Fri 16 Feb 2024

Lappi leads Sweden WRC thriller on Friday night

Esapekka Lappi made it through an action-packed and challenge-filled opening leg of Rally Sweden leading round two of the FIA World Rally Championship by a slender 3.2sec.

Lappi, on his first 2024 start aboard the third factory Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid, hit back from an off-form run through SS1 on Thursday evening to complete Friday morning’s loop of three stages trailing Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid-driving Takamoto Katsuta by 11.4sec.


But he wasted no time in his bid to catch his Japanese rival during the afternoon by taking 6.1sec out of Katsuta’s lead on SS5 – the rerun of #42 Brattby – to close the gap to first place to 5.3sec.


With the snowfall intensifying, Lappi outpaced Katsuta again on SS6, this time by 5.0sec, and snatched the rally lead following his table-topping run through SS7.

“For sure we need to take the confidence from today and start to concentrate for the rest of the rally,” Lappi said after winning SS8. “I used the road position advantage clearly in the afternoon. Okay, for sure in the morning as well, but I was not too slow against Kalle [Rovanperä] in the beginning so I’m fairly satisfied with that.”


Behind the charging Katsuta, Adrien Fourmaux was on course to complete leg one on the provisional podium for the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team on the back of a fine drive. But the Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid-driving Frenchman was powerless to prevent WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg moving ahead in the afternoon snow, despite the power deficit the Swede faced in his Rally2-specification Škoda Fabia.


“Third place in a Rally2 [car] is incredible and in my home rally it’s a bit of a dream and I’m very happy,” Solberg said of his stunning performance. “But the main goal is WRC2 and we are leading with quite a lot so I’m happy with the day.”

While the heavy snow created a picture-perfect winter wonderland, it made the task for the drivers – particularly those running at the head of the pack – even harder.


Thierry Neuville, the world championship leader after winning the Rallye Monte-Carlo season opener last month, was 40.5sec off the pace in fifth position, two places behind Elfyn Evans, following the morning loop, having struggled for grip opening the road and for visibility in the early morning fog.


Normally a fuel pressure issue would be the stuff of nightmares for a rally driver, but after completing the snow-heavy SS5 1min 15.5sec behind leader Katsuta, the fault the Hyundai driver reported prior to SS6 provided much needed, albeit unusual, salvation for the Belgian, as he started the stage out of order behind Evans.

Although Neuville was a mere 3.7sec quicker than Evans on SS6, he was more than 20sec faster than the Toyota driver on SS7 after Evans charged a snowbank and was further delayed by a misting windscreen.


“I guess the spirit of competition has gone out of the window,” Evans said. “The difference between being first and second on-the-road is huge. I'm not really sure what’s been going on this afternoon. I can't even see from here to the sign in front of me, and we're going so fast. It's a bit bonkers, but we're [still] here.”


“The engine was not running so we had to check it,” Neuville said of his scare prior to SS6. “Elfyn was at the refuel earlier when our car didn't fire up, so he should know.

“In the stage it’s not a problem. I could have gone a little bit faster at the end [of SS7], but it's very easy to go off.”


Neuville’s earlier delay, which incurred a 40-second penalty, means he’s outside the top 10 after eight stages with Evans fifth behind Fourmaux.


Georg Linnamäe, who sensationally claimed his maiden outright WRC stage win on SS5, is sixth in Toyota’s new-for-2024 GR Yaris Rally2. Linnamäe’s WRC2 rivals Sami Pajari, Roope Korhonen, Mikko Heikkilä, and Lauri Joona complete the top 10.

Rovanperä rapid but out of luck on return

After topping the order by 1.4sec through the Umeå Sprint super special stage on Thursday, returning world champion Kalle Rovanperä capitalised on more favourable stage conditions running seventh on the road on Friday morning.


Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT’s flying Finn was able to extend his lead by winning Friday’s first test, #42 Brattby, renamed in memory of Craig Breen, who was fastest on both runs of the 10.76km stage aboard his number 42 Hyundai in 2023.


Beating Lappi by 3.2sec, Rovanperä’s advantage over Takamoto Katsuta stood at 4.9sec after SS2 as a result.


Although Rovanperä lost out to his compatriot Lappi on SS3 following what he described as a “horrible, embarrassing” drive, the double WRC title winner was a mere 1.2sec slower than Lappi, which allowed him to extend his margin over Katsuta to 5.7sec.

But with Rovanperä forced to limp through SS4 with damage to the rear of his Yaris following an off, Katsuta took the stage win – 0.7sec quicker than Evans – to lead Lappi by 11.4sec at the completion of a dramatic morning loop in the Swedish ice and snow.


Ott Tänak was third when he spun and damaged the front-end of his Hyundai hitting a snowbank 18.5km into SS4.


Grégoire Munster continued his Rally1 initiation with his learning-first approach driving a Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid. However, the Luxembourg driver dropped four minutes with tyre damage on SS4 and reported the day had been “crazy” at the finish of SS8.


The double-use Vännäs, Sarsjöliden and Bygdsiljum stages form Saturday’s route, which concludes with the first try of the Umeå test, the venue for Sunday’s Wolf Power Stage. SS9, Vännäs, is due to get under way at 07:45 local time.

Starts: Thursday, July 18, 2024 at 4:31:00 AM
Starts: Friday, July 26, 2024 at 7:00:00 AM
Starts: Saturday, July 27, 2024 at 6:00:00 AM