30 July 2017 -Novice Esapekka Lappi, driving for only the fourth time at the FIA World Rally Championship’s top level, won Neste Rally Finland by 36.0sec.
The 26-year-old overcame a late scare after breaking a wheel in the penultimate speed test to claim an emotional victory on home ground.
It was a sweet success for his locally-based Toyota Gazoo Racing team, its second win after returning to the WRC this year.
Thierry Neuville’s sixth place dislodged Sébastien Ogier from the championship lead. They are level on points, but the Belgian leads on a tie-break after Ogier crashed out.
Lappi, who became the sixth different driver to win in nine rounds, fought with experienced team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala for most of the four-day, dirt round encounter. Latvala retired from the lead on Saturday afternoon when his car’s electronic control unit failed.
Carrying a 49.1sec advantage into Sunday’s short final leg, Lappi measured his pace through the final four tests, keeping his cool when he wrecked his car’s rear left wheel after running wide.
“Amazing, just amazing,” he said. “I’m on my home soil so I should have been strong here and I was, but a victory was beyond my dreams. I have to really say a big thanks to the team because they built such a fast car in such a short time.”
Elfyn Evans won a thrilling three-car fight for second to match his career-best result. The Welshman started the final day in fourth in a Ford Fiesta behind Teemu Suninen and Juho Hänninen.
The trio swapped places in every test before Evans overhauled Hänninen in the final kilometres to secure the runners-up spot by 0.3sec. Third was Hanninen’s first WRC podium and brought further delight to Toyota.
Suninen held a slender second until crashing his Fiesta in the penultimate test. He finished fourth, 25.2sec behind Hänninen, a remarkable result for the 23-year-old Finn in only his second World Rally Car drive.
The ever-consistent Craig Breen was the leading Citroën driver in fifth. The Irishman headed Neuville by 10.5sec, despite often struggling for confidence in his ill-handling C3. Neuville rarely looked like finding the pace which has netted three wins and six consecutive podiums.
Two-time World Rally Champion and seven-time Rally Finland winner Marcus Grönholm was Red Bull TV’s guest reporter for his home event.
“What an amazing Rally Finland! Esapekka Lappi has been very impressive. We have known for a while that he was looking good, but this was amazing,” said Grönholm
“Generally, the big surprise was Toyota. Or perhaps it was not such a big surprise for me as I drove the car myself and it’s really good. There’s not much more that I’m allowed to say about it, but I was definitely really impressed.
“You have to take your hat off to Tommi Makinen, he’s done an incredible job to build the team from scratch. The only thing that wasn’t perfect for them was the technical problem for Jari-Matti Latvala on Saturday, when he had to stop while he was leading.
“With the new regulations, the cars are fast, and spectacular to watch. But Finland is always the place that creates the biggest test of confidence. The championship fight is really interesting now, but Thierry Neuville could maybe have taken a bit more. For some reason, he’s struggled a little bit here – I’m not sure why. If the car is not completely right, you don’t have the confidence to commit totally, and that’s what was affecting I think Kris Meeke at Citroën and the other Hyundai of Hayden Paddon as well. One of the drivers I thought was actually going to win was Ott Tänak, but he was unlucky – not for the first time!”
Rally Finland (round 9 of 13)
Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h29m26.9s