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Claiming a fourth Australian Rally Championship title was not as easy as Eli Evans may have hoped in 2018, with changes in vehicles, off-road excursions and run ins with the rule book all hampering his progress. Yet through it all, and amidst a back-lash of social media commentary (both for and against him), the Victorian electrician kept his cool and maintained his integrity. A fourth title now sees him equal with his more flamboyant brother, Simon, a record that the younger Eli isn’t yet sure if he wants to improve on. He sat down with RallySport Magazine’s Peter Whitten to talk about the 2018 season and all its ups and downs. Will the AP4 Mini make an appearance again, how close was he to not contesting the final round at Rally Australia, and will he return to defend his title in 2019? Evans is open and honest, and proves yet again that he’s a good bloke who just loves driving rally cars.

Eli Evans celebrates his fourth Australian title with his daughter. Photo: Peter Whitten

RallySport Magazine: First of all, congratulations on your fourth Australian Rally Championship win, and your first in a four-wheel drive car. Eli Evans: Yeah, it is. It was only when I was watching the telecast on YouTube the other day from the event that I realized that it was my first in a four-wheel drive car. The first three were in two-wheel drives, and now this one in a four-wheel drive, but the transition for me was relatively easy, I thought. I was a little bit stressed when I first got into the Peugeot AP4 in our first event last year, but we were able to run with some of the guys out front and it gave me a lot of confidence knowing that hopefully the transition wasn't too hard, and it proved not to be. I think a lot of skills you learn in a front-wheel drive rally car translate into a four-wheel drive quite easily. So, I think if you can drive a front-wheel drive car fast, then you can do it in a four-wheel drive. RSM: I'm not sure whether you know, but you're the first person to win the title in a front-wheel drive car and then a four-wheel drive car. Greg Carr did it in a rear-wheel and then a four-wheel drive car, but no one has ever done it in a front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, until now. EE: Well, there you go. Another little accolade. RSM: The season this year was far from drama free, and was not decided until the last day in Coffs Harbour. Does that make it even more special, that it went right down to the wire? EE: Oh yeah, for sure. I sort of went to Coffs Harbour with a nice points lead, and we really only had to just finish. Really, just finishing would've been enough, but it’s not very often you get the chance to race against the world's best. I felt like I had to represent the local drivers, you know, Harry (Bates), Steve (Glenney) and I, which I think we did pretty well. We were winning stages in WRC2 as well, which is pretty good.

Nobody can say Evans wasn't pushing hard on day one at Rally Australia. Photo: Peter Whitten

RSM: Is it difficult going into an event like that, not being able to push perhaps as hard as you normally would in a WRC event, given that you've got to score points for ARC. EE: Well, you see, it was probably because I was pushing too hard that I had the issues when I went over the jump too hard on the first day. I didn't want to just cruise through to the championship. I believe that to be a champion, you've got to drive as fast as you can at all times. And like I said, I had to represent the Australian Rally Championship. I was the points leader and some of the other WRC2 drivers and teams knew that, so they were keeping an eye on me and how fast we were. Some of them came up and congratulated me on my speed, some of the other drivers and some of the other team owners, I think they were impressed. It didn't all go to plan, but we had enough points to take some risks, and if things went pear-shaped, we were still the champs. I knew that in the back of my mind that, ideally, I wanted to get out there and drive flat out, and dominate the event and take the win. It's a tough sport though. Harry actually came up to me after day 1, after we damaged the front of our Skoda, and he was having issues on the same day. He had a driveshaft issue and came up and admitted to me and said that both those jumps he had in his notes (where we damaged our car), he had them as flat jumps as well. But because of his driveshaft issue, he wasn't able to take them flat, so we had a bit of a laugh about that. So, I think it was either myself or Harry, or both of us. We both might've been pulled off the road sitting next to each other. It's a crazy sport. I just wanted to go out and go as fast as I could like I have all year. We got into a position leading the championship, not by driving slow, but by driving fast, so I didn't want to change that for Coffs Harbour.

It's ours! Ben Searcy and Eli Evans admire the Possum Bourne Trophy as ARC winners. Photo: Peter Whitten

