Rallying: Evans' experience fires young talent on drive into future

Seasoned Welsh driver shrugs off unfulfilled promise and is comfortable with underdog role going into next week's Rally of Great Britain
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The Independent Online

In a league of quiet gentleman, Gwyndaf Evans would make Iain Duncan Smith seem intolerably verbose. That being the case, the omens are scarcely encouraging for the former as he embarks on the Rally of Great Britain next week.

But then Evans has never had a genuine opportunity to give full expression to his talent, which is perhaps due more to the unassuming, almost reticent nature of the man rather than the driver.

He has been a constant in British rallying longer than many of his current opponents can remember. He has competed in his home round of the World Rally Championship since 1987 and will be there again, driving an MG, when the event starts in Cardiff on Thursday evening.

However, although Evans is a former British champion, his equipment in this and other international rallies has usually consigned him to the role of underdog. He simply plugs away, his name unobtrusively climbing the leader board, and leaving many seasoned observers of the sport to wonder what might have been; whether, given that chance, he could have made it as Colin McRae and Richard Burns did.

Under a little duress, the 44-year-old Welshman concedes he sometimes wonders too. But only after stressing he bears no resentment and has no complaints about his lot.

"I was 30 when I turned professional, and if you look at it nowadays, if you're 30 and on the way up you're too old," Evans says. "I don't look back in a negative way. I think I've got to be grateful for what I've achieved and for being involved in a sport which was purely my hobby.

"I worked in a small family garage business and spent all my money to do my sport for many years. To be paid for 14 years to do what is just sport is something I treasure. And I've seen so much of the world because of rallying. I hadn't got a passport until I was 30. I had to get one when I joined Ford.

"I do think I could have done more - given the opportunity - but then a lot of people could say the same thing. There have been a few glimpses of opportunities and I've either been unlucky or done a mistake at a crucial point where, if luck had been on my side, it would probably have made things different.

"I remember back in 1990, when I did three World Championship rallies in Group N. I was up against Tommi Makinen. I beat him twice and he beat me once. He got another opportunity the following year. I got the opportunity to become a test driver. The rest is history.''

Makinen, from Finland, went on to win the World Championship a record four times in four seasons, from 1996. Evans won the British title in 1996, but his consistency barely registered on the radar of the general public.

"I think 15 years ago there was a bit of a myth that unless you were Scandinavian or Latin you probably didn't have what it took," he says. "I think that attitude has changed over the years and there is a more general acceptance now that it doesn't matter where you come from as long as you drive quickly.

"I've obviously followed Tommi's career very closely because I was competing on the same stages, swapping seconds with him either way in equivalent machinery back in '90, and I think 'good for him'. He grabbed his opportunity and made the most of it. And he's damned good.

"Possibly, I could have done it. You can look back and say if it wasn't for this, or I had a manager, or taken a different direction, who knows? The fact is that I'm still here. I still enjoy driving and competing.''

Makinen, reduced to a shadow of his former self, retires after this final round of the World Championship. McRae is losing his job with Citroën and has been unable to get a drive for next season. Burns is returning to Subaru following a frustrating, at times agonisingly unfulfilled, stint at Peugeot. The irony is not lost on Evans.

"That is the point," he says. "I cannot comment on other drivers because I know only what I feel. But all the wealth and success that some of the top drivers have doesn't necessarily make them happy. I've never been happier. I'm still very much involved and although my income cannot compare with that of the top drivers, I've made a comfortable living out of it.''

Evans is also playing his part in the development of Britain's drivers of the future. His duties with MG include acting as mentor to candidates for the manufacturer's scholarship scheme. "This is a golden opportunity for these youngsters,'' Evans says. "I wish this scheme had been running when I was young. They show a lot of enthusiasm and willingness to learn.''

Evans has learned to live with the vagaries and realities of rallying and acknowledges he cannot take on the WRC cars in the Principality. He drives a Group N MGZR, partnered by Claire Mole, in what they flag as the only true all-British effort. The sister car is driven by the ITV Formula One panellist Tony Jardine, and navigated by the journalist Kevin Eason.

"It's a production car, so for me winning the class has to be the main goal,'' Evans says. "With a bit of luck, if others have problems and we get some snow and ice, so that our power disadvantage won't be so great, we could finish in the top 30 overall.''

Like many of his vintage and younger, Evans laments the passing of the odyssey that was the RAC rally, yet maintains these Welsh stages will still have sifted the best from the rest come next Sunday.

"The RAC used to be a huge challenge, going up to places like Kielder, Grizedale and the whole of Wales, but the fact is that commercialism has come into rallying and the compact events are geared to that," Evans says.

"Sad though it is, we have to accept that, and this rally will still be a big challenge for all the competitors. I've not been so lucky on it for a few years. I was fourth overall about four years ago with only one stage to go and my engine expired. So my best finish is still sixth.

"Hopefully, a little local knowledge will help. There aren't many Welshmen doing this and I've had a lot of support over the years. I'm very grateful for that.''

What IDS wouldn't have given for such loyalty.