Why 2022 has been Lappi’s best season to date

Two years ago, his WRC career was sliding away from him, but it's a different story this season

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We join Esapekka Lappi in his home, virtually of course, three days after the news broke that his World Rally Championship season has come to an end.

We soon learn that this was no surprise to Lappi, who’d known this was the plan since the start of the summer. There’s certainly no anger, no resentment about his situation.

And a likely five month wait may loom until he’s next back in WRC action on next year’s Rally Sweden, but Lappi’s relaxed. 

In truth, he has been all year, but speaking to us sat in his office chair, personal clothes on (no Toyota garments here, despite it being a Toyota-arranged call) with his usual quick wit on full display, this is a driver fully content with where he finds himself in life right now.

And perhaps that’s no surprise given Lappi’s love-hate-love relationship with the WRC in recent years. It’s been a journey of discovery that’s created the ultimate version of Lappi.

Two years ago, Lappi’s career was sliding away from him. As the WRC was refinding its feet following the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, M-Sport Ford – already less affluent than its rivals – had begun to tighten its belt, and the Fiesta WRC was soon left behind in the development race by its Yaris and i20 Coupe counterparts.

Seventh, sixth, an engine failure in Italy before a fine fourth in Monza wasn’t the most electric form ever. But with no guarantee of being paid to drive, Lappi was a driver falling out of love with rallying, so he and M-Sport parted ways at the end of the year.

A year out in 2021 would hardly have been part of Lappi’s career plan, but what it gave him was an entirely new perspective on his WRC career. It’s important, but it’s not everything. There is a life outside of a rally car.

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Not that that’s a life that Lappi wanted permanently. Two WRC2 outings (and two wins) in a Volkswagen Polo relit the fire and pushed him back onto Toyota’s radar. A superb drive to fourth place in a rented Yaris on Rally Finland sealed the deal many believed to be done anyway. Lappi was back, and back home.

Sticking it on the podium on his return to the Toyota fold (the team he first drove for in the WRC) and leading the rally after the second stage was a flawless way for Lappi to reannounce himself to the WRC.

It’s a weekend he picks out as his best of a seven-round campaign.

“I still feel that actually the podium in Sweden was sort of the most important personally,” he shares. “It’s just I’m sure I had the best feeling there. 

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“I felt so proud of myself but also because of Janne [Ferm, co-driver], what we managed to do after a long break. And thinking about Monza 2020, I really thought that maybe the career was over, but stepping on the podium again after these kind of thoughts, that felt pretty great.”

You could call it redemption, but also confirmation. If Lappi had any doubts about what he really wanted, they had well and truly evaporated. 

And the good times just kept on rolling in. OK, Sardinia was a disappointment when Lappi made a very small mistake and retired from the lead, and a puncture caused upon landing over a jump brought back the dejected, downbeat and drained version of Lappi that we grew accustomed to seeing in the past.

But third in Finland – complete with some brilliant roof-less pictures of his Yaris for the scrap book – and another podium in Belgium (Lappi’s first consecutive podiums of his WRC career) were brilliant, and he would’ve earned a third in succession in Greece had his Yaris not been starved of its fuel delivery.

Lappi was asked for a season highlight and picked Sweden, but honestly his entire season feels like a highlight. He’s never driven better than this in his career before.

“I think it’s definitely… yeah, the strongest performance from our side, yeah, that’s 100% sure,” Lappi agrees. 

“Probably also that’s why the Sweden result felt so good as well, but anyway I was  really surprised that we could actually be on the pace in every race. 

“This felt really good, and for sure our performance was really consistent throughout the season. 

“So yeah I fully agree, it was the best and strongest season of my career.”

It all feeds back into the mental reset Lappi was afforded in 2021. Before he’d turned a wheel in 2022, Lappi was already nonchalant about what lay ahead. Whereas before he was famous for cascading himself for the smallest of small errors, now he looked as if he couldn’t care less.

That of course wasn’t the case, Lappi wants to win just as much as anybody. But after losing it all, there was nothing more he could lose. All Lappi could do was gain. Outwardly it was the same head on the shoulders, but the way that head was operating was entirely different. 

“Yeah you are right,” says Lappi. 

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“I think I’d done already last year, I did some work with my head, let’s say like this. I used a mental coach as well and then maybe also the age [31] is helping, and the family, to understand what is important in this life. 

“Why did I take it so seriously sometimes? If you don’t win a stage you don’t win a stage, it’s not the end of your life. 

“So maybe I managed to balance all the things inside my head better than ever before during these last two years and that’s why I’m stronger than ever at the moment.”

Lappi hasn’t signed the magic piece of paper that confirms his place at Toyota for another season just yet – although it would appear something of a formality. And nobody can deny that he is fully deserving of it.

I felt as well that when I got back-to-back races, now the last four in a row, it felt it influenced me that I can actually be sharper Esapekka Lappi

But actually, does he deserve even more? The likelihood is that Lappi will once again be sharing his Yaris with eight-time world champion Sébastien Ogier next season, restricting him from a full-time campaign.

In this writer’s opinion that feels slightly unfair considering how great Lappi’s form has been with a consistent run of events – and particularly unfair if he is purely at the mercy of just driving whenever Ogier doesn’t want to.

But how does Lappi feel about the situation? Does he enjoy being a WRC part-timer, or would he rather be getting his teeth into a far meatier program?

“There is two sides, how do you want to see it?” Lappi explains. 

“And the other side is the family which definitely likes it this way and I do like it as well, I’m not saying that [I don’t], I think this is a good balance between family and professional life. 

“Then on the other hand, as we can see, I felt as well that when I got back-to-back races, now the last four in a row, it felt it influenced me that I can actually be sharper, a bit better every time I sit in the car. 

“So in terms of that, yeah it would be nice to have more events because I’m sure the curve to be better would go ahead step by step all the time. 

“It seems and now it’s going to be a long break again if I can continue next year. So in that way it’s not good, but yeah like I said, there is two sides on this.”

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Ultimately, it’s a situation outside of Lappi’s control. What instead he hopes to be controlling is a rally car. He can’t go five months without driving anything, but he does have ideas to avoid that scenario.

“For sure I need to do something, it’s just a bit tricky to find Rally1 machinery which is available,” he says.

“I have my cross kart in my garage and I have this Yaris N5 which is a bit low on power but anyway it’s a rally car so I’m going to drive with that, actually on Sunday already and a bit more during this break. 

“At least I’m trying. Maybe some Tarmac driving with I don’t know which car actually, because I cannot drive any other than Toyota so that’s a bit tricky. 

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“I need to try and find something. I still have time for the family for sure, so it’s not a trouble.”

No sentence will better sum up where Lappi’s at right now. He’s found his perfect mix, and that’s making him an even better rally driver.

2022 was his best yet, so what will 2023 hold? It’s a tantalizing thought, isn’t it.

Words:Luke Barry

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