Esapekka Lappi doesn’t do hyperbole. He’s not known for show. Not a fan of the big talk. When he said at the end of last year’s Monza Rally that the World Rally Championship season finale might be the end, he meant it. But he didn’t fear it.
Lappi has a deep love of rallying, but he knew when he opened the curtains on Monday December 7, the world would still be turning – with or without a continued contract with M-Sport.
“I thought it might be the end,” Lappi told DirtFish. “In my mind, when I did the last stage in Monza, I was thinking: ‘That could be the last moment for me driving a World Rally Car’.
“I wasn’t ready to give up [on the WRC], but I had to be honest and understand that maybe that time was finished.
“But then we started working towards the future and towards this thing.”
“This thing” is a return to a Toyota Yaris WRC at next month’s Rally Finland.
Almost three years ago, in what was one of the biggest moves in rallying’s recent history, Lappi walked away from Toyota – the team with which he’d won the 2017 Rally Finland – and stepped aboard a Citroën C3 WRC. We all know how that went.
“You know, I was also surprised that I went to Citroën!” said Lappi. “But I wanted to do that, I wanted to join Citroën and I knew what I wanted to do there. In the end, I think we know it was a bit of a bad move…
“You need to laugh about these things. You need to laugh for what happens. If you start to think too much about them then you can make trouble for yourself. I understood what had happened and why and what I would do differently and then I moved on. If you don’t do this, then life can be quite challenging.”
That philosophy of no bitterness, rancor or regret got Lappi through last winter. Instead of seeing 2021, his first season without a professional contract in almost a decade, as a negative, he built himself a new house and spent time with the family.
“Rallying has a very special place in my heart,” said Lappi. “It’s my passion and I love to drive. But I love my family even more.”
That’s how the 30-year-old would struggle to see any negatives from a slimmed down 2021 season.
But what a slimmed down season so far. He’s started two WRC rounds and ended them as the most celebrated and talked about driver on the event.
There were no seats, so it was difficult to know what to come back for. The main reason was to keep my name on lips. And now, I guess, there are some seats...Esapekka Lappi on the motivation for his two WRC2 outings
He blitzed WRC2 allcomers in a Printsport Racing-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 on the Arctic Rally Finland and Rally Portugal. A pair of perfect results? Almost. But not quite.
“Arctic was quite a clear victory for us,” said Lappi. “Andreas [Mikkelsen] was our main rival and beating him was the objective. But, for me, it was a shame he didn’t start Portugal. Everybody knew I could be fast in the snow and in Finland and that’s why I wanted to go outside of my world, my area, and go to Portugal. I wanted to show I could compete on a difference surface. We managed to win there as well.”
Beyond beating Mikkelsen, it was hard to know what to hope for from those two rallies.
“There were no seats,” said Lappi. “For that, it was difficult to know what we would come back for. The main reason was to keep my name on the lips – to remind people that we are still out there. If there would be some seat, then I wanted people to know I was there. And now, I guess, there are some seats…”
Lappi knows what driving a Yaris WRC in Jyväskylä means to the wider world. In plenty of eyes, it cements speculation of his longer-term return to his former employer. Certainly, when he walked out of the door at the end of 2018, Toyota’s project director Yuichiro Haruna made it clear it wouldn’t be closed behind him.
Haruna-san told Lappi he thought they would meet again.
Lappi’s not taking the bait. Or the prophecy.
“There was no hard feelings at all when I left,” he said. “Like Jari-Matti [Latvala] has hinted at in the media, he is interested in our services and it would be stupid to deny that if I make a nice job in Finland then it’s not going to hurt anything for next year. But nothing is agreed. We need to get through this rally and think about this afterwards.”
And what about that rally? What about being back in the car and in the city where he scored his maiden – and to date only – WRC win in 2017?
“The team still has my seat,” said Lappi. “Of course, the car has moved on and things like the aero has improved. But the door to the car is the same and it’s still just a steering wheel and pedals. It will take me some time to understand the car a little bit – it’s quite a long time out of these cars since Monza.
“The biggest challenge will be to get used to the speed of these World Rally Cars quickly. But underneath everything, it’s the same car I drove three years ago.
“I will make a test after the official drivers on the Monday before the rally and then I think I will take Friday to understand everything. I hope on Saturday and Sunday I really set some good times. For the position, for the result? I have no idea. The one thing I do know about Rally Finland is that if you are losing time early on in the event, it is very, very difficult to take this time back.”
Latvala is delighted to see his Finnish countryman back in the car. The pair were team-mates through Lappi’s two years at Toyota. And now he’s back, maybe he’ll stop calling Jari-Matti.
“Basically, when I finished Arctic, then I started calling Jari-Matti and asking if I could hire a car for Finland,” said Lappi. “He couldn’t tell me then because the team didn’t know how many chassis they would have and if it would be possible. But now we know it is.”
Lappi’s car will run in its own livery, but don’t be fooled. Beneath the skin, this will be a full factory machine tended by technicians from Toyota’s base in Jyväskylä. Toyota doesn’t do a customer-spec Yaris WRC – this will be a deal similar to the one that Latvala himself did to drive a car in Sweden last season (pictured above).
Could we see this as a dress rehearsal for 2022?
Lappi couldn’t possibly comment.