There’s a very real argument to suggest that Hyundai’s World Rally Championship lineup is now stronger than it has ever been.
In confirming Andreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo this week, Hyundai has five drivers in its roster and all five are World Rally winners. One of them is also a world champion.
It’s quite the lineup – Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak, Lappi, Mikkelsen and Sordo – but it’s a lineup with a clear pecking order.
Neuville and Tänak are the main players; the rest are the support acts. Lappi, Mikkelsen and Sordo will all take turns driving the third i20 N Rally1 which will effectively be entered into all 13 rounds of 2024 as wingman to Neuville and/or Tänak.
That could be considered a slightly demoralizing position for a driver to be in, particularly Mikkelsen and Lappi who have more to give in the WRC. Sordo’s circumstances are perhaps different as he nears retirement from behind the wheel.
But Mikkelsen, who hasn’t driven a top-line rally car in the WRC since he parted ways with Hyundai four years ago, has told DirtFish he is more than happy to oblige.
“If there’s a situation where I have to let these guys past then there is no question, of course I will do it,” he said. “And if I need to do that then it means I’ve done a great weekend.”
But it is a bit different for Lappi. The Finn hasn’t just been handed a Rally1 reprieve having been plucked out of WRC2. He’s two seasons deep into his own top-flight return, having spent a year seat-sharing with Sébastien Ogier at Toyota before driving the second, full-time i20 as Neuville’s team-mate this term.
On paper at least, it could be argued Lappi has now been demoted given he will step back to a part-time program in 2024. But this is something Lappi himself requested, and he too is at peace with playing the team game.
That wasn’t always the case in 2023 though. Particularly in México, where Lappi’s overnight rally lead on Friday felt like a major statement to new team principal Cyril Abiteboul who had marked his card early with attempted shuffling of positions as soon as round two in Sweden to benefit Neuville’s drivers’ championship bid.
And then he knew he needed to check up his pace in Sardinia when Ogier’s exit gave Hyundai a golden chance of a win. And that i20 was always going to be Neuville’s.
Lappi admitted accepting that position as the support act was tough, but was equally clear “it’s a job, and you need to listen what the boss is saying, as we all know.” Looking back at the season, Lappi feels he wasn’t good enough to be leading the team.
He told DirtFish: “For sure part of me is really competitive, but on the other hand my season was 50/50, I was doing good job at times – middle season was really promising and good, beginning of the season was a bit of a learning, and end of the season really bad.
“But I was not also deserving to be the number one driver, I made so many mistakes that it was not deserved.”
Typically deadpan, Lappi simply responded “keep it more on the road” when asked what he would have to do next year to be more deserving of number-one status, but he is sure his regression to a partial program will improve his results too.
“I think less rallies will help,” Lappi said.
“Always professionally you have a lot of pressure. But personally yeah as well. The kids are missing me a lot, and that’s a problem. I mean, I want to be there for them.
“And that’s been stressing me a lot. I’m not saying that that’s the reason for the poor results, but for sure there is an effect.”
The Finn does at least feel he has improved over the course of 2023, but knows claiming that elusive second WRC win will be difficult.
“For sure, I think always you improve when you drive a lot. And you understand more about the car and settings. I would say yes I’ve improved [this year],” he explained.
“But am I really ready to win next year? Yeah, maybe. But we need to see the situation as well. In the end it’s not gonna change much against this year.
“This year I’ve been trying to support one driver and next year it’s gonna be two drivers. I dunno, it doesn’t really change anything.”