Esapekka Lappi survived a late scare in the penultimate stage to secure a sensational maiden win at his home event, winning Rally Finland at his first attempt in a WRC car.
Lappi had spent the previous two days of the rally fighting Jari-Matti Latvala for victory, until his veteran team-mate suffered a mechanical failure on Saturday afternoon’s Ouninpohja test.
He inherited a 50 second lead after Latvala’s retirement, and took a cautious approach to Sunday’s loop of stages. Despite the measured approach, Lappi still make a mistake in the second running of the Lempää test, damaging his left rear wheel. The Finn was lucky to escape without significant damage, a quick wheel change between stages enough to remedy the issue.
He completed the final stage without issue, crossing the line to win in only his fourth WRC appearance.
“Amazing. What a rally,” he said at the finish. “I have to really say a big thanks for the team and Tommi [Mäkinen], they built such a fast car in such a short time, so big respect for them.
“[I had] little experience, so I need to really get more mileage, but this was on my home soil so I should have been strong here, and I was.”
Toyota team boss Tommi Mäkinen lauded his driver at the finish line, saying he had a feeling he was set for a great result before the weekend began.
“I still remember my first time, and it was exactly like the weekend with Esapekka,” he said. “I had a very strong feeling before the rally that Esapekka could do that, the same as I did over 20 years ago. That is really the weekend I know he will never forget.”
The battle for second was a tightly contested affair, with Elfyn Evans edging out Juho Hänninen in the powerstage. Hänninen made a small mistake at the start of the rally-closing test, putting him behind the Welshman by only 0.3 seconds in the final standings.
The second place battle had started out as a three-way fight, with Teemu Suninen holding the runner’s up spot heading into the final leg. The M-Sport rookie dropped to fourth in the penultimate stage after running wide into a ditch, pitching him into a tree stump and heavily damaging the front of his Fiesta WRC. Despite being known as a man of few words, Suninen was feeling dejected at the finish.
“Difficult to say anything,” he said. “The rally was really good for me, the pace was really good, better than anyone can expect. I was fighting for the second position and just made two mistakes and now we are fourth.
“At the moment I’m in disappointment, but I think tomorrow the feeling is better, as the pace was pretty nice and in my second rally I was able to fight for the podium.”
Craig Breen rounded out the top five positions, finishing the rally as the lead Citroën. While the result made it his fifth finish in fifth position this season, he described the rally as “confidence sapping,” struggling along with the rest of the drivers in the French team to find confidence in the car throughout the event.
Thierry Neuville had struggled for pace all weekend and had a dreadful run through the morning’s second test, overshooting two junctions in the slippery conditions. Those mistakes cost him any chance of catching Breen for a top five finish, though he was able to pick up three bonus points for finishing third in the rally-ending powerstage.
The five bonus points for powerstage victory went to Ott Tänak, who had spent most of the rally recovering from an accident on Friday morning to finish seventh. He ultimately feel short of his aim to overhaul Neuville by over half a minute, but helped absent M-Sport team-mate Sébastien Ogier in the title fight by taking precious powerstage points away from his Belgian rival.
Kris Meeke had struggled his way through the rally to finish eighth, including an accident late on Saturday that heavily damaged the front end of his Citroen C3. The Northern Irishman was hoping to bounce back from being benched by his team at the previous event in Poland, but Meeke suggested the change did not have the desired effect.
“I really struggled this weekend. You have to come here with buckets of confidence to be fast.”
“The next one’s on tarmac, but we have a bit of work to do.”
Dani Sordo did enough to fend off a late Mads Østberg comeback to hold ninth place, though the final gap was down to under 10 seconds from half a minute at the start of the day.
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