Esapekka Lappi knew. He was in a race against time.
In the late 2010s, it was he who was the burgeoning flying Finn. The flag-bearing hope of a rallying nation. Winning at home in his debut season with Toyota in the World Rally Championship was a bright start.
But the clock was ticking. He had to make hay while the sun shone. Because an even faster flying Finn was coming up behind him.
It sounds hyperbolic. The idea that Lappi, from the moment he set foot in a Toyota Yaris WRC, was on borrowed time. But the man himself knows it to be true.
A Ford Fiesta S2000, run on tires with tread almost worn to the point of becoming slicks, on a local rallycross track a few miles south of Jyväskylä, made clear that an unsolvable problem was headed Lappi’s way.
Kalle Rovanperä was coming. And when he eventually arrived, Lappi would have no idea how to stop him.
“This is sort of not a huge surprise,” Lappi told DirtFish when discussing his compatriot’s title-winning form. “I’ve been knowing it for a few years that this will happen sooner or later, that he will become a champion.”
And it’s because of one test on a cold, snowy day in Central Finland that he knew.
Joutsa is not famous even in rallycross terms – it’s no Kouvola or Oulu, never mind Höljes or Loheác. But, as it transpires, it has played a part in WRC history.
Rovanperä’s father Harri had turned to rally preparation firm Printsport to adapt a Citroën C2 R2 to 12-year-old Kalle’s diminutive frame. It was a car designed to be driven by adults, of course. So too was the Fiesta S2000. Indeed, Lappi had used Printsport’s one to win the Finnish national title in 2012.
Then Rovanperä hopped into Lappi’s title-winning machine. Everything changed at that moment.
There’s a video lurking deep in the Printsport archives of Lappi watching young Kalle on that test. It looks like his life is flashing before his eyes. He knows. He understood what was coming a decade before it happened.
Eero Räikkönen, Printsport team principal, remembers it well.
“It was almost snowing and it was with a s**ty road and so on,” Räikkönen tells DirtFish of Rovanperä at the wheel. “But he was using the gears and doing very nicely with the car. Of course, he’d been driving at this moment already with the Toyota Starlet and he was used to driving a car.
“But it was impressive when we were driving the S2000 with him because it was his first time with a four-wheel drive rally car. He was driving the car like he’d been driving it forever.
“He was handling the car really nicely. There was no need to give him any direct input on what not to do with it; he was just playing with the car and driving it. It looked really nice.”Eero’s seen a few talented drivers at the wheel of his cars over the years – Lappi included. And the current Toyota number three understood immediately what was on the horizon. When he witnessed Rovanperä step into his Fiesta, he knew it was a race against time.
[The] problem was that I couldn't teach him, and at that moment I said to my wife as well that we are f***** in the future. And I was not wrong!Esapekka Lappi on a young Kalle Rovanperä
At 12 years old, Rovanperä already knew as much as 21-year-old Lappi.
“There has been a time, 10 years ago, that he was driving for the first time a four-wheel-drive S2000 Fiesta and that was my car, and I went to teach him,” Lappi recalls of the test.
“But the problem was that I couldn’t teach him, and at that moment I said to my wife as well that we are f***** in the future. And I was not wrong!
“So yeah, that’s a funny memory.”
That day wasn’t a serious test. As Räikkönen himself explains: “It was simply taking advantage of Harri and Kalle visiting the Printsport factory. As we had just finished the season with EP, I thought; OK, Harri was visiting the workshop, why not? Let’s go to the Joutsa track and destroy some old tires. It was just having fun.”
But that, clearly, was enough for Lappi to understand that not just he, but the entire WRC field, would find themselves under the cosh down the line.
“He was just driving it, we didn’t make any comparison,” Räikkönen says of the joint Rovanperä–Lappi test. “The thing was that he was directly on the car, you know. He was driving it, he was handling it, he was doing the donuts and he was using the car. There was no doubt about it that he was a talent.”
Lappi and Räikkönen knew it on that cold day at Joutsa in 2012. A decade later, the whole planet knows he’s a talent. There’s no doubt about that.