How Esapekka Lappi came in out of the dark

Last week's Rally Sweden delivered an overdue second world championship win for Hyundai's ever-popular Finn

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Absent from the French Alps, there was one Finn everybody was talking about ahead of last week’s Rally Sweden. Turned out it was the wrong one. Much to Hyundai’s delight, Esapekka Lappi delivered a stellar snow drive to make it two from two for the Koreans. And the other Finn?  Reigning world champion Kalle Rovanperä slipped up and out of the running early doors, leaving his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans to lead the Yaris-based assault.

A week after winter walked out on Michigan’s Sno*Drift Rally, Rally Sweden delivered a true winter wonderland and one of the most talked about WRC rounds in years.

Read on.

Thursday & Friday

Sweden’s rally faithful made the pilgrimage up the giant snow hill to watch the stars of the World Rally Championship on Thursday night’s opening Umeå Sprint stage. The fireworks got the crowd warmed up, shortly before Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 N Rally1 burst out of the forest and into the Red Barn Arena to officially get the Rally Sweden party underway.

Neuville left Monte Carlo as the self-proclaimed ‘boss’ of the WRC. Just three minutes 21 seconds into round two of the championship, that title had well and truly been rescinded as he struggled for grip in the loose snow. As first on the road, he crossed the flying finish sixth fastest of the nine Rally1 runners.

As it turned out, the new boss was the same as the old boss in these parts. Rovanperä returned from his extended WRC break and showed us all what we’d been missing, blasting through the three-mile opening test 1.4 seconds faster than team-mate Takamoto Katsuta to lead the rally overnight.

“Tomorrow should be even more fun,” the reigning world champion predicted, somewhat ominously on Thursday night. He’d obviously seen the weather forecast, which was for even more fresh snow on Friday which should have allowed him to reap the rewards of starting seventh on the road and driving on the grippier, snow-swept surface.

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Neuville flew on Thursday night. Friday? Not so much. He slipped down the leaderboard opening the road 

But as the Swedish weather Gods delivered the snow on the first full day of the rally, Rovanperä certainly wasn’t enjoying himself. A lack of ‘flow’ on SS2 – renamed #42 Brattby by the event organizers in a touching tribute to the late Craig Breen – was followed by an “embarrassing” SS3 according to the 23-year-old. But, on both stages, the Finn’s times were fairly convincing as he extended his lead over Katsuta to 5.7s with just the final stage of Friday morning remaining.

Then, Rovanperä did something no one expected. Trying hard as the snow continued to settle and the roads became almost indistinguishable from the white banks and pale sky, the double world champion understeered into a snowbank, stuffed the front of his GR Yaris Rally1 full of snow, damaged the radiator and retired for the day.

It wasn’t just the Toyota driver who hit trouble, as SS4 seemed to be cursed for world champions. Ott Tänak made the first major mistake of this year’s title fight, with the 2019 WRC champion suffering an almost identical shunt to Rovanperä. Similarly, he parked his Hyundai for the day.

Rovanperä’s demise gave Katsuta the lead of a WRC rally for the first time since Finland 2021, while Hyundai’s part-timer Lappi climbed to second, 11.4s back, after an impressive morning from eighth on the road.

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Count 'em, Kalle... there's still not enough in there to keep you out of a snowbank. Rovanperä's first 2024 outing was shortlived 

As the crews and the crowds took a deep breath during lunchtime service, the clouds didn’t relent and further fresh powder was piling onto the stages. Even the locals driving on the main roads around Umeå were struggling for traction, but as the second loop of stages rolled around, every WRC driver knew the name of the game: back off and simply survive.

Neuville emerged from the re-run of #42 Brattby, and even managed a smile at the stage-end. But he knew opening the road in these extreme conditions was killing his rally.

“The speed is very slow,” he said after SS5. “I was enjoying the drive, but I know the time will be proper s***.”

As Lappi closed in on Katsuta, there was the slightly surprising sight of the WRC2 leaders homing in on the Rally1 field. Georg Linnamäe achieved the remarkable feat of winning a WRC stage in a Rally2 car, benefitting from the repeated snow-plowing from the 13 cars ahead of him to set the quickest time in his GR Yaris Rally2.

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Throught the madness emerged Lappi the leader. EP was on top after a strong and sensible Friday in the snow

As the crews made the journey north, deeper into the frozen forests and further from civilization, Friday delivered its final dose of drama as Neuville’s i20 N failed to fire up at the start line of SS6. There were frantic scenes as the championship leader and co-driver Martijn Wydaeghe opened the hood and tried to resolve the issue; they succeeded but missed their starting slot by four minutes.

