Hayden Paddon. Brilliant benchmark raising the standard of New Zealand rallying or pot-hunter who needs to move on?
As the 2016 Rally Argentina winner was crafting a 10th Otago Rally success across last weekend, I found myself increasingly aware of the largely unanswered question which hangs over Paddon.
Is he helping or hindering the development of rallying in his homeland?
To precis the situation, Paddon spent his formative years striving for a home title. With that done, he soon set his sights further afield and won a world championship (2011, PWRC) on his way to a full factory seat with Hyundai Motorsport.
Undoubtedly, 2016 was his finest hour. Mid-season, he’d surpassed Thierry Neuville as the Korean marque’s team leader and looked well set for a shot at the title. Sadly for Paddon, that moment of global glory never came. Demoted to a part-program, he was dropped altogether in favour of Sébastien Loeb in 2019. It was an odd decision from Alzenau.
Paddon went home and, with unstinting support from Hyundai New Zealand (a company which operates independently of Seoul), he built his own team into a powerhouse of Antipodean motorsport.
Before moving onto the subject of whether or not he still had a place at New Zealand’s rallying table, it’s worth putting the whole 2019 thing to bed.
“I’m not bitter about it,” he said. “I was. For about a year. But everything happens for a reason. My quality of life is so much better and I’m way happier than I was. Driving a WRC car was a dream, but everything that happened outside of that wasn’t exactly what you would call a dream lifestyle.
“I’ve got no regrets. I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I’m not chasing a Rally1 car anymore. I’ve accepted everything and I’m living my own life from here.”
One man who’s well placed to comment on Paddon’s place in New Zealand is the man who runs the championship.
Blair Bartels is an unstintingly cheerful Kiwi and certainly not somebody who’s going to shy away from a question that needs asking and answering.
“All the other guys wish he would bugger off,” Bartels told DirtFish with a wry smile.
“Look, it really is a case of fighting for the chance to be best of the rest.”
Winning Otago by four and a half minutes does little to dispel such consideration.
Bartels isn’t finished yet.
“But by the same token,” he added, “he has also brought the level up and up. To be honest, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t; in 2019 he didn’t enter the championship and everybody was giving him s*** for that.
“For me, he’s so positive for the championship. You might have noticed, we spend a lot of time talking about rugby in this country and not so much talking about rallying. It’s a niche sport and one that needs the profile somebody like Hayden brings.
“As well as that, he does so much behind the scenes – I’ve worked with him on a couple of committees and he’s definitely putting a lot back into the sport. There’s so much he does and then intentionally removes himself from the public side, he’s not doing it for the limelight. He’s doing it because it’s his business, but more so because he genuinely loves the sport and has a passion for it.”
Few folk would have benefitted more from Paddon’s absence than Ari Pettigrew, the driver who finished second to Paddon in Otago.
Admittedly, the Holden driver’s answer is slightly skewed by the fact that he works for Paddon – but his response is unequivocal.
“It’s awesome to have him here with us,” he said.
“When you look at the amount the pace has increased in rallying, it’s obvious. Every year the stage records are getting broken by him, but then look at the stage records from a couple of years ago and we’re beating them now ourselves. There’s definite progression and not only that, he’s so approachable and so willing to help everybody.”
Having been to the very top of world rallying, Paddon’s got nothing to prove now he’s settled at the bottom of planet earth.
But what does he say? Would a young aspiring HP tell his current self to bugger off?
“If I was one of the younger drivers, I wouldn’t be frustrated with me being there,” he said. “It was a very similar thing to when we were coming through the championship and we had Richard Mason as the one to beat.
“In our first year [in the sport], Mason was minutes ahead of us all the time. Every time I came home I wouldn’t take that as a bad thing, I would just get my head down and think about what I could do to get closer to beating him. I’d do my homework, work on the car, the pacenotes and gradually, piece by piece, I would get closer.
“If Richard wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have kept on pushing and when we did get to go to Europe, we would have been at a whole lower level.
“It’s the same now – hopefully we can give people a target and something to work towards.”
His time on his home roads is entirely altruistic. Putting it bluntly, if Paddon wasn’t competing at home, he wouldn’t be competing at all.
He explained: “All funding for our rallying comes from partners and, for them, there’s really no interest in me competing on the other side of the world. If I wanted to rally purely in Europe, I would have to stop and retire.
“Look, I love what I do. I love driving the best cars in the world. Sometimes the tall poppy side of things can be a bit tough – I know there are people saying we shouldn’t be here, but you don’t have to let that get to you.”
I love that. And I’m all for that attitude. You know who you are: quit snivelling and get off the brakes.
Now, there’s good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad. Paddon’s pace is still on the up. He’s still pushing to get quicker.
“I like winning,” he said, “but when we’re winning, that’s still not enough for me. I don’t think I’ve ever come home from a rally in New Zealand, not even when we’ve won by two, three or four minutes, and been completely satisfied.
“It’s a never ending process to keep improving.
“Last weekend in Otago, I wasn’t quite driving at 100%. I’ve driven an AP4 [car] on those roads for so long, you know where to brake and everything – then driving the i20 N Rally2 was a new car and a new experience.
“Yes, we still beat some records, but only just!
“Definitely want more, my expectations are always pretty high and there’s more on the table.”
And the good news? Looks like Paddon’s ERC program will mean he misses a New Zealand round this year.
Pettigrew smiles: “We’re shooting for second when Hayden’s there, so if he misses a round, it’s going to be a massive fight. It’ll be all on between the rest of us.”
When he’s away, Pettigrew will have Paddon’s full backing.
“I’m a bit biased,” said Paddon, “but that’s why we’re working with him. Ari’s a good lad. He’s clever. He knows what he’s doing mechanically, he understands cars and he drives pretty well too.
“There’s an awful lot of young drivers coming out in two-wheel drive cars. There’s lots of youth involved, it’s going to be interesting to see who does what in the next couple of years.”