He’s done it nine times already and his pursuit of the perfect 10 began with an undefeated Saturday. Hayden Paddon won all eight stages on the opening day of the Otago Rally.
About 24 hours earlier, the flying Kiwi took a break from signing hundreds of autographs at a stunning ceremonial start in the center of Dunedin to look acutely embarrassed at DirtFish’s predictions of a clean sweep and a bunch of stage records through Saturday.
“You can’t take anything for granted in this sport,” he said.
Sitting on the thick end of a two-minute advantage, there was no change in the humility.
“The others are going really well,” he said. “The guys like Ari [Pettigrew], Ben [Hunt] and Emma [Gilmour], they’re all there and driving really well.”
In reality, as a sporting contest, the 2023 Otago Rally was done and dusted shortly after eight o’clock on Saturday morning.
Paddon’s Hyundai i20 N Rally2 stopped the clocks more than a second per kilometer quicker than anybody else. He headed for SS2 with a 27-second buffer over Pettigrew’s Holden Barina AP4 [pictured above].
“I just love driving,” he said with a big smile on his face. “Days like today, coming here to the best stages in the world and driving a car like the Hyundai – that’s at the core of everything we do.
“The beauty of this sport is that your main competition is yourself, mentally and physically. I know if I’ve driven a good stage and if I can feel good about it. I just love driving cars.”
And tomorrow? What about number 10?
He grinned: “Ahh, you can’t take anything for granted.”
After a day to the north of the city, Sunday takes the Otago Rally south for seven stages, including the legendary Kuri Bush, which closes proceedings.
Paddon sits very much in the boxiest of box seats going into day two, with Pettigrew and Hunt both relatively comfortable in second and third.
Despite only driving the car for around 60 miles before the start, Gilmour has delivered a strong debut day aboard her Citroën C3 R5. She starts tomorrow fourth and 4.7s up on Jack Hawkeswood’s Toyota Yaris. Todd Bawden’s Ford Fiesta R5 rounds out the top six.
There is, of course, so much more to the Otago Rally than being round one of the New Zealand Rally Championship and round three of the FIA’s Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.
There’s the beloved ‘Classic Rally’ class, part of the new Tour European Rally World Series, which attracts some of the world’s finest historic machinery. And some of the world’s best known names. This year’s star signing is Mikko Hirvonen.
The Finn arrived on Saturday, spent a day-and-a-half in Queenstown, getting himself in the zone for his first New Zealand rally outing in 11 years, and then headed east to Dunedin. The likeable 15-time world rally winner hasn’t stopped smiling.
Beating Markko Märtin’s benchmark for the Ridge Road opener broadened that smile, but there were still doubts in the mind of Mikko.
“Because I’m not doing a lot of recces now, I’m not making notes very often,” he said. “My co-driver is doing a fantastic job, he’s calling the notes and telling me it’s flat – but I’m hesitating a little bit. I’m saying: ‘Is it really? Is it really flat?’. Then I come over the crest and it is!
“The second run is better. But honestly, I’m just enjoying this rally and this car so much. It’s fantastic.”
Fellow Ford Escort RS1800 driver and local star Deane Buist headed Hirvonen for much of the morning.
“He’ll pull his finger out soon…” was Buist’s reflection on the morning. And pull his finger out he did. Half a minute separates the MkII pair at the top of the Classic timesheets.