That left Elfyn Evans first on the road and at the wheel of the world’s most expensive winter maintenance vehicle. Predictably, he wasn’t too pleased about it. The Welshman thought there was a whiff of foul play about Neuville’s timely issues, and was unusually pointed in his stage-end comments.

“I guess the spirit of competition has gone out the window,” he said with an air of frustration. “So there you go. I don’t know. Let’s wait to cast judgment on that before we say something we regret.”

If Hyundai tactics were in play, then they successfully hampered Evans, dropping him from third to fifth overall by the end of leg one and crucially 23.7s behind the next Rally1 runner, giving last year’s championship runner-up plenty of work to do before Saturday night’s points were awarded.

Equally, Neuville cost himself a spot in the overall top 10 with the 40s of penalties from his late check-in, and even forgot to replace a hood pin after tinkering with his engine, leaving his hood half-open during SS6 – which could have resulted in a huge disaster for the Belgian crew had the other pin given up allowing the hood to fly up and block his vision during the stage. Professional foul or simply bad luck? The debate rumbled into the night in and around the Umeå service park.

The second pass of the cursed Floda test passed without incident, now that all the world champions had been dealt with, despite the drivers barely seeing anything in the night-time blizzard conditions. Lappi overhauled Katsuta to take a narrow rally lead, which he would hold through the evening’s Umeå sprint stage.

But the real star of the evening was Oliver Solberg, the runaway WRC2 leader in his Toksport Škoda. While the Swede hadn’t had the glory of a first stage win, he had been consistent and took heaps of time out of the early Rally1 runners during the afternoon.

After delivering a then record-breaking 39-meter jump in the Red Barn Arena, Solberg found himself third overall at the end of Friday, making history as the first Rally2 driver to ever sit in the top three of a WRC rally after the first full day.

I have no idea. It’s just so f*****g difficult. Grégoire Munster

Adrien Fourmaux delivered a strong opening day to sit fourth in his M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid. His team-mate Grégore Munster admitted he was finding the going tough. He stopped and changed a puncture in the first run at Floda and said after the afternoon’s second test: “I have no idea. It’s just so f*****g difficult.”

The Luxembourg driver was speaking on everybody’s behalf after an astonishing day’s sport. Rally Sweden leg one; a day that delivered enough headlines to last half a season. What on earth was going to happen next?


Saturday was set up well to be a straight fight between Lappi and Katsuta. Just 3.2s separated the pair as they headed to the rally’s only brand new stage – Vännäs – with a sizey gap of 1m20.7s over third-placed Solberg.

A win for either of the top two would have been hugely popular, and make for one of the greatest WRC storylines of the last few years. Lappi, the down to earth man in the service park, who hadn’t won a rally since his maiden and only WRC victory in 2017. And the ever-smiling Katsuta, longing to become the first Japanese to win a world championship event since Kenjiro Shinozuka’s 1992 Ivory Coast success. The pressure was high for both drivers. When you’re presented with a golden opportunity to win at rallying’s highest level, you’d better take it. A mistake now would be a disaster.

Kastua scored first in the battle for the win on SS9, Saturday’s opener, slicing Lappi’s lead down to less than a second. Then came the disaster. And even more Rally Sweden drama. The victim this time was Toyota’s Japanese star. After taking too much speed into an innocuous-looking right-hander, Katsuta overcorrected and ended up plunging the nose of his GR Yaris Rally1 just far enough into a snowbank so that it couldn’t be recovered.

The battle for the big win was over before it had really begun. Being the thoroughly decent fella that he is, Lappi wasted no time in sympathizing with his rival. He described Katsuta’s demise as a “big shame” at the end of the stage, but the Toyota driver was almost inconsolable as he bravely faced the media at lunchtime service. He knew he’d cost himself and the team potentially crucial championship points.

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Katsuta cut a lonely figure as he answered questions following his crash out of the lead fight

“There have been many disappointments [in my career],” said the man who’d lead the rally on Friday afternoon, “but now I think about it, this is probably is the biggest one.” There wasn’t a single person in the media center whose heart didn’t go out to Katsuta on Saturday. Rallying can be a cruel sport, and the mistake that cost him a shot at victory in Sweden hit Taka hard.

The flipside of the SS10 drama was that Lappi was now out front by more than a minute and a half, and ‘only’ had to keep it on the road for the second half of the rally to seal a second WRC victory. That was going to be easier said than done. With no-one to fight, the Finn clearly had to throttle back, but breaking the fast rhythm and laser focus that had worked him into the rally lead would be a risky business.

