Expectations for a home victory were raised ahead of Secto Automotive Rally Finland following Kalle Rovanperä’s win on EKO Acropolis Rally of Gods. But at the end of leg one on the fast gravel roads through the forests around Jyväskylä Rovanperä wasn’t even the fastest local hero.
That honour fell instead to Esapekka Lappi, driving a privately run RTE-Motorsport Toyota Yaris WRC on his first appearance in a World Rally Car since Rally Monza last December. After six intense stages, Lappi is fourth overnight behind Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team drivers Craig Breen and Ott Tänak, factory Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT ace Elfyn Evans – and one place and 1.2s ahead of Rovanperä.
In the pre-event FIA press conference on Thursday, Lappi said he had to be “realistic” on his expectations for the weekend and that he would “lose a little bit” in leg one. Instead, he came out of the blocks at a sprint, setting the third fastest time on the urban Harju opener and stayed in contention all day, until a stunning performance in the darkness on the closing Oittila test left him an impressive fourth. Only a small error near the finish thwarted him from a stage win, Lappi falling short of Evans by just 1.6s.
“We did what we could in the darkness. A good day overall,” he said with understatement.
In contrast, Rovanperä was disappointed on what turned out to be a less than happy 21st birthday. Fourth behind Evans after the long Sahloinen-Moksi SS3, he said: “The driving is good but I cannot push any harder. I am all over the place all the time and I can’t take any more risks.”
Yet despite admitting he was unhappy with his set-up, Rovanperä rose to third behind the Hyundai pair after outpacing Breen on the return run through Sahloinen-Moksi – only to slip behind the rapid Evans and Lappi in the darkness of Oittila.
“It was difficult,” he said. “I didn’t want to risk everything. I tried to push but the time is not so good.”
In the press conference Lappi had said that he was trying “to be a bit of an older guy now… Mature, that is maybe the correct word. I try to be not stupid, let’s say it like this.” He looked anything but on Friday. Rovanperä will hope for more on Saturday, but in Finnish terms the first day of Secto Automotive Rally Finland belonged to his privateer rival.