Hyundai deputy team director Julien Moncet has explained that Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen’s experience at other teams was a key reason for signing them for next year’s World Rally Championship season.
Hyundai announced its new lineup of Thierry Neuville, Lappi, Dani Sordo and Breen last week – Lappi essentially replacing Ott Tänak and Breen filling the void left when Hyundai elected to part ways with Oliver Solberg.
Moncet confirmed to DirtFish that the team was “already looking for drivers” before Tänak announced his intention to leave, and was understood to be incredibly close to rehiring Andreas Mikkelsen who drove for Hyundai at the end of 2017 and over the entire 2018 and ’19 seasons.
But instead it opted to poach Lappi from its rival Toyota, and brought Breen back into the nest he fled in 2021 after a difficult season with M-Sport Ford in 2022.
Asked if Lappi and Breen were always the clear 2023 targets, Moncet didn’t really elaborate but did outline what made both drivers attractive to Hyundai: their collective experience of the Toyota GR and Ford Puma Rally1.
“Obviously once Ott has decided to leave it has opened some let’s say other opportunities in the driver market, and we were really looking to find the best possible lineup,” Moncet told DirtFish.
“It’s difficult to replace Ott, this is clear, he is one of the top drivers, but I think what we have achieved in terms of new drivers for next year is quite positive. I’m really looking forward to seeing all these guys working together next year.
“Thierry has been with us since day one, we know him – he’s a great competitor, fully motivated, he’s quick so for sure he will target the drivers’ championship. We have Dani who is still with us as well for many years now – we know that Dani is an incredible driver and human being, he’s competitive, he’s always there at the end scoring a lot of points for us and it’s very important.
“And yes we have two new drivers, or let’s say new for one – Esapekka is completely new to us. For sure he has driven for all the teams I guess now and we know he’s quick, he has the right mentality – I think that’s important as well for the team – and he has the experience of Toyota with Rally1, same with Craig that we had already in the past, he’s back with us on a partial program.
“As well he will bring us his experience of Rally1 with another car so we will have a good overview of all the other cars. I think they will be able to compare and give us the feedback where we are strong, where we are weak and where we have to improve – this is quite important as well.
“And yeah I think with Craig as well he’s a good team player, for sure he had a difficult season in 2022 but I’m sure we’ll be able to put him back in the right way.”
None of Toyota’s drivers have any experience of any other Rally1 machinery, although Takamoto Katsuta’s co-driver Aaron Johnston did test in the very first iteration of the i20 N Rally1 when he was Oliver Solberg’s navigator before he joined Katsuta at Toyota.
If he chooses to sign for M-Sport Ford, Tänak would of course bring knowledge of the Hyundai i20 N to Cumbria too, but it’s a definite coup for Hyundai to employ drivers with intel about both of its rivals’ cars.
“For sure they don’t know everything about the cars they were driving this season but yeah they will be able to compare definitely, in many aspects in terms of engine, suspension, gear ratio and as well and importantly the hybrid,” Moncet added.
“Because everyone, as you can see on the TV, has a different hybrid strategy I would say and it will be interesting to get the feedback if we are going in the right way or we are doing it completely wrong or we have to bring something new.
“So of course it does not mean we will get everything from the competitors but it’s always an interesting feedback and it’s very important for us to get comments about our car from someone new, because you know when you are used to something you focus always on the same point.
“It’s quite interesting to get their feedback when they will drive the car.”
Neither Lappi nor Breen have driven their new car yet, but both have already been to the Hyundai Motorsport factory in Alzenau to meet the team in Lappi’s case and rekindle old relationships for Breen.
“We had already the chance to meet both Esapekka and Craig,” Moncet said.
“They came already and they met the engineers and we had some let’s say informal talk and as well some presentation of the car, how it works, because you know these cars are getting more and more complicated.
“It’s close to the space shuttle so they need to get some explanation of how it works, how the steering wheel is, the buttons and everything – they have a big book to read to understand everything and yes they will have the opportunity to drive the car very soon.”
Moncet also confirmed that Breen’s program is likely to be six rallies with Sordo competing on eight, but stressed “everything is still possible”.
Asked if it would be Sordo starting the season in Monte Carlo, Moncet laughed: “Maybe, maybe not. We will see. I know the answer to your question but you will have to wait for the pre-event test I guess!”