Belgian predecessor (Yves Matton, who departed to become FIA rally director in February) and not a decision he had made.
A Saturday shunt ruled Breen out of his returning rally in Argentina and then his season just seemed to spiral downwards, with middle of the road results running through the middle of the season. And very little of that was of Breen’s making, there were punctures, handbrake issues, rain showers in Germany – all of these things combined to leave him running in the worst possible position on the road through the weekend.
It would be fair to say Breen saw little of the rub of the green this season.
And then things went seriously wrong when his C3 was lost to fire in Turkey. Fourth in Wales was a brief respite, allowing him to offer his favoured, “Flat to the square right,” as a description on more than one occasion. If you’re still off the pace with that one, Google those five words, sit back and enjoy some quality Irish onboard.
Spain and Australia didn’t offer the end of the season he might have hoped for. The Coffs Harbour-based rally started well enough. Quickest in Sherwood late on Friday, Breen was right in the thick of the lead fight until suspension damage on Urungu – his concentration not helped by a sticking throttle on the previous stage – confined him to the lower end of the top 10.
There’s no doubt building pressure probably took its toll on Breen as the season progressed, the harder he sought a result, the harder it became to find one. In a perfect world, there was enough pace and potential there to offer Breen another shot this season, but only time will tell if his is the perfect world.
It was a similar story of misfortune for Evans. Punctures ruined Monte and Sweden, while a sixth-gear shunt left co-driver Barritt seeing stars and out of not just the Leon weekend, but also the following event in Corsica. Fifth was a solid result with stand-in co-driver Phil Mills.
Evans and his more illustrious M-sport Ford team-mate Sebastien Ogier struggled to get the best out of the car in Argentina, but second in Portugal offered hope for the second half of the season. A noddy accident in Tula, understeering into a bank on the second stage in Sardinia, put the mockers on his trip to the Italian island and Evans couldn’t revive the speed which had carried him to second in Finland 12 months earlier. He was seventh in Jyvaskyla this time around. More understeer and more steering damage followed in Germany and, by this time, the pressure was really building.
Things didn’t improve with broken suspension in Turkey and a road section engine issue in Wales.
By this point, things were looking grim for Evans – just as they had three years earlier. In 2015, Evans wilted under the pressure and was a broken man on the final round. Not this time. He bounced back with a sensational drive through Spain, edging Thierry Neuville – to the delight of Ogier and the whole M-sport squad – for third place and then delivering an untroubled sixth at the New South Wales finale.
Evans, like Breen, has been better than his results would suggest this season. He’s demonstrated maturity and self-confidence. But, if he does bag another season in the WRC, then he has to come out and put the Ford Fiesta WRC on its door handles from the very start.
The misfortune’s finished, Evans has had enough time at the sport’s sharp end. It’s time to start winning some rallies.