Hayden Paddon has become the first ever driver from outside of Europe to win the European Rally Championship – but did so from the sidelines on Barum Czech Rally Zlín.
The Kiwi, who takes the crown with a round to spare, came into the event guaranteed of title success if he finished in the top five. Closest rival Mārtiņš Sesks had his work cut out to significantly reduce Paddon’s points advantage.
Paddon was ninth and Sesks was 13th on Friday’s rally-opening superspecial, after which both were fairly anonymous through Saturday’s two loops. The points leader was taking the safe approach, while Sesks was struggling on Zlín’s abrasive asphalt.
There were five different leaders in the first five stages, after which Zlín master Jan Kopecký established himself up front, using his Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 to win the Czech ERC round for a record-extending 11th time (in a Czech car too). The local hero also took his stage win count on the event to more than 100.
Kopecký came into Sunday’s final day with a lead reduced to 14.9 seconds over Miklós Csomós (Škoda), with Simon Wagner (Škoda) in third place, Paddon (Hyundai i20 N Rally2) in fifth and Sesks all the way down in 13th (Škoda).
Mads Østberg rejoined the action after suffering a snapped driveshaft aboard his Citroën on Saturday.
It was already 71.6°F when Sunday’s first stage started at 8.23am in the morning, and Kopecký was reluctant to take risks as he conceded 3.2s to Csomós and five seconds to stage winner Erik Cais, whose Saturday drama in his Škoda had already put him out of podium contention.
Paddon admitted he was surprised to go fifth fastest after a hesitant run, but his grip on the title strengthened as he moved up to fourth at the expense of Adam Březík, who lost 10.1s after his Škoda hit a hay bale and he had to reverse back on to the stage.
Kopecký won two stages and only had his lead in the ERC classification cut by 0.6s over the course of the day, Sesks went looking for improved confidence but instead missed a junction on the day’s third stage then struggled with an increasingly slippery second pass of the famous Pindula stage in the afternoon.
Paddon, despite his caution-led approach to every stage, crashed. He ripped off a wheel and ended his rally. Now came the nail-biting wait. It was the longest of long shots that Sesks was going to be able to do enough and 12th place for the Latvian confirmed the New Zealander’s title.
“Sure, it wasn’t quite how we planned to secure the title,” said Paddon. “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.”
Csomós was a superb second, 14.3 down on the event’s most successful driver, but comfortably ahead of Wagner.
The Austrian edged Březík for fourth after the latter ran wide in a junction, missing out by 2.9s. The gap to Fillip Mareš was even closer – just eight-tenths of a second split the race for sixth.
German driver Timo Schulz took a big ERC Junior win in 18th place. Series rival Max McRae was running second until he slipped into a ditch on the penultimate test.