Plus, the conditions on Saturday afternoon’s stages had begun to deteriorate, with the roads churned up with the studs of over 80 cars – a process which turned pristine white and snow-caked roads into a muddy, gravel-strewn mess. As the last of the Rally1 runners on the road, the P1-placed Hyundai driver would have to deal with the worst road conditions.

Through it all, Lappi was the ice man, keeping his cool and taking no risks to maintain a healthy minute-plus lead by the end of the day. He was less than 24 hours away from glory.

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Fourmaux was on flying form to keep Evans behind him through Saturday afternoon

Some way behind the leader, an intriguing subplot was unfolding. M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux and Evans were locked in a battle for second after passing Friday’s hero Solberg and Katsuta – the latter having retired for the day.

Conventional wisdom suggested the eight-time WRC winning Welshman would soon overhaul the more inexperienced Fourmaux, who sat ahead him at the start of the day. Even after Evans suffered the setback of snow being shovelled over the front of the car’s nose as he powered through the stage, dropping him five seconds on SS10, it still seemed only a matter of time before he jumped up to second.

Fourmaux had other ideas. The M-Sport driver held his nerve through the afternoon, barely giving an inch to Evans in stages which required the utmost precision and concentration. While the Frenchman had a big scare on the final test of the day, smashing through a snowbank after getting distracted by the stricken car of team-mate Grégoire Munster on the 6.2-mile Umeå test, he emerged from the rally’s penultimate day with a healthy 16.7s second lead over Evans.

With a smile on his face and a glint in his eye at the end of Saturday, Fourmaux told DirtFish: “If I can get the second position, it’s fantastic. If it’s the third, it’s still fantastic. So to be fair, I’ve been fighting with Evans today. It was really enjoyable for me. Quite stressful sometimes, but really enjoyable.”

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Almost all roads lead to Umeå on the second round of the world championship. Nice snow though

Evans had no response for Fourmaux’s solid pace, and admitted that his young rival had “driven well.” With that comment, the WRC’s most understated driver had perhaps made the biggest understatement of the rally, and his struggles in catching the lead Ford cost him two potentially crucial championship points as Saturday’s prizes were provisionally awarded.

Neuville had also completed his rise from relative obscurity to fourth overall, salvaging 12 points after spending his Friday in snowy hell. And with Rovanperä, Tänak, Katsuta all re-entering the fight just in time for the Super Sunday points battle, there was still plenty to play for as Rally Sweden reached its climax.


After three days of waiting, the drivers finally got to enjoy the perfect winter rallying experience at dawn on Sunday. The temperature had plummeted to -16° C (3.2°F), and a thick ice sheet covered the roads of the Västervik test, just perfect for sinking 1536 tungsten-tipped studs across four Pirelli Sottozeros into.

Traction had re-entered the chat, and Kalle Rovanperä took the Sunday lead after the first stage of the day, over Toyota team-mates Evans and Katsuta. Having tested and prepared for roads just like, the Japanese marque finally got to show that it had sorted out its winter rally pace, giving the team some small comfort in a weekend that otherwise didn’t go to plan.

Meanwhile, Hyundai was all at sea, with Neuville and Tänak reporting that their i20 Ns were misbehaving; flipping from oversteering to understeering in the blink of an eye and complicating the two title contenders’ quests for maximum Sunday points.

Fourmaux’s Saturday night scare had taken the fizz out of the battle for second, and Evans finally passed the M-Sport driver for second place on SS16. But that tussle was now academic, the prize was just a slighting bigger trophy for finishing as runner-up rather than in third – the points for second place in the Thursday-Saturday standings were already heading Fourmaux’s way.

Munster action

Munster learned plenty on his first Rally1 outing in Sweden

In this new world order, Sunday’s story is all about the final-day leaderboard, as opposed to the overall rally classification, and Evans showed plenty of fighting spirit on the second pass of Västervik. It was the type of performance that was sorely missing on Saturday afternoon, as Evans outdrove double world champion Rovanperä to take the Sunday lead by four seconds heading into the powerstage.

Katsuta’s miserable end to Rally Sweden continued, as the battered and bruised Toyota driver took a jump too quickly and lost it on the landing. After getting up close and personal with another snowbank and denting the front of the Yaris, Katsuta was thankfully able to reverse out and continue, but he’d lost his shot at a consolation prize of big Sunday points. The six-week break before his next WRC outing in Kenya will feel like a lifetime as he looks to redeem himself on a rally on which he has often gone well.

