Novice Esapekka Lappi, driving for only the fourth time at the FIA World Rally Championship’s top level, won Neste Rally Finland by just 36 seconds.
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 Sebastien Ogier from the championship lead. They are level on points, but the Belgian leads on a tie-break after Ogier crashed out.
Lappi fought with experienced team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala for most of the four-day encounter. Latvala retired from the lead on Saturday afternoon when his car’s electronic control unit failed.
Carrying a 49.1 second 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 Hanninen.
The trio swapped places in every test before Evans overhauled Hanninen in the final kilometres to secure the runners-up spot by 0.3 seconds. Third gave Hanninen his first WRC podium and brought further delight to Toyota.
Two-time World Rally Champion and seven-time Rally Finland winner Marcus Gronholm commented “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.”
“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. If the car is not completely right, you don’t have the confidence to commit totally.”
The series now returns to asphalt for the first time since April at ADAC Rallye Deutschland (17-20 August).