By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Scotsman Colin McRae led the way, Englishman Richard Burns followed and now Welshman Elfyn Evans is on the brink of becoming only the third Briton to win the world rally championship.
It has been a long wait for those fans who, in a pre-pandemic age, were happy to stand in freezing fog or shiver on muddy hillsides waiting for a glimpse of a speeding car -- 25 years since McRae's title with Subaru and 19 since Burns' won with the same manufacturer.
Evans, son of former British rally champion Gwyndaf, grew up watching the late pair of champions thrill the crowds -- one of his earliest memories being the sight of McRae taking a corner completely sideways.
This weekend in Italy, where Rally Monza brings the virus-hit season to an end, the Dolgellau-based driver could add his name to the list.
The 31-year-old leads French six-times world champion team mate Sebastian Ogier by 14 points with 30 still to be won after speed tests at the Monza circuit and in the foothills of the Alps around Lake Como.
Evans has no great interest in doing the maths.
"To be honest, I’m trying not to think too much about it because in my mind it’s still quite a long way away," he told Reuters.
"I know the points gap looks quite significant but in reality it still means in order to secure it purely on merit alone I need to finish ideally in second place. That means we’re going to have to have a really good solid weekend."
Rallying awards 25 points to the winner, 18 to the second placed finisher and 15 to the third.
But there are also five bonus points available to the winner of the final 'Power Stage', which means third place might not be enough if Ogier were to win the rally and sweep the final jackpot.
Evans gets on well with Ogier -- his inspiration when working his way up through the junior ranks -- but has no illusions about what he is up against.
"It’s definitely a battle. We know how determined he is, how hungry he still is to win even after all the success he’s had," said the Welshman.
"You can see that when it really matters he really digs deep and I’m really expecting nothing other than a really massive push from him this weekend. I’m sure he’s going to be very, very difficult to beat.
"I think I go in and just try and drive the best I can right from the beginning. I don’t think we have the luxury to try and hang in there or wait and see what happens. Of course we have to be there at the end, but we can take the battle to him."
The pair were together at M-Sport Ford in 2017 and 2018 and both joined Toyota this year, with the Frenchman considered the more likely title contender even if Evans has always been highly rated.
"I’ve always been mid-pack and last year moved to almost best of the rest with the leading three," said the Welshman, who was fifth last year but level on points with fourth-placed Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen.
"I’m obviously happy to break into that championship battle with them. I’m partly surprised, but partly not, to be here," he said.
"Hopefully I can keep chipping away and steadily get better."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)