And so, after a morning of ideally iced roads to the north of Umeå, the rally ended back where it all began: the Red Barn Arena. With its snow hills, big jumps and fantastic sweeping hairpin of a final corner, it is undoubtedly a great place to watch rally cars, and even on the fourth consecutive day of action in the complex, there was still a great buzz about the place for the rally-ending powerstage.

A string of Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 were followed into that finale by WRC2 winner Oliver Solberg, who utterly dominated the weekend’s proceedings and showed that, in the right hands, the Skoda Fabia RS Rally2 is still the car to beat. While the heady heights of sitting on the overall podium on Friday night had long since passed, the Swede still finished fifth in the rally, a simply marvelous result. As ever, he put on a quintessentially Solberg show, always spectacular, and always a must watch for fans out in the stages.

Fourmaux 2.0 has officially arrived.  James Bowen

While Solberg’s WRC2 win always looked secure, his jump record in the Red Barn Arena wasn’t. Thierry Neville threw caution to the wind on the powerstage, delivering a massive 40-meter jump to eclipse Solberg’s Friday effort by just 100 centimeters. The Hyundai man’s giant leap cost him his boot lid and rear wing, not that he seemed bothered that a chunk of his car was missing by the time he got to the stop line.

Fourmaux brought home a career-best finish to take third, after a performance that re-wrote the narrative about the Frenchman’s WRC career. The crashes and uncontrollable speed of 2022 are now firmly in the rear-view mirror, and Fourmaux 2.0 has officially arrived.

“It’s a lot of difference [between now and two years ago],” he acknowledged after the rally. “We have been working a lot of many different things on myself, on how to approach the rally, how to build it.

“We’ve never given up,” he added. “To be on the podium for the first time here in Sweden, it’s so special. I have no words. It’s just nice.”

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The biggest points haul of the weekend offered Evans and Scott Martin something to celebrate

Evans’ weekend hadn’t gained much traction, both literally and metaphorically, until Sunday, but somehow Toyota’s team leader managed to scrape together more points than anyone else on Rally Sweden. He bagged seven for topping the Sunday standings, and grabbed four in the powerstage after missing Rovanperä’s stage-winning time by just 0.1s.

Still, a haul of 24 points would have been scarcely believeable when the Welshman was ploughing through 15cm of fresh snow for mile after mile on Friday afternoon.

“[It was] a very up and down weekend,” Evans said as he gave his Sweden performance a typically mixed review. “[It was a] difficult job on Friday, being early on the road and then first on the road. Struggled Saturday with the scooping and then tires on the end of the loop. Today I managed to turn it around a bit and get some good points at least.”

After Sweden, he’s just three behind championship leader Neuville heading into round three in Kenya. Game on.

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It's been a while... but the feeling hasn't changed. Lappi and Ferm: world rally winners again

But at 1:30pm on a freezing cold, splendidly sunny Swedish Sunday afternoon in Umeå, none of the mattered. In that moment, points, politics and powerstages were irrelevant. This day belonged to one man and one man only (make that two – congartulations Janne Ferm!). After a six-and-a-half-year wait, Esapekka Lappi had done it. Rally Sweden, and WRC win number two, were his.

So how did it feel after trying for so long and finally making it back to the top step of the podium?

“F*****g good!” exclaimed the Hyundai driver over the Red Barn Arena’s PA system, in a moment no-one in the crowd will ever forget.

“You won’t have enough battery in the camera if I start to explain all the years [I have struggled],” joked Lappi after experiencing the sweet taste of winner’s champagne once again. “For sure a lot of things went through the mind on the finish line. But for sure it was a massive relief to get the job done.”

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What the week was all about. The winners' trophies were hard-earned and well deserved in Sweden

Lappi’s wears his heart on his sleeve. One look at his body language and facial expressions will tell you exactly how he feels. For too many rallies in 2023, those expressions were of frustration, disappointment and, frankly, sorrow. He wasn’t a happy man, and it showed in his erratic performances. The Finn knew he needed to make changes, and bravely put family first in switching to a part-time schedule for 2024, with the blessing of Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul.

The service park’s most likeable driver was already in a much better place as he returned to the championship at the start of the weekend, telling DirtFish: “I really enjoyed the time at home a lot. It was really good to do this stuff [with the family], and it feels really good to be back. I feel really motivated now and it was nice to leave home as well when everything over there is settled. Everyone is happy in there. It’s a different feeling [to last year].”

Now, he was a winner again, and he had the world’s best souvenir to take back to Finland in the shape of a first place trophy. The changes have worked. Happy Lappi is back.

Sometimes, even in the cut-throat world of the WRC, nice guys do finish first.