This wasn’t the start to the conversation either of us was expecting.
“You tested yesterday.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Oh. You sure?”
“Yes, it was last month.”
“Oh. Last month.”
“So, Esapekka, tell me about your gravel test in Finland last month…”
Fortunately, one of us was professional enough to carry the next half hour off. Thank you for that, EP.
As ever, I was enormously grateful for the time Lappi gave to me late on a December evening. Faced with a long drive through Finland with his Toyota company car locked into a 49.71mph, licence-keeping, bank balance-saving cruise control, he seemed grateful for the company coming via bluetooth. Even after the inane opener.
I like Lappi. He’s a very straightforward, very straight-talking Finn. He doesn’t do spin, like he doesn’t do social media. Like he doesn’t really do… any media.
I ask him what he thinks about Toyota potentially running a fifth Yaris Rally1 in 2022. I’m trying to tempt him into a line demanding that Jari-Matti Latvala gives him that car and a shot at next year’s drivers’ title.
“Fifth car?” he replied. “I didn’t hear about that.”
Laughing, he admits he probably should spend more time on DirtFish.
“Sometimes I read the paper, but I’m not really keen to do it,” he said. “I don’t order magazines or newspapers. With the phone I might check something sometimes, but I try to avoid it.
“Because of COVID, everything is quite negative right now. For social media, I’ve learned on these years, let’s say I don’t really need that information from the social media – even if it’s positive or whatever. What do I do with that information?”
Lappi lives his life. He drives his car. He does his job.
At the end of 2020, there was a definite question mark over what his job would be in 2021. “Probably,” he told DirtFish following his Monza finale for the M-Sport team, “I will have a very nice time at home.”
And he would. Much as Lappi loves his job, he’s always been very clear: it’s family first. If there wasn’t a professional seat available through 2021, worrying about it wasn’t going to change it.
All he could do was ensure there was a small space in the shop window reserved for him through the last season. Yes, that meant stepping down to the sport’s second tier – somewhere he hadn’t been since leaving Škoda at the end of 2016 – but he was willing to strategically select some events and then let rip.
That’s precisely what he did in Rovaniemi in February. Just weeks after Andreas Mikkelsen’s rousing pre-season speech about not just winning WRC2, but dominating it, Lappi turned up and showed his Norwegian rival the way home at Arctic Rally Finland.
Lappi’s drive through Lapland laid the foundations for the rebuilding of his career. But on February’s final Saturday morning, things could have gone badly wrong on the first run through the Mustalampi test. In a particularly quick section Lappi tipped his Volkswagen Polo R5 into a near flat-out left-hander. Loving his work so much, he’d forgotten one vital element: downforce.
An hour or so later, he explained: “I forgot I wasn’t in a World Rally Car. The back of the car hit the snow bank. It was quite a big moment.”
Quite a big moment is one way of describing it. Suffice to say, it made it to DirtFish’s 2021 highlights video (see below).
Had the front-right followed the rear of the Polo into the snowbank, everything might have been different. The story might have been of an Arctic roll rather than a comprehensive win. And if he’d shunted there, he would have gone to his second scheduled event in Portugal chasing more speed than perhaps he had to.
In the blink of an eye, everything might have changed for Lappi in that fast right-hander. His name might not have been at the top of Latvala’s list for this season.
“It’s a bit rough to say it that way,” said Lappi, “but I guess you are right. It’s possible.”
Ultimately, Lappi fought the forces of gravity and pulled the Polo back under his command.
WRC2 wins in Arctic and Portugal were great results, as was an exceptional fourth on Rally Finland in a private Yaris WRC in the fall. Named as a Toyota driver within a week of that Jyväskylä result, the perception was of a strong home run landing next season’s seat.
That wasn’t the case. Not long after leaving Porto, Latvala had privately admitted his countryman had done enough.
“Let’s say the expectations were much higher from the spectators than what I was thinking and what the team was thinking,” Lappi admitted. “I think me and the team was realistic about what we could do and what we should do. But maybe we were still a bit better…
“I agree that this was looking good before Finland. Maybe we weren’t always the fastest in Arctic and in Portugal, but we were very smart.”
When the call came and Lappi’s return to Toyota was confirmed, the effect was pretty profound. For a famously ice-cool Finn, Lappi’s emotional response spoke volumes.
“Something, some feeling went through my body and I actually felt a bit sick or a bit weak. This lasted for maybe two hours or something – it told me that this really is something quite important for me. I was happy. I was definitely very happy when I heard the news.
“At the moment, I’m at my best. Rallying is about experience and I start to have a bit of experience already.”
Lappi’s position is an odd one for the coming year. That he’s in one of the best seats in the house is beyond question, but his chances of chasing the title are hampered by having to share a car with Sébastien Ogier. The current thinking is that the eight-time champion will tackle four events.
Understandably, Ogier is Toyota’s preference (and why wouldn’t he be, with 54 times the amount of wins Lappi has currently mustered) and Lappi knows that. It’s what he’s signed up for.
But still, a run of decent results, the rub of the reliability green and the wind at his back on nine out of 13 rounds and Lappi could be in with a shot at the title?
He thinks about that proposition. Then laughs.
“No,” he said. “I think the championship is gone.”
This is where I bring the fifth car thing in. Lappi’s happier to take the bait on those grounds.
“I understand your point,” he said. “I haven’t been thinking about that option at all. Next year I go to do my job to help the team win the title again and that’s it. If all goes well, maybe at some point we can be in a good position in terms of the standings. But I never thought we could realistically fight for the title.”
There’s another pause before he adds with a hint of Finnish mischief: “I’m ready to do more rallies. Maybe let’s try to force them to do it…”
Before we go, we probably should touch on Lappi’s first run in a hybrid rally car – the one which very definitely happened in November and not yesterday.
“It was kind of a development test,” he said. “The difference is very clear between the 2022 car and the 2017 car. You can feel the extra weight in the  car and the driving style is very much going in the way of the R5 car with the transmission and things. I would say it wasn’t crazy special – but I drove it soon after [Rally] Finland, where the  car was incredible.
“The [hybrid] regen and the boost will make it more complicated to drive the new cars – we will have to prepare much more before the stages, to make sure we have the right strategy for the engine map and everything.”
Typically, Lappi could go on, he could offer further, deeper technical analysis. Instead he does what he does and offers a precis.
“It’s a rally car, it’s no problem.”
Unlike the start of this interview.
But, like Lappi’s return to rallying’s top table, we got there in the end.