Remember that somewhat tired, hoary old trope about a week being a long time in politics? Well it turns out that, with a few subtle tweaks, it’s just as applicable to the World Rally Championship, and few of the rallying world’s elite drivers can empathise with the saying quite as readily as Esapekka Lappi.
Cast your mind back to Rally Finland 2017, if you will, when the fresh-faced Finn with the warm outlook and composure unceremoniously muscled his way to the sharp end of the WRC order, then set about making camp. Lappi’s debut, home win, one achieved with deceptive composure and significant dollops of ‘sisu’ was one of the feelgood stories of the season, and many pundits confidently predicted it was only a matter of time before further wins and a championship challenge followed.
Two years later, and Lappi’s victory count remains at one. A tough second season at the wheel of the Yaris in 2018 allowed him to experience the full variety of the modern WRC, and also the inevitable heartache involved with competing at this level. The struggle to replicate the result of the previous season was interwoven by parc ferme mutterings as to his continued Toyota future, rumours leant further credence by Tomi Makkinen’s high profile signing of Ott Tanak.
TCF: So, a new, a new car and a completely different environment for you to grapple with, Esapekka. How have you found the C3 WRC so far?
Lappi: “It’s a fundamentally good car albeit a very different one from what I’m used to, the Yaris WRC, for example. Most of the work we’ve done so far this year has been focussed on making it better suited to both myself and Seb’s styles of driving, which is reflected in how we’ve ‘spent’ our 3 homologation jokers.”
TCF: Can you talk us through some of the biggest changes you’ve made to the car, the ones you’ve felt have been most impactful?
Lappi: Pretty much all of our homologation tokens have been spent on the suspension and the differentials, both at the front. Seb has been running a new front differential for a few rallies now and has found it to be much better, while I had the revised front suspension geometry and diff’ for Finland.”
TCF: Finland marked the first time you’d been on the podium since Sweden at the beginning of the year. How important was that result for you, and would you say that the newly homologated parts played a role?
Lappi: I got both new parts for Finland and this…this is the magic! I’ve had a big challenge so far this year trying to get used to the car; it just didn’t suit me or my driving style and I had to force it. I couldn’t relax, and that’s what’s been so difficult. Finland was the breakthrough. I could relax, focus on my driving and enjoy myself. Ok, so it helped that it was my home rally and where I feel most comfortable, but I’m still looking forward to having the same feeling when we next visit gravel, Rally Turkey.
TCF: You’re much publicised move from Toyota to Citroen was one of the biggest stories of last year’s silly season, could you give us some insight into how the Yaris and C3 WRCs differ from one another?
Lappi: The big differences between the two cars are in aero and engine development. The former is obvious, and the Yaris is probably the most aero-focussed rally car of the current WRCs, but we are working on catching up for next year.
Toyota and Citroen have different ways of approaching engine design…they have different philosophies. The Yaris was all about bottom end torque above all else, whereas Citroen have prioritised power development and usability. Some rounds are better suited to their (Toyota’s) philosophy, some to ours.
TCF: How did you find the swap from a predominantly Finnish team to a largely French one? Was it a bit of a culture shock?
Lappi: No. I believe it’s a surprise for everyone – including me! But, err, the French people are brilliant; really warm and polite, taking care of everyone…and Finnish people are not normally like that. (*Chuckles*) That’s why it’s been really easy to fit in..and the food is really nice as well.
TCF: Your Argentine crash was a biggy, how did you come back from that?
Lappi: Yea…I didn’t really come back from it so quickly. Obviously it was two long-haul rallies in a row, and then we couldn’t test between. So the first time I drove the C3 WRC after the accident was in the Rally Chile shakedown. Shakedown was OK but from the first stage I was worried about making the same mistake again, so it was sapping my confidence quite a bit. It didn’t help that Chile was a brand new rally with new challenges, and really slippy gravel.
TCF: The next event (at the time of the interview) is Rally Germany, a very different event from Finland and a sealed surface one at that. How much confidence can you take from one to the other?
Lappi: You can carry a little bit for sure but it’s a very different surface and last time we were on tarmac, in Corsica, both myself and Seb struggled to dial the car in, to set it up in a way we could both work with. So I don’t really know what to expect, though we will have brand new dampers, Riegers, and some new engine parts.
It’s a tricky rally; it’s fast, it often rains, and the while the tarmac is smooth it never stays clean. There’s always mud being dragged onto the stage, so it doesn’t take long for it to get very slippy.
TCF: Looking ahead to the final portion of the season, are there any particular rallies you’ve earmarked as ones you’d like to do well on?
Lappi: I like Wales but it’s probably Australia that I’m most looking forward to. We had good speed there last year, so I can’t wait to get there.
TCF: How do you feel about the WRC’s looming hybrid future?
Lappi: It’s part of the game, but I don’t know what I should really say. I’m a driver so at the end of the day I’ll drive whichever machine they give me, but I do think we need to be careful with how we implement the technology. We need to concentrate a lot on the safety aspect with their being so much electricity associated with hybrid powered cars…you need only look at some of the Formula E accidents where the drivers cannot touch the car to see that. In rallying, it could be even tougher; how would we get out of a damaged car if we cannot touch it, and how do we tell spectators that they cannot, either?
I’m not an engineer but we need to plan its integration very, very carefully. I’m not willing to be the crash test dummy for it.
TCF: Group B, Group A, WRC or F2?
Lappi: I’ve never driven anything other than a current, World Rally Car out of those! Actually, I’ve never driven a 2016-spec WRC car, just R5s, so I’ve only experience of new generation cars. Given the choice I’d still stick with the C3 WRC and the current breed…the old ones are too difficult and too dangerous.
TCF: Ouninpohja or the Col de Turini?
Lappi: Ouninpohja for sure…and your pronunciation was right, actually!
TCF: If you could have any rally car from history, on any stage, which would it be?
Lappi: *Laughs* “I’d take the C3 World Rally Car but with even more aero! As for the stage, maybe Ouninpohja but, I’d actually rather drive a stage we used to drive in Rally Finland a few years ago, Mökkiperä. It’s really fast, really crazy and would make the most of the aerodynamics of the current generation of World Rally Car. With no chicanes!