Is 2022 the restart of Esapekka Lappi’s World Rally Championship career?
“Should be,” he giggled. “It’s the last chance, I’m sure.”
Lappi has never typically looked, or sounded, stressed throughout his journey in the WRC, but it’s equally hard to remember a time when he has seemed quite this relaxed given what’s at stake.
It would be no slight against his character if Lappi was feeling apprehensive. After all, this week’s Rally Sweden is his first back in a works team since 2020 and it would be totally understandable if Lappi was worried about proving his abilities to others or even himself.
But listening to his conversation with my DirtFish colleague at the end of last week, it became abundantly clear that Lappi has no fears whatsoever. If he does, he did a very good job of hiding them.
“It feels good, I’m really looking forward to next week,” he said.
“We were at the workshop today to practice a bit [of] what to change to the car and how we can do repairs and whatever, these kind of things.
“So yeah, definitely it feels we are back in our team and also on top level again, so this feels nice.”
Lappi’s choice of phrase – “we are back in our team” – is telling. Toyota is home for Lappi, even if he hasn’t worn the team’s red, white and black colors for over three years now.
After all, it was the team that gave him his big break in 2017 and he was sensational – winning stages on just his second ever rally in the top flight and winning on his fourth start.
At the time, Lappi’s lower-key 2018 season felt a touch disappointing but time has proved this to be a false impression.
The Citroën move in 2019 was supposed to help Lappi find his own feet but ended up being a bit of a car crash. He then joined M-Sport at precisely the wrong time, when the pandemic took hold in early 2020 and pegged its performance back. They simply could not afford to allocate a large volume of resources to testing and development.
Lappi – along with compatriot Teemu Suninen – has a tendency to be overly hard on himself at times, particularly when delivering a stage-end interview, but he’s never looked as dejected as he was at the end of 2020.
He was drained, he was done. He needed a break.
Arctic Rally Finland – a couple of months after Monza – in WRC2 ultimately rescued Lappi’s career as he wiped the floor with everyone; including fellow WRC refugee Andreas Mikkelsen who had a pre-season objective of dominating every rally he started.
That win was the showreel he needed to pitch to WRC teams what he could do, and sure enough Lappi has come full circle and joined his old mates in Toyota’s service tent.
“It’s a much better situation than one year ago, so I’m just happy,” he told David Evans.
“Twelve months felt [like] a long, long time [to be without a drive] but now when you look back it’s actually a short time. And yeah, it feels a bit crazy where we were 12 months ago.”
Lappi is a very different prospect at the start of his second Toyota chapter than he was the first time around. He has a bit more baggage but equally a whole load more experience, but crucially it’s his fresh and renewed perspective that will stand him in good stead.
Responses like “I’m very pleased and calm – I’m fine, let’s say like this” when asked if he knows which rallies he’ll do this year with Sébastien Ogier’s program still unclear point to an individual that’s totally at ease with themselves and their surroundings.
Put simply, Lappi has found an enviable sweet spot where he’s both extremely motivated to perform but not hanging his eternal happiness on the success of his rallying career.
I think I have a very good balance at the moment on these things and also inside of my head, so I just try to enjoy this opportunity now and this second chance so much.Esapekka Lappi
“I’ve gained a bit of experience already now so that’s a very important point in this sport, and also I understand that let’s say with a different kind of approach if you are not calm, if you are excited and just go and there and take some pressure and these kind of things it doesn’t make your life easier,” he said. “It probably makes it worse.
“I just want to try and enjoy it now as much as possible and you know in the end it’s just rallying, it’s very important and it’s my passion but there are other things in life as well which are very important.
“I think I have a very good balance at the moment on these things and also inside of my head, so I just try to enjoy this opportunity now and this second chance so much.”
Anybody that’s come out the other side of turmoil or just simply taken a good break with family and friends after a hectic period at work will resonate with Lappi’s new approach and headspace.
I know I’ve had moments where my job as a rallying journalist has ground me down – the intense workload, pressure to get things right and often unsociable hours do take their toll. At times I’ve forgotten why I love rallying: it’s not just a passion anymore, it’s a job.
But over the last two years since I’ve been at this full-time I’ve learned how important it is to escape from it all – even for just a day or two – and it’s then that I start to realize how monumentally fortunate I am. Somebody is paying me to write about rally cars, that’s just mind-blowing, but I can also have a life outside of this sport.
We’ve already caught a glimpse of what this sense of freedom has done to Lappi’s driving via his two WRC2 wins and an impressive fourth place on Rally Finland in a Yaris WRC over the last year.
Driving a rally car is supposed to be a fun experience. Even if it is a job, if it’s giving you no pleasure something is clearly amiss. Spending more time at home due to his career pause and the various lockdowns has helped Lappi rediscover his passion but also appreciate the life that exists outside the WRC.
“Definitely,” he said. “Still I knew it before. But the feeling came stronger that it’s not the end of the story of rallying some day, or when it someday stops.
“But this time it was not the end.”
He might not think it’s possible to win this week – whether it be concerns over his road position not being as advantageous as it may seem or the potential to be asked to move aside from one of his team-mates behind.
But, as you may have seen in our predictions piece earlier this week, I’ve backed him. A happy Lappi is a rapid Lappi, and I’m not sure if Lappi has ever been as happy as he is this week to be starting a world rally in a Toyota Yaris once again.