I hate ‘what if’ questions. They linger, fester and eat away at your mind as you try and piece together theories to generate an answer you’ll ultimately never trust.
But if that’s how I feel as a mere observer, how must Esapekka Lappi feel?
What if it weren’t Thierry Neuville behind him when Sébastien Ogier went off in Sardinia? Would Lappi now be a two-time World Rally Championship event winner?
We can speculate all we like. Ultimately, we’ll never truly know.
Clearly, and understandably, there’s frustration within Lappi about the situation he finds himself in.
It couldn’t have been more evident than when he was asked on live TV if he could win the Safari in a fortnight’s time.
“Depends who is behind,” was Lappi’s response, gesturing his rested hand on top of the steering wheel with a very straight smile.
It was a typically quick-witted line from Lappi, but one clearly driven by emotion. It didn’t take a genius to work out that the need to back off and not challenge Neuville disappointed him.
Truthfully, it would be a concern to everyone if it didn’t.
But Lappi does find himself in a very tricky position this year.
When devising its championship strategy for the year ahead, perhaps Hyundai didn’t expect Lappi to be quite this strong. There’s a strong case to be made that he, rather than Neuville, is the highest-performing Hyundai driver just now, yet he’s having to sacrifice his own shot at personal glory to do what’s right for the team.
That has to sting. It would almost be easier to swallow if he wasn’t driving so well.
But this is the reality of professional motorsport. And Lappi knows it.
In an interview with the WRC prior to Sardinia, he acknowledged: “You need to accept it. It’s part of your job. That’s how it is. If you don’t accept it, you don’t have a job.”
Accepting something and being happy with something are, undoubtedly, very different. Comments from team principal Cyril Abiteboul where he labeled Lappi “the man of the rally” for example are nice in spirit, but will likely only rub salt into the wounds.
Much like Toto Wolff’s famous “perfect wingman” tag for Valtteri Bottas for his Mercedes Formula 1 team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
But Lappi looks to be coming to terms with his reality.
Three weeks earlier in Portugal that didn’t necessarily look to be the case. Heading into the final day both he and Sordo were ahead of Neuville, but Lappi appeared somewhat reluctant to give up his podium.
Turbo issues for Neuville on the final morning ended up making it all a moot point, but Colin Clark wonders if a team meeting on Saturday evening in Portugal put things straight for Lappi.
“Abiteboul said something very, very interesting on the Sunday, where he basically said we’ve made it very clear to Esapekka that there’s one very clear objective in this team and the whole team has to look to the long term and look at what’s right for the team,” Clark said on this week’s edition of SPIN, The Rally Pod.
“And he said ‘go and work out what you like for that.’ And what I worked out from that is that maybe there had been some fairly heated discussions on the Saturday night about the team orders and maybe, maybe there was the need to put the foot down from the management and say to poor old Esapekka, ‘Look, if you want a long-term future here, Hyundai needs to be in the championship for your long-term future and Hyundai needs to win.
“‘We have a strategy which is absolutely aimed at winning titles, be it the drivers’ title or the manufacturers’ title,’ and that was the feeling I got from that conversation.
“I may have been wrong, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. It is absolutely clear to everyone in that team that the efforts this year certainly – and that may change for next year, who knows – are fully behind Thierry Neuville and his annual quest to wrestle that drivers’ title.”
Contextualizing Lappi’s situation is key.
Hyundai made its strategic decision unusually early, but Neuville was the obvious driver to back. And as painful as giving up results is for Lappi, the fact he’s even in this position – running right with and often ahead of Neuville, forcing Hyundai to play its hand – has to be seen as a massive positive.
“It is difficult and we do feel for him because we’ve had so long with Toyota having zero team orders and just allowing the fastest driver to win,” David Evans explained.
“I’m sure every now and then there is some advice, a word in an ear from Kaj Lindström or Jari-Matti Latvala or whoever, but fundamentally they are allowed to compete.
“That’s great – that suits for Toyota. It doesn’t for Hyundai. When Lappi signed up – so we are led to believe from Cyril Abiteboul and why shouldn’t we believe him? – he knew what he was signing up for.
“If you sign up for apples, you can’t expect pears, can you?”
Clark added: “Esapekka Lappi has to be, yes, a little bit disgruntled, a little bit sore, that’s absolutely natural, we can all see that. But he’s got to be, I imagine, really quite happy with the way things have gone so far this season.
“He’s been more consistent than we’ve ever seen him, he’s shown consistent pace. He does look as if he’s actually improving and getting better, and that’s absolutely possible with the experience and comfort levels within the team and his comfort levels in particular with that car.
“He’ll go away and maybe be a touch disgruntled but when he looks at it slightly more dispassionately, he’ll think: ‘Actually, this is not a bad situation I’m in just now.
“‘I’m building points in the championship, I’m building performance, I’m building consistency.’”
“And he’s building credibility as a potential championship challenger,” Evans interjected.
“Twelve months ago, he was removing that credibility from his own challenge by saying ‘look at what Kalle Rovanperä’s doing, I’ve got the same car as him; I can’t imagine doing that speed.’
“Yet here he is now, beating him.
“He starts every event on the front foot now, advancing and pushing forward as all he can do at the minute is get his nose ahead and then have to slow down and demonstrate once again that he’s been the quicker of the Hyundais.”
There is the obvious danger that potentially only ever being able to fight for second, not first, could blunt Lappi’s motivation. But what must inspire him is proving that point to his bosses – that he can be the quickest Hyundai.
If he can’t be the i20 that finishes first, nothing will give Lappi more pleasure than proving he probably should have been.
And anyway, if Lappi does continue to get ahead there’s no guarantee that Neuville will always shadow him. So that elusive second WRC win cannot be far away, even with Hyundai’s chosen strategy in place.