Latvala: Lappi Hyundai move came as a “surprise”

The offer of a full-time top class WRC season for the first time since 2020 was too good for Lappi to turn down

Esapekka Lappi

Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has admitted Hyundai’s move to poach Esapekka Lappi for next year’s World Rally Championship came as a surprise.

Toyota had planned to field the same lineup of drivers next year after winning both the drivers’ championship (with Kalle Rovanperä) and the manufacturers’ championship.

But Ott Tänak’s decision to walk out of Hyundai one year before his contract expired ignited the driver market and meant Hyundai was in need of a full-season driver to replace him.

DirtFish broke the story two weeks before the announcement came that Lappi was set for a move from Toyota to Hyundai, and Toyota actually announced its 2023 lineup of drivers on the same day, but earlier than Hyundai.

Lappi will contest every single round of the WRC next season while he had only been offered a partial program alongside, and at the mercy of, Sébastien Ogier again at Toyota.

That position was subsequently filled by Takamoto Katsuta who will do half the year as a manufacturer-nominated Toyota driver and half the year in a fourth GR Yaris Rally1 when Ogier competes.

Asked to describe how events unfolded from Toyota’s perspective and when he heard that Lappi would be leaving, Latvala said: “In all fairness, what happened is when Ott left, I think it gave a bit of a surprise for everybody.

“So, Hyundai needed a driver, and Hyundai did an offer for Esapekka, they did a good offer for Esapekka.

Esapekka Lappi

“We at that point had started to negotiate about 2023, and it was in some point I told you ‘why to change the drivers if you win the championship, so you should continue with the same drivers’. And that was basically our target.

“But this was a surprise for us that Hyundai came with the offer for EP, and you know that we could basically only offer half a season, but Hyundai was offering him a full season.

“So of course, in our position we couldn’t compete with that, so I think it was then Esapekka decided to go to Hyundai, and he could do a full season.

“So, things went very quickly forward on that when this started to happen. I think this was clear about two [three] weeks ago that Esapekka would go to Hyundai.”

Esapekka Lappi

Latvala admitted that once Tänak had made his announcement and there “was speculation about EP going to Hyundai”, he “received phone calls and emails about the driver position”.

But once it became clear to Toyota that Lappi was leaving, it never seriously entertained any other possibility other than promoting Katsuta from within.

“Of course, I understand that on the market of drivers who need a place, of course they were contacting and trying to ask if we have a place, something available,” Latvala said.

“But we have decided to go now this way that we didn’t take any extra driver, because we were looking that Taka was ready to take that step up, and we were very confident and happy with this.”

Esapekka Lappi

Toyota has advertised the fourth Yaris for hire on the events where Ogier isn’t present, but so far nobody has snapped up a drive.

“We don’t have anybody, we have no decision on that side,” Latvala confirmed. “So, we have got some inquiries, but no decision, no contracts, anything like that.

“These days these Rally1 cars, they are pretty expensive. Unfortunately, I think where we are at the [point] where the Rally1 cars are not any cheaper than the last generation of cars.

“If anything, they are even more expensive to run because we have the hybrid system, so there’s all of this new technology on the cars and more panels and the chassis is made on the tube, so there is more work to build the car.

“So, if there’s more work to build the car, the cost of the car is higher, and also then the running costs are higher than the previous generation cars.”