Paddon and Kennard make history with dramatic FIA European Rally Championship win
Kiwi rally star Hayden Paddon and co-driver John Kennard have again put their names in world motorsport history books, becoming the first non-Europeans and first New Zealanders to win the FIA European Rally Championship (ERC) title.
The New Zealanders secured the 2023 ERC title at the championship’s seventh round in the Czech Republic, Barum Czech Rally Zlin on 19 and 20 August, but not without drama after Sunday morning incident in their Hyundai i20 Rally 2 car run by BRC Racing.
Despite collecting a tree on the ninth stage and having to retire from the event, Paddon was able to win the title with one round to go thanks to the 55-point championship lead he had over second-placed Martin Sesks, from Latvia, going into this rally. ERC regulations state that competitors must drop their worst result for the final calculation of championship points. Paddon’s retirement from this rally made it the result to drop and put the onus on Sesks to earn at least 20 points in Czechia to stay in with a chance for the title at October’s final ERC round in Hungary. In the end, Sesks’ final position of 12th was not enough to change Paddon’s opportunity to add the European Rally Championship title to his achievements as New Zealand’s most successful rally driver.
From the outset, Paddon and Kennard drove conservatively, knowing they had to manage any risk to their championship lead while competing in this fast, twisty, and bumpy tarmac rally for the first time.
Paddon says the rally was always going to be tough, being his first time on the roads around host city Zlin and up against highly experienced locals like Jan Kopecky who won the rally by 23.4 seconds for the 11th time.
With the rally getting underway on Friday evening in the centre of Zlin, the Kiwis came through Saturday morning’s three stages in eighth place overall. Some setup changes at the lunchtime service helped stabilise the car and allowed them to continue with their no-risk pace on the unforgiving roads. Paddon was happy to improve to fifth overall after Saturday’s afternoon stages and just 42.8 seconds off rally leader Kopecky.
A strong run in Sunday’s opener moved them up to fourth overall but contact with a tree ripped a wheel off the Hyundai and forcing Paddon’s retirement from the rally.
“This rally can’t be underestimated and while, in the end, it didn’t go quite as we’d have liked, we’ve learned a lot and if we can come back next year, we’d be in a much stronger position than we were when we started here this year,” says Paddon.
“Sure, it wasn’t quite how we planned to secure the title, but in terms of championship wins this is our biggest achievement so far. It’s a season’s worth of work, not just one rally, here in Europe and back at home with both team and for John and me.
“We’re proud to bring this one home and it’s the result of six really good ERC rallies in a row. That put us in a good position to have a bad round, so all in all, looking at the season as a whole, we can be proud of the results.”
Paddon pays credit to BRC Racing, saying they’ve worked non-stop on the car’s development this season. “They’ve been incredible to work with. Thanks also to John who’s made a big commitment to be part of this and our sponsors and fans back home. It’s an awesome result for everyone involved and hopefully it’s something we can build on in the future.”
Now in their 18th year of competition together, co-driver John Kennard ranks their ERC title right up there among the achievements gained alongside Paddon although, for him, nothing will top their victory at WRC Argentina in 2016.
“There are an enormous number of people to thank for their contributions to this victory,” says Kennard, from Blenheim. “Not only the team at BRC Racing but everyone in the background helping make this happen, our sponsors and supporters around the world, and especially the Kiwis who’ve travelled to watch us this weekend.
“This rally is a special rally even in Czech. It’s extremely challenging for everybody. The roads are bumpy, narrow, sometimes with gravel across the tarmac surface and sometimes muddy from damp conditions – it’s completely different to anything else we do.
“It’s fantastic to have our supporters here this weekend and the car’s been fantastic too. We’ve been working with BRC Racing on the car all season and you can see the improvements from the time’s Hayden has been putting up.”
Paddon now returns to New Zealand for a busy two months including the fourth round of the New Zealand Rally Championship in the Manawatu, the Ashley Forest Rallysprint and the Waimate Horsepower Hillclimb.
Paddon and Hyundai New Zealand Rally appreciate the support of Hyundai New Zealand, Mitre 10 Trade, Z Energy, Makita, Open Country, Bars Bugs, Pirelli, OMP/Racer Products, Winmax Brake Pads, South Canterbury Road Safety, Ben Nevis Station, Bailey Caravans, Repco NZ, Highlands Motorsport Park, MITO, ETCO, Jacanna Freight, Pak N’ Save, Machinery House, Bartercard, Mike Greer Homes, Provident Insurance, Zealandia Systems, Carters Tyres and Signbiz.
Keep up with news on Hayden Paddon and the Hyundai New Zealand Rally team via the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/paddonrallysport.
Paddon’s 2023 ERC event calendar
11-12 March – Rally Serras de Fafe, Portugal (gravel) – first place
5-6 May – Rally Islas Canarias (tarmac) – second place
20-21 May – Rally Poland (gravel) – second place
17-18 June – Rally Liepāja, Latvia (gravel) – second place
7-9 July – Royal Rally of Scandinavia, Sweden (gravel) – second place
29-30 July – Rally di Roma Capitale, Italy (tarmac) – third place
19-20 August – Barum Czech Rally Zlin, Czech Republic (tarmac)
7-8 October – IV. Rally Hungary, Hungary (tarmac)