THE legend of the Flying Finns returned in force as Esapekka Lappi closed on a remarkable maiden FIA World Rally Championship victory in Finland on Saturday.
The Finn, 26, starting only his fourth event at the top level, ended the penultimate leg of Neste Rally Finland with a 49.1sec lead in his Toyota Yaris over fellow novice and countryman Teemu Suninen, in an M-sport Ford Fiesta.
In third lies another Finn, Juho Hänninen, Lappi’s teammate in the Finnish- based Toyota Gazoo team of four-time World Champion Tommi Mäkinen.
Celebrated by massive, patriotic crowds on the stages today, it is a fairytale revival of the golden era of the Flying Finns made famous across decades by names such as Mäkinen, Henri Toivonen, Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen, Marcus Grönholm, Mikko Hirvonen, Hannu Mikkola, Rauno Altonen, Timo Mäkinen, Markku Alén and many others for whom jumping and sliding cars on the country’s high-speed gravel roads seemed to be a natural skill.
The tale could been even sweeter if not for the retirement of Finland’s current top driver Jari-Matti Latvala while leading in his Toyota this afternoon. At the time an apparently minor electrical problem stopped the Yaris, the Finnish-run Toyota team and its Finnish drivers Latvala, Lappi and Juho Hänninen were 1-2-3 on their home event, the famously fast so-called Finnish Gravel Grand Prix.
Just Sunday’s short final leg of four stages separates Lappi from becoming the sixth different winner in nine rounds this season.
With Latvala out until tomorrow, defending world champion Sébastien Ogier out for the weekend after a crash yesterday that injured his co-driver and Hyundai contender Thierry Neuville struggling for pace, the potential result in Finland keeps the drivers’ title right wide open and more likely to go down to the wire in the final round at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 16-19 November.
Lappi’s delight today was in contrast to Latala’s heartbreak. Latvala won the first five of the day’s eight dirt road speed tests to overturn Lappi’s overnight advantage and build a 8.5sec lead.
His hopes of a fourth home victory ended when his Yaris stopped midway through the famous Ouninpohja special stage, leaving Lappi clear.
“I’m disappointed for Jari-Matti but it’s not my fault his car broke down so I need to enjoy this moment now. It’s something amazing,” Lappi said.
“We led yesterday by 4sec, but this is 50sec and I really need to concentrate to keep my head cool. I had butterflies in my stomach when I saw Jari-Matti.”
Latvala beat his steering wheel in frustration when the lead Toyota stopped.
“It’s one of the biggest disappointments I have faced in my career. I was feeling extremely well and enjoying the driving but once you get a technical problem there’s nothing you can do and that’s a hard part of motorsport,” he said.
There was a huge fight behind Lappi for the remaining podium places. Suninen, starting only his second event in a World Rally Car, lost position after his Ford Fiesta overshot a chicane but climbed to second after overhauling Hänninen in the penultimate test.
Hänninen broke his Yaris’ front anti-roll bar this afternoon and trailed Suninen by 4.3sec. Elfyn Evans was only 1.3sec behind in fourth after an impressive drive in his Fiesta that culminated in a final stage win.
Craig Breen could not retain his overnight fourth after struggling for rhythm in his Citroen C3 and surviving a spin and an overshoot. The Irishman was 14.7sec clear of Neuville, who aimed to capitalise on Ogier’s absence.
After a disappointing drive yesterday, the Belgian climbed from eighth to sixth as better grip this afternoon suited his Hyundai i20’s set-up.
Ogier did not restart this morning after yesterday’s heavy crash. Co-driver Julien Ingrassia was signed off from competing for 15 days by medical chiefs after being diagnosed with mild concussion.
Ott Tänak recovered to seventh after yesterday’s puncture, passing Kris Meeke in the final stage when the Ulsterman also suffered a flat tyre and dropped almost a minute. Dani Sordo was ninth and Mads Østberg 10th, despite crashing into a ditch and damaging his brakes.
Sunday’s final leg features two identical loops of two short stages south of Jyvaskylä covering 33.84km. The rally-ending Oittila is the live TV Power Stage, with bonus points available to the fastest five drivers.
End of Day 3 (Saturday):
1 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Toyota Yaris WRC) 2h13m02.7s
2 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford Fiesta WRC) +49.1s
3 Juho Hänninen/Kaj Lindström (Toyota Yaris WRC) +53.4s
4 Elfyn Evans/Danie’l Barritt (Ford Fiesta WRC) +54.7s
5 Craig Breen/Scott Martin (Citroen C3 WRC) +1m16.9s
6 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +1m31.6s
7 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Ford Fiesta WRC) +2m07.5s
8 Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (Citroen C3 WRC) +2m59.1s
9 Dani Sordo/Marc Martí (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC) +3m54.0s
10 Mads Østberg/Torstein Eriksen (Ford Fiesta WRC) +4m23.6s
24 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila (Toyota Yaris WRC) +20m40.3s