Spend enough time following professional motorsport and you’ll realise that everything comes in cycles, that a driver’s career can only go on for so long, and that every once in a decade or so a crop of fresh blood arrives to well and truly shake up the established order, and that’s precisely what happened at Rally Finland last weekend. Not only did Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi claim his first FIA World Rally Championship victory on only his fourth attempt, he was chased by both Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen, the latter just as fast despite being a mere 23 years old! You have to go back to Wales Rally GB in 2001 to find a similar case of the old order being so comprehensively routed, and that was the year that Petter Solberg and Marko Martin rose to prominence.
It really didn’t take long for it to become apparent that Rally Finland 2017 was going to be anything but ordinary, even for an event prone to producing surprise results and last minute drama. Sebastian Ogier never found his feet in Finland, crashing out on the pre-event test, then repeating the off on Friday morning. The reigning champion sustained suspension damage thanks to a heavy landing and slide wide on a tightening left hander on the third stage of the morning, and M-Sport’s woes were compounded by Ott Tanak, the Estonian incurring a puncture on the very same run despite having previously led the event overall. Ogier’s co-driver Julian Ingrassia was judged unfit to restart under Rally 2 rules, while Tanak would ultimately fight his way back into the top 10 by Sunday thanks to some tenacious driving.
It fell to Toyota to plug the Fiesta gap, with the Gazoo-run Yarises proving scintillatingly quick over the Finnish yumps. This wasn’t all that surprising seeing as the cars were developed on these very roads and the Tommi Mäkinen run outfit is based a handful of miles away, but the pace of the second car, Lappi’s, was. We’ve seen Lappi’s pace before this year, most notably last time out in Poland, yet his speed at home was mesmerising, and he was keeping team leader Latvala more than honest, carving chunks from his lead as the day wore on. Indeed, Latvala’s only rest bite came when the pair recorded matching times on the run through Aanekoski-Valtra, yet even this wasn’t enough to stem the tide, and the youngster ended the day 4.4 seconds to the good. Suninen rounded out a Finnish top 3, with Craig Breen in fourth the unlucky Hanninen 6.1 seconds further back in fifth.
Clearly stung (though vocal in his praise) by Lappi’s frenetic pace, Latvala woke up with the bit between his teeth on Saturday morning, and he eventually won every stage in the morning loop to snatch back the lead. Such speed was somewhat perplexing to his younger team mate, Lappi confessing to having no idea where he (Latvala) was making up ground, though the leading Toyotas were able to pull out a sizable lead over the chasing pack.
Said lead would become all the more important midway through the second run through Ouninpohja though, when Latvala’s Yaris cried no more, yet again forcing the popular Finn out of a strong finish and dealing his title aspirations a body blow. It’s important to remember Latvala’s misfortune when assessing the importance of this event and its role within the near future of the WRC, as his pace until then suggested he was more than capable of pushing Lappi every inch of the way.
Latvala’s misfortune might have been gutting for the man in question and for the Toyota team, but it effectively introduced a whole new element to what had already been a fascinating event; Lappi could clearly battle with the best, but how would he handle the kind of slow, concentration-sapping pressure associated with defending a healthy lead? In a word, well, certainly as far as Saturday was concerned. Lappi ended the second day a whisker under 50 seconds clear of the equally stunning Suninen, the even younger Finn now second on only his WRC appearance, 4.3 seconds ahead of Hanninen in the Yaris.
In line with all his fellow Finn’s, Lappi was inscrutable come Sunday morning, seemingly unfazed by the knowledge that he was now a handful of miles from an historic home win. His drive was suitably calm and measured for most of the day, letting his lead fall to 44.2 seconds to the chasing Suninen and, amazingly considering his average start, Elfyn Evans! In fact, Lappi’s only real wobble came on the penultimate stage, when he damaged a tyre and his lead fell to ‘just’ 36 seconds by the time he crossed the line to claim an immensely memorable victory.
There was more drama to be found further down the field. Elfyn Evans’ ascent to second was finalised on the Powerstage, and he beat Hanninen by a mere 0.3 seconds, pushing the Finn to third and robbing Toyota of a home 1-2. Suninen would have been part of this mammoth fight had he not slid wide on the penultimate stage and fallen out of the podium scuffle.
So, what should we make of all this title-wise? Tommi and the Toyota boys will no doubt feel a difficult to reconcile set of emotions; elated at a home win and the discovery of a future star in Lappi, indescribably frustrated at the second mechanical retirement of Latvala’s car in as many events. Manufacturer championships aren’t won in this manner, and Tommi knows it.
M-Sport’s charge up the order was led Evans and Suninen, young guys with much still to prove at the sport’s highest level. Ott Tanak never truly recovered from his day one dramas, and though the Estonian prevented team mate Ogier’s chief rival Neuville from banking extra points by winning the Powerstage, he won’t be satisfied by seventh overall. The less said about Ogier’s Finnish experience the better; he crashed in practice, crashed on Friday and has lost his lead in the title fight on countback.
Hyundai drivers were notable by their relative anonymity; Haydon Paddon broke his rear suspension and eventually retired, Dani Sordo cruised to a somewhat flat ninth, and title contender Thierry Neuville never really found his form. He banked useful points with sixth and has taken the lead in the championship thanks to his 3 wins to Ogier’s 2, but many would have expected him to take more points from the non-scoring Frenchman. Only time will tell just how much of an impact this will have.
It’s crazy how much of a difference a year can make, isn’t it? This time last year we were toasting Kris Meeke’s sensational victory and Craig Breen’s inaugural WRC podium, this time around Yves Matton and his boys will have to make do with a disappointing eighth for the former, and a fifth for the latter. One suspects that Sebastian Loeb’s input on the state of the 2017 C3 WRC can’t come soon enough.
It’s perhaps slightly ironic that the tail of the 2017 Rally Finland, easily the most spectacular and high octane event on the WRC calendar, can be best gleaned from a look at the final top 10, namely how many young guns were contained within it. Lappi in first and Evans in second, Suninen in fourth and Breen in fifth, not forgetting Ott Tanak a disappointed seventh. All 5 of these men are now established members of the WRC elite (Tanak has been for some time), and they will doubtless shape the WRC for the next decade or more.
Of course it can’t be ignored that Latvala was leading and looked set to be on the verge of an all-out attack when his Yaris threw in the towel, but then that’s the nature of the WRC – the only certainty is uncertainty. No matter what happens this year and no matter which driver ultimately stands atop the field at the end of the season, Rally Finland 2017 will forever be marked as a significant milestone, a genuine changing of the guard and, just maybe, the moment when Messrs. Ogier, Latvala and Neuville began to look over their shoulders with apprehension.