Even several days on from the event, I still feel very conflicted about Esapekka Lappi’s Rally México.
On the one hand he was sensational. To be leading the in-form México master Sébastien Ogier overnight (without the boost of a significantly better road position) was, frankly, epic.
Lappi’s always been a driver with an obvious turn of speed. But he’s not often been a driver that’s been consistently on the pace like he was last Friday.
In the context of Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul’s very public support of Thierry Neuville in the drivers’ championship this season (even though it’s only March!), this was the perfect Lappi response.
But to use Abiteboul’s phrasing in México, Lappi went from one of the best days of his World Rally Championship career to one of the worst.
Lappi paid a heavy price for his mistake on Saturday morning’s first stage, there’s little debate about that, but he still made a mistake.
In rallying the line between success and failure is uber-thin, and Lappi strayed too far across it and ended up with an electricity pole resting atop his ruined i20 N Rally1. Ogier was off the hook.
But more than that, Lappi squandered his chance to prove his new team boss wrong.
Team orders seem to be following Hyundai like the plague at the moment. Last season was tense to say the least between Neuville and Ott Tänak, but the off-season changes with new team management welcomed, and Tänak out the door to M-Sport Ford, haven’t really changed the vibe.
Instead, entering the WRC from the world of Formula 1, new incumbent Abiteboul has proved himself totally unafraid to stamp his authority and make some big calls.
Heading into the 2023 season, few doubted that Neuville – a 17-time WRC rally winner and five-time championship runner-up – was Hyundai’s best bet to power a driver to the drivers’ championship for the very first time.
New signing Lappi hadn’t done a full season since 2020, and although he showed strong promise on his part-time Toyota campaign last year, he’d never sustained a title challenge in his career before.
But for Abiteboul to so publicly confirm ahead of México that he couldn’t rule out the prospect of asking Lappi to give up a win for Neuville if that situation presented itself was quite startling – even considering the jiggery-pokery Hyundai attempted in Sweden with Neuville and part-time driver Breen.
Lappi’s response to Abiteboul’s comments was professional.
“Well, in the end it’s my boss who says that. So I think we need to listen to what he’s saying.”
But there was a wry smile about the way in which he delivered it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out he didn’t completely agree with it – why would he?
It’s impossible to fully determine if this awoke something in Lappi and inspired him to prove a point (maybe that was Abiteboul’s strategy all along?) but he was very clearly fired up for it on Friday.
“With many corners we are on the limit, some corners we are not,” he said at the end of the day.
“But that’s the way how you should drive here because you cannot know the grip all the time. It’s not consistent, so let’s say the percentage how fast you do the corners is between 85 and 100. So far it’s been not over 100 yet, but yeah, for sure, in some places I’m on the limit, that’s for sure.”
Once our interview was wrapped up, I actually made a point of saying to Lappi that he’d made a good point to his boss with his drive. To which he sniggered and walked off.
Saturday should have been his chance to further hammer that home. Admittedly he was hamstrung by a more challenging road position, but Neuville was 39.8s in arrears and would have been the last of the Hyundais had Dani Sordo not punctured on Friday afternoon.
Lappi didn’t need to win in México to demonstrate his point – if that was indeed what he was trying to do. Of course he wanted to, but there’s no shame in narrowly losing out to Ogier, particularly in México.
Lappi should have jetted out of León with at least 18 points in his back pocket (with the potential for more from the powerstage) but instead flew home early after a point-less rally – the damage from his accident too great to allow him to restart on Sunday.
It’s impossible to accurately calculate how the championship picture would look had Lappi not crashed on Saturday, but Lappi certainly could’ve forced Hyundai’s hand. He was fully set to beat Neuville fair and square before his off.
Granted, first or second wouldn’t suddenly have made Lappi an ostensibly better title shout for Hyundai than Neuville, but it would have piled pressure on Abiteboul to rethink his strategy.
‘Hey Cyril, I can be super competitive too. Why not give me at least half a season to remain in the fight?’
Discounting México powerstage points, here’s how the championship could have looked if Lappi had kept himself in the contest.
If Lappi had won:
If Lappi was second:
In reality, the Finn is already nearly 75% down on the championship leader and some 38 points down on his team-mate Neuville.
This shouldn’t be perceived as a hit column against Lappi – there was so much about his Rally México performance that was superb and there are so many positives for him to take into Croatia and beyond.
But instead of proving Abiteboul wrong, Lappi instead underlined why Hyundai’s new team principal may have been right all along to throw all of the team’s weight behind Neuville.