New Zealand’s most successful rally driver Hayden Paddon has ably demonstrated his star potential having secured a history-making, career-best second place at this weekend’s Rally Italy Sardinia.
Paddon and co-driver John Kennard marked their first anniversary with Hyundai Motorsport by creating a double podium finish with Belgium team-mates Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul for the World Rally Championship’s newest manufacturer.
Paddon and Kennard led the rally from the start of Friday’s action – the first New Zealanders to lead an overseas WRC event – and only relinquished that lead on Saturday afternoon’s loop after leading the rally outright for 15 stages. They delivered Sunday’s results exactly to plan, securing their fourth stage win of this rally and safely getting to the finish despite some niggles with their Hyundai i20 WRC car.
Paddon described his first-ever WRC podium finish – the best result by a New Zealander in an overseas WRC rally – as a dream result. Paddon said: “To finish on the podium is an absolutely amazing feeling. Words can’t really do justice to how I’m feeling right now.
“We had a strong weekend from the start but we just tried to take each stage as it came without looking too much at the timesheets. We knew it would get tougher once we lost the start position advantage so the fact we could hold our own against the World Champion was just fantastic.”
“We had our issues on Saturday afternoon, and thought that was the rally over, but thankfully we pushed on through, kept digging deep and made it through the Sunday in a comfortable second. Considering our buffer to Thierry in third, we took today very easily, not taking any risks and we have a debut podium as a reward.
“It’s been great to have such support from back home and I’m sorry they’ve had some late nights. I hope it’s been as worthwhile for them as it has been for us. We couldn’t have done this without the team, so my thanks to everyone at Hyundai Motorsport, too. Let’s hope this is the start of more results to come.”
This weekend Paddon’s Hyundai i20 WRC car was fitted with the paddle-shift gearbox system for the first time.
“Surprisingly, that’s [the paddle-shift] made a very big difference, but we didn't have much testing before the event,” Paddon said. “The first time I used the paddle was at shakedown and a couple of times in the super special on Thursday night I went for the lever. The paddle helps to use the engine a bit more. Looking at the data, I’d been a gear higher than Thierry [Neuville] and Dani [Sordo] and now I’m a gear down in some places. In a lot of corners with the paddles, I’m using the gears more and really feeling the torque – that’s where the improvement is coming.
“But you know, I never thought, to be honest, about the result, it was just one stage at a time. We wanted to go out and do our own thing. I don't think we would have kept Seb behind in a straight fight, I think he had something in the tank, but I was a bit surprised when we were still there [in the rally lead] on Saturday lunchtime.”
For Paddon’s co-driver John Kennard, this was the second time he’d stepped onto a WRC podium, the previous occasion being 27 years ago when he co-drove for the late Malcolm Stewart in an Audi Quattro coupe to secure third place in the 1988 running of Rally New Zealand, a round of the WRC drivers’ championship that year.
When asked about the pressure of leading the rally for 15 stages, Blenheim-based Kennard said: “Like Hayden said, a few years ago we went back to the mentality of doing our own thing. We do the best we can do, and if that’s right or wrong, we can do something about it. We did our thing and it happened to turn out quite well.”
Paddon and Kennard’s result surprised rally organisers who weren’t expecting to need a New Zealand flag for the podium presentation. A quick ask-around the assembled fans saw a New Zealand rally fan lend their flag to ensure the star Kiwis were properly represented on the surrounding flag poles.
Speaking at the post-event media conference, double world rally champion Sebastien Ogier, who took the rally victory, said: “The two guys on my right [Paddon and Kennard] did a great job. It was kind of a surprise for them to be fighting for so long at the front, but not completely a surprise for me. I knew he had good potential when I saw him competing and I drove against him in 2012 when we were both in a Skoda. I remember some good times from him. I take the chance to say really well done for him.”
Team Principal Michel Nandan said: “What a weekend! We have experienced the full range of highs and lows but we leave Rally Italia Sardegna with a truly amazing double podium. Hayden has performed exceptionally this weekend and he has shown why he is a real star of the future in World Rally. He acquitted himself professionally and calmly - even in the face of issues - and he thoroughly deserves second place. It is particularly fitting on his one-year anniversary as a Hyundai Motorsport WRC driver.
“The team performed admirably and worked so hard to ensure we got all cars to Sunday’s final stages. It’s this work ethic that makes these results even more special.”
The next event for Paddon and Kennard is Rally Poland running from 2 to 5 July. After this Paddon returns briefly to New Zealand to make a special guest appearance for Auckland motor vehicle dealership Winger Hyundai at New Zealand’s largest automotive and motorsport show, the CRC Speedshow, at the ASB Showgrounds on 18 and 19 July.