RSM: The penalties in Tasmania and then Adelaide that were applied to you perhaps could have ruled you out of the championship fight, but then they were withdrawn. How did that affect you, both at the time and then moving forward? It's obviously unsettling. EE: Yeah, it was. You know, the very low point of my rally career was after South Australia. Rally Tasmania was okay, we had an issue, we lost a heap of time. I drove as fast as I could to make up as much as I could, not thinking that we were going to be any chance to win the event. But the way it unfolded on day 2 is we were making so much time on everyone that we did end up winning, and that win was also my 20th ARC win, which for me was a big milestone. It took a long time for me to get to 20 wins, and I think 20 wins is a pretty good effort at a national sport. That was kind of dampened by what happened. Then, going into South Australia, I'm trying to do the right things at all times and I try to be a competitor, and I try to be as fair as I can. To have something thrown at as saying that our triangle was in a not an easy place to see - that was hard to take. Dad and myself, we finished the event, I went to the tribunal hearing, and then I drove straight home with Dad. So, I didn't get home until five o'clock the next morning. We drove right through, and a lot of our conversation in the car was that we weren't going to go to Coffs Harbour. For probably three or four weeks I wasn't going to compete at Coffs. I was thinking that I was going to finish up rallying, and I was just so disappointed on basically being ruled out. I don't know. It's still a bit of a soft spot. You know, we had support from a lot of people, even competitors that they felt it was probably a bit unfair as well, and that should take it to the hearing and put our case forward. Which I did, and was successful on. Ben (Searcy – co-driver) and Lane (Heenan – team manager), they didn't tell me that there was a penalty issue until I'd finished the event. So, they had known that morning on the Sunday, but they didn't want me to be distracted, so no one said anything to me. But I thought there was something going on; there was a lot of Chinese whispers happening between the team when I wasn't around, and I thought, 'Oh, something's happening here.' Anyway, we did well on the day. We managed to hold off Harry, which was a bloody hard event. We were both, all three of us were driving flat out, Steve included. We won that day, which was a big relief, and then Ben said to me, ‘Oh yeah, we've been protested from yesterday.’ And I thought, ‘oh, here we go’. All of a sudden we're at a hearing, and we're getting spoken down to like we’re three years old, and with no preparation at all, literally like five minutes. So, any time we said something we got shut down straight away, so it unfortunately had to go to tribunal before we could express any of our own stories. I deemed it all as being unfair, and that was probably the most disappointing bit, that we couldn't really even put our case forward fairly after being excluded.

Evans rates his drive in the wet in Tasmania this year as one of his best - and it was! Photo: Peter Whitten

RSM: Did it feel like that people within the sport were out to get you at that stage? EE: Oh, look. I suppose there was talk of that, and a lot of people mentioned that to me, but I'd like to think people are better than that, so I'm going to say no. RSM: Just getting back to Tasmania, that second day drive in the wet, would you say that's the best you've ever driven? EE: It's definitely up there. We were five minutes down and I said to Ben, ‘I don't know how we're going to win it from here.’ And he said, ‘I don't know. What's your plan?’ I just said, ‘We just gotta drive as fast, as consistent as we can from now on.’ There's five stages left, anything could happen. And that's what I did. Look, I felt that I didn't really drive out of my limits or anything for those next five stages, but they were quite challenging conditions. And I just managed it really well and kept the car straight. Our notes were spot on, we knew where all the slippy bits were. We knew when to push. And I think by the last stage, I think our pace was pretty steady all day, and then Steve beat us on the last stage. And I said to him, ‘Oh, well done. You got me.’ And he said, ‘Oh, you slowed down.’ I said, ‘No, I didn't, you beat me. You worked out the conditions.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ and we had a bit of a laugh. It was tricky in sections, but then other sections, it wasn't so tricky, it just looked bad. But it's such a mental game, and to get your head around it when your wipers are going flat out and you can't see the road, and it's actually still grippy underneath, it's quite a challenge. But, that's something we got right on the day, so it was a pretty proud moment that ended sourly in the end.

Evans and the Mini were third at the Eureka Rally, but it was its only ARC appearance in 2018. Photo: Luke Whitten

RSM: You used two cars this year, and after the Eureka Rally back in March you swapped over from the Mini due to some development issues. Where's the team at with the Mini at this stage? Do you still have plans to get back out in the car or is that a shelved project now? EE: Yeah, we did redevelop some new cross-members for the car. So, what happened is at the first round I really struggled driving it, and at no point was really confident. It showed on the stage times. I was top three, top four sort of all weekend, and was struggling to get a decent stage time even when I felt like I was trying really hard. I felt like I was trying too hard at times. So, I just said to Dad, ‘Look, we've got to find a bit more pace here if we're going to keep up. We're going to be left behind, or I'm gonna have an accident. I feel like those are our two options.’ He sort of said, ‘You know, if you get that result all year (third), you’ll win the championship’. I said, ‘No, we won't. I think we're gonna get left behind.’ So, we got Dwight, our engineer, in, and he basically took a heap of measurements on the car, and we come up with a conclusion that the geometry in the Mini wasn't spot on, and that we thought we could improve it. So, we had a few different cross-members made up. We were pushed really hard to get to Perth, round two, in the Mini, but we fell short, and it was mainly because we wouldn't have had much time to test the changes we'd done. So, on paper it sounded like it was going to be a good thing, but it was such a long way to go from Melbourne to Perth, to find out that - hang on a minute - this doesn't work, or this is so far wrong and it's really bad. So, the opportunity comes to hire the Skoda. And look, when that happens, obviously we went out on stage one and we were super fast straight away, so it was all pretty exciting. The car handled exactly how I'd hoped it would, and how I'd seen it on YouTube and WRC+. We just dealt with that at the time and then considered if should we press on? We really played it round by round with the Skoda. But the development really slowed down with the Mini. It cost a bit of money to lease the Skoda, and we were more spending on leasing a car, rather than developing ours. But at the same time, Simon (his brother) had the Polaris deal, and they were doing the side-by-side series and getting buggies ready for Finke.

