Esapekka Lappi won eight stages to fly into the lead of Rally Finland, moving ahead of his Toyota team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and holding a narrow 4.4 second lead at the end of Friday’s stages.
Latvala had started the afternoon loop with a narrow 1.6 second lead, but found himself behind Lappi after the Lankamaa stage. A blinding performance through Äänekoski-Valtra gained the rookie driver an extra 3.2 seconds in the space of only 7.4 kilometres, cementing his position at the top.
Lappi expressed disbelief in leading his home event on his first appearance in a WRC-specification car, having swept the far more experienced Latvala aside during the course of the afternoon.
“I couldn’t even imagine,” he said. “It’s really something special and difficult to understand at the moment, but we had just tried to do our best and it seems at the moment it’s enough to take the lead.”
“[It] feels so special to be leading this rally, and as I’ve been saying the whole day the spectators are amazing. You just can’t feel this anywhere else.”
Latvala was not troubled by the cars behind but had no answer for Lappi, and said he would need to make changes to his driving style in tomorrow’s stages to compensate for the extra challenge.
“Esapekka has been driving absolutely fantastic,” he said. “I have to take my hat off because of the speed he has been doing.
“I would say what is overall a little different is that we will be closer to each other with the starting positions so then we know where we are.
“Now I’ve started to realise how I have to drive in this rally,” he continued. “This stage was finally the stage where I realised that ‘OK, I’ve been doing some things a different way at some points’, so now I go down and start to drive racing lines again.”
The local drivers had conquered the podium positions on the first full day of action, as Teemu Suninen finished Friday’s stages in third place. In the early part of the afternoon he had been battling Craig Breen and Mads Østberg, but as both grappled with car issues, was able to firmly establish his position in the top three.
Most of the midfield runners were forced to overcome a litany of technical issues. Breen had complained of various problems – including a poor launch at the start of Äänekoski-Valtra along with fading brakes in the prior stage – but was able to hold fourth regardless, helped by others suffering even greater time loss.
Juho Hänninen capped an excellent day for Toyota by ending fifth, despite damaging the left-rear strut from running wide in the Lankamaa stage. He took advantage of a wayward Østberg who dropped to sixth, a disappointing end to the day given he had been fighting for a podium before midday service.
“I’ve pushed stupidly much to try and get a decent time,” explained Østberg. “I’ve done what I can with the car, and I think it’s just a faulty rear [differential]. It was really bad on one stage.
“I cannot explain it, I think we must’ve done some mistakes when we did the tyres. We are running a slightly different setup to try and cope with it and it’s helping. We’re doing our best.”
Elfyn Evans is seventh but within touching distance of Østberg, while holding a reasonably comfortable gap to Thierry Neuville behind. The lead Hyundai driver failed to capitalised on the retirement of title rival Sébastien Ogier earlier in the day, struggling for pace and rarely troubling the top of the timesheets from stage to stage.
Kris Meeke was another driver to damage his car through contact, hitting a stone in Lankamaa and damaging his steering, dropping to ninth. Ott Tänak continued his recovery drive from a self-inflicted puncture this morning, passing Dani Sordo for the final points position mid-afternoon.
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