Esapekka Lappi dominates from start to finish in FIA WRC Rally Sweden win, ahead of Elfyn Evans and Adrien Fourmaux.

Friday –

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.

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.

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. 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.

Saturday –

Esapekka Lappi lapped up the praise and bagged the points with a clean run through Rally Sweden’s second leg today (Saturday) as he closes in on his first FIA World Rally Championship victory in six years. By completing leg two in front, the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid driver has provisionally scored 18 WRC points, which will be added to his season tally providing he reaches the rally finish on Sunday afternoon under new rules for 2024.

Starting Saturday’s action leading the ice and snow event by 3.2sec following Friday’s drama-packed first leg, Lappi came under early pressure when Takamoto Katsuta slashed his advantage to 0.9sec with a determined charge through the day-opening 15.65km of Vännäs. But Lappi was left in the clear when Katsuta plunged his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid into a snowbank 3.4km from the start of SS10 while pressing his Finnish rival for top spot.

Despite his comfortable margin, which stood at 1min 31.6sec after SS10, Lappi admitted that finding the balance between attacking and holding his lead was far from easy. Like his fellow drivers, Lappi also had to make preserving his tyre studs on increasingly damaged roads a key focus. But the one-time WRC event winner completed Saturday’s running without incident and will take a lead of 1min 06.3sec into Sunday’s deciding three-stage leg.

While Lappi heads into Sunday with his sights fixed on victory, Katsuta will be hoping to avoid leaving Sweden empty handed. As well as restoring his pride, the Japanese driver’s target on Sunday are the seven points up for grabs for topping leg three’s classification, plus the five points on offer for the Wolf Power Stage fastest time.

On a day that produced five stage winners from the seven scheduled stages and also marked M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson’s 68th birthday, the team’s Adrien Fourmaux has excelled aboard his Ford Puma Rally1 Hybrid.   After demoting WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg in the battle for third on SS9, Fourmaux moved into second when Katsuta stopped on the next stage.

The Frenchman further underlined his potential by landing his fourth WRC career stage win on SS11 to cement second place in the overall order, which he maintained through the afternoon to land 15 interim points. That was despite a scare in the closing kilometres of SS15 when he charged a snowbank after being distracted by his team-mate Grégoire Munster’s stricken Puma.

Having been hampered by opening the road for much of Friday afternoon, Elfyn Evans missed out on winning SS9 by 0.3sec before his third-fastest time on SS10 elevated him onto the final step of the provisional podium, 11.4sec behind Fourmaux. But after the Toyota driver “scooped a snowbank on the inside of a corner” and “lost loads of power” as a result, he headed back to midday service 16.2sec behind the flying Frenchman. With one eye on tyre stud retention through stages 12-15, the Welshman is 16.7sec down on Fourmaux in third.

Completing Friday’s running in 11th overall due to fuel pressure problems costing him 40 seconds in penalties, Thierry Neuville overtook Solberg for fourth on SS12 before setting the fastest time on SS13 during an afternoon spent perfecting the set-up of his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid. He was fastest on the day’s final three stages.

Behind fifth-placed WRC2 leader Oliver Solberg, Sami Pajari took second in WRC2 and sixth overall when Georg Linnamäe spun his Toyota GR Yaris Rally2 nearing the finish of SS11. The Estonian slipped to fourth in class following his moment but demoted WRC3 champion Roope Korhonen on SS14 before closing to within 0.2sec of Pajari on SS15. Mikko Heikkilä, who recovered from a spin on SS15, and Lauri Joona complete the top 10.

Hyundai’s Ott Tänak and Toyota’s world champion Kalle Rovanperä restarted on Saturday morning after they crashed on Friday. Tänak won SS9 from first on the road, 1.2sec faster than Rovanperä. The Finn set the pace on SS10, going 2.8sec quicker than Tänak, who complained of a lack of visibility in a forest section. The duo found the road surface on the repeated stages a particular handful during the afternoon loop, with Rovanperä reporting a brake issue at the completion of SS14.

Sunday –

Esapekka Lappi is a winner again in the FIA World Rally Championship on the back of a controlled but fine fast-paced display of ice and snow driving aboard his Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid. His Rally Sweden victory, alongside co-driver and fellow Finn Janne Ferm, came six years, six months and 19 days since he won in the WRC for the first time on Rally Finland in 2017.

The 33-year-old breaks the record for the longest gap between WRC wins, which stood at five years and 359 days and was jointly held by Shekhar Mehta and Jean-Luc Therier. Lappi is the fifth Hyundai-powered driver to win a WRC round, a result that gives the manufacturer its 29th triumph in the world championship on an event when Toyota and M-Sport Ford also finished on the podium.

Lappi started Rally Sweden’s deciding leg of three stages this morning (Sunday) leading by 1min 06.3sec and with 18 WRC points banked for topping the order at the end of Saturday’s running. While his rivals deployed full-attack mode, Lappi kept a cool, calm head to reach the finish unscathed and with his lead intact. Although it meant his winning margin was trimmed to 29.6sec, victory was all that mattered for Lappi, who is embarking on a partial campaign for the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team in 2024.

Behind Lappi, Toyota’s Elfyn Evans snatched second from Adrien Fourmaux when the Frenchman lost time striking a snowbank on Sunday’s first test. But the M-Sport Ford Puma driver didn’t let that moment knock him off his stride as he raced to his maiden WRC podium in third. Despite sliding his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1 Hybrid into a snowbank at high speed on SS17, Evans topped the Super Sunday classification to bag seven world championship points to add to the 13 he scored on Saturday under new rules for 2024.

The Welshman, who also took four points on the Wolf Power Stage for an event total of 24, is now three points adrift of Thierry Neuville in the race to win the 2024 WRC title. But he could have been two points behind Neuville had he not slid into another snowbank nearing the finish of the Wolf Power Stage, a moment that denied him the fastest time – and five bonus points – by 0.039sec.

Neuville, the winner of Rallye Monte-Carlo last month, fought back from fuel pressure issues and a few set-up gripes to finish fourth, but with the rear of his Hyundai sporting significant cosmetic damage following a heavy Wolf Power Stage landing. While the Belgian’s title lead has been cut from six to three points, his efforts helped Hyundai draw level with Toyota at the top of the FIA World Rally Championship for Manufacturers after two rounds.

Oliver Solberg won WRC2 in Sweden for the second year running in fifth followed by category rivals Sami Pajari, Georg Linnamäe, Roope Korhonen and Mikko Heikkilä. Italy’s Lorenzo Bertelli, making his second WRC start in as many years in a Toyota GR Yaris Rally 1, rounded out the top 10. World champion Kalle Rovanperä claimed five points by setting the pace through the rally-deciding Wolf Power Stage following his Saturday morning restart.

Ott Tänak, who also crashed out on Friday, scored six points via the Super Sunday classification and his Wolf Power Stage result. Early rally leader Takamoto Katsuta’s bid to salvage championship points following his off on Saturday’s first stage suffered a setback when he spun at high-speed nearing the finish of SS17. The Japanese Toyota driver came away with three points.

Rally1 rookie Grégoire Munster achieved his goal of reaching the finish in the second M-Sport Ford World Rally Team Puma following myriad mishaps during what was a learning-first mission by the Luxembourg youngster.

Here’s WRC Rally Sweden results:

[Note: The story is as per press release]