Development on the Mini slowed because of time constraints in the Evans Motorsport workshop. Photo: Luke Whitten

There was just a lot going on in the workshop, so we decided to sort of slow the development down on the Mini, knowing that we could lease the Skoda, and focus on the year in the Skoda. So, in a sense, yes, it probably did get kind of shelved, and not intentionally for the year, but that's kind of how it panned out. As our budget went through the year with the Polaris program and with the ARC program, we decided to stick with the Skoda. It was a really cool experience, and I got to race at a WRC round in a WRC2 car, and that's something I'd never done before. We're able to mix times with Gaurav Gill, who can match it with the best on stages in WRC2, or in rallies he's never competed in before. So, it kind of gave me confidence as a driver that I can be very competitive at an international level. If we didn't have the Skoda there, I'd probably have an excuse, but because we're in a Skoda R5 car, there was no excuse. I couldn't say that this person has a better car than me, because it's just not true. I just had to go for it and, look, it was an awesome experience winning a WRC2 stage, and then being within two seconds a kilometre to Sébastien Ogier, and he’s in a World Rally Car. It was two seconds a kilometre, which doesn't sound like much, but it is. But at the same time, it isn't, because there is a big difference in the cars, and I wire houses for a living, and he's a professional rally car driver, so that was a pretty cool feeling to know that we weren't too far behind on the odd stage.

Four-time Australian Rally Champion Eli Evans at Rally Australia. Photo: Peter Whitten

RSM: It’s an impressive effort, for sure. So, where does that leave the Mini sitting for next year, which leads on to your plans for the ARC for 2019? EE: It's really based on funding. Look, at this stage, unless we can get some – a lot – of help, we probably won't run the ARC next year as a full program. Knowing that we've got to develop the Mini, and there's also a lot of pressure associated in running the whole series, especially because I'll have number one on the car next year. I know how fast Harry and Neal are developing the Toyota, and Steve was in his first year back in the ARC. If he returns again, he's only going to be faster again. So, there's a lot to learn with the Mini. Look, for me at this stage and how I'm feeling with it all is, we'll probably do some selected rounds and focus on the development side of the car, rather than committing to the whole championship. And the reality is, it just costs a lot of money. At the end of the day, it's purely backed by my father, Peter, so without him, none of the Evans boys would go rallying. I've already sort of run this past Dad, but as I said, it costs a lot of money, so unless I can bring some sponsorship or something to the table, it'll be very difficult.

Mixing it with the big guns at Rally Australia was a season highlight for Evans. Photo: Peter Whitten

RSM: It’s never easy – even for a four-time champion. Does something like a partial APRC program have any interest to you now that there's two rounds in New Zealand? EE: Oh, I hadn't thought about it to be honest. I did see, I read a quick press release. It might've been 4.30 this morning when I got up to go to work, but I just ran my eye over it and thought, ‘Oh look, that's a good idea having a grand final’. You've got a qualifying round and stuff like that. It's not a bad idea, even for the ARC. It's probably not a crazy idea either to have a final showdown, and to have 30 to 40 guys - whether they're national level guys or state level guys - to have a chance to win an Australian championship with that sort of program as well. It's something different, and good on the APRC for changing, basically changing their championship to try and generate some interest in it. It looks cool, and we'll keep an eye on it, but at this stage, no, we won't be sending any cars over to New Zealand. RSM: Back to the Evans family …. now that you've got four titles, equal with your brother, Simon. Does that change the dynamics around the table at Christmas dinner? EE: (laughs) I don’t know. We'll see! Simon and I are best mates, obviously. I kind of like the fact we've both won four. I think it's a nice thing. Do I want to win a fifth? I'm not too sure yet. I'm enjoying being on par with Simon. It still doesn't solve the argument as to who's better, Simon or Eli? Which we do get asked a bit. And of course Simon says himself, and of course I say Simon, so we'll keep it at Simon anyway.

This fan's shirt needs updating after Eli's 2018 ARC series win. Photo: Luke Whitten

RSM: I guess on the bright side, the Evans’ have now won a combined eight ARC championships, one more than the great Possum Bourne. EE: Yeah, and that's pretty cool as well, and that's awesome for Dad because he's been a huge supporter of the ARC. After Neal Bates, then there's Peter Evans. In saying that, I can't compare the two, because I know how hard Dad's worked to get his sons up to Australian championship levels, and I know Neal has too over the years, and he's got two sons in the same boat. He's gone from being a champion, and there's no doubt one day, one or even both of his sons will be champions as well. I think it's a pretty mean effort, so without these two families in the ARC, things would've been a lot different. It’s pretty cool that Dad's got eight championships to his name.
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