Hayden Paddon on a big WRC learning curve
Geraldine lad Hayden Paddon, living the dream of competing as a professional in the World Rally Championship, was back in New Zealand this week for a short break. He talked to Rob Maetzig about the year so far.
The World Rally Championship is big deal.
Regarded as the most challenging motorsport competition in the world, it is a big-money, multi-country series that is said to have the largest international television audience of any sport - hundreds of millions of viewers watching the action on hundreds of TV channels.
And this year, Hayden Paddon is a part of it. He's the 27-year-old whiz-kid from Geraldine who for 2014 scored a works drive with newly-formed Hyundai Motorsport to compete in the WRC with his long-time co-driver, John Kennard, of Blenheim.
He's driving the team's third i20 WRC hatch, which has been entered as Hyundai Motorsport N with the potential to earn points both in the manufacturers' and drivers' championships.
The two other i20s, one piloted by Belgian Thierry Neuville and the other shared by Spain's Dani Sordo, Finn Juho Hanninen and Australian Chris Atkinson, are competing in the WRC season's full programme of 13 rallies. Meanwhile, Paddon's contract is seeing him compete in seven rallies - so far two have been contested in Italy and Poland, and next on the schedule are Finland and Australia.
It's Boy's Own stuff for a young man who's only ever wanted to race cars - he competed in his first rally in 2002 at the age of 15.
But Paddon is also a prodigious talent who has rapidly moved up the ranks of international rallying. For example, in 2006, when he competed in the New Zealand Rally Championship for the first time, he took out both the Junior and Rookie titles. The following year he came within a point of winning the championship outright, and in 2008 he did become New Zealand champion.
Not only did he retain the New Zealand title in 2009, but he also performed so well in Asia-Pacific rally events that he was awarded various scholarships that funded his participation in the 2010 Production World Rally Championship - the companion series to the full WRC that is limited to production-based cars. The following year Paddon became the first person from the southern hemisphere to win that championship as well, thanks largely to consecutive rally wins at Portugal, Argentina, Finland and Australia.
In 2012 Paddon moved to another companion competition, Super 2000 WRC, which last year became known as WRC-2, and he performed well in that too - well enough for the full WRC rally teams to begin to take notice of his talents and to consider inviting him to compete.
Late last year that invitation came from South Korea's Hyundai, which had earlier announced its intention to compete in the 2014 World Rally Championship after a hiatus of 10 years. It had set up Hyundai Motorsport, which had established engineering and design teams at Alzenau near Frankfurt in Germany, where it was developing a 200 kW rally version of its i20 hatch.
The original plan was for the team to contest a pair of the cars, but then it decided that in an effort to support potential rally champions of the future it would have one more car at selected WRC events under the name Hyundai Motorsport N - and Paddon was invited to drive it.
Hyundai Motorsport boss Michel Nanden said: "Hayden is a very promising young driver with huge potential, and we are pleased to offer him the chance to compete. I will be excited to see him grow alongside the team as our debut season continues."
Padden's first full WRC event was the Rally Italia Sardegna on the island of Sardinia, where he finished 12th overall after being troubled by an engine misfire. But they went away feeling buoyed by a very good performance on the final day when Paddon managed a top-five result on one of the special stages.
Next up was Poland, and a much-improved drive saw Padden finish in eighth place. Other competitors took real notice when the Kiwi actually led the timing splits on one special stage, only to be beaten into second by just 1.7 seconds - an excellent performance from a driver and co-driver who were obviously quickly coming to terms with their car.
Paddon has been in New Zealand for the past few days, relaxing before returning to Germany to prepare for the next WRC event in Finland. He says it's a dream job to be part of a factory team competing at the elite level of world rallying.
"And it's been a real eye-opener," he said. "We've gone from a family rally team with a crew of eight running one car, to a Hyundai Motorsport team which has a crew of 156 running three cars.
"Everything is just so much bigger. And so much faster, too. With these cars you are carrying a lot more speed. The Hyundai is a very good car to drive - but I'm finding that while they might be easy to drive at 95 per cent, you need to be a lot braver to drive them at 100 per cent."
As his season has progressed, Paddon has found that he needs to improve his driving through the tighter and twistier sections of each special stage.
"Everything we do is recorded, so there is a lot of data analysis, and I've found that I've been over-driving the car in the tighter sections. I need to drive through the corners better so my exit speeds can improve."
But Paddon is pleased with his form on the more wide-open sections, and for this reason he's looking forward to his next two rallies in familiar territory - Finland and Australia.
"I expect to raise the bar a little at each of those events," he says.
"At the moment the i20s aren't as fast as the likes of the Volkswagen Polo, but as the season progresses they are getting better all the time. Even now, when the special stages suit our cars they are almost as fast as the others."
Right now Paddon's immediate focus is on improving his performances to help ensure he gets another works drive next year.
"That's the big aim. I know that at this stage the Hyundai team is happy with progress so far, and I also know that they are giving me plenty of opportunity to get better. I'm a competitive guy and I don't want to keep finishing seventh or eighth - I want to improve so I can win."