Hayden Paddon finished fourth overall on Rally di Alba, his first European rally in almost three years, as fellow World Rally Championship driver Nikolay Gryazin won.
Aside from a cameo for M-Sport in WRC2 on Rally GB in 2019, Paddon has rallied exclusively in New Zealand since losing his WRC drive with Hyundai at the end of the 2018 season.
But ahead of a WRC2 return this year – a partial campaign that begins with next month’s Rally Estonia – Paddon headed for Rally di Alba in an older generation Hyundai i20 R5 prepped by Eurospeed to get back into the groove of European rallying.
Running as high as third after four of the event’s nine stages, Paddon – contesting his first all-asphalt rally since Rally Germany 2017 – admitted the rally had gone “much better than expected” with two second-fastest times as he recorded a fourth place finish, 23.9 seconds off the top spot.
Gryazin, who won Rally Italy earlier this month in WRC2, was equal quickest with Fabio Andolfi on the opening street stage on Friday afternoon and trailed the similar Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo after Saturday’s opening test, but a stage win on SS3 allowed Gryazin to hit the front and not look back.
Andolfi slipped into a battle for second with Andrea Crugnola’s Citroën but lost out, trailing Crugnola by four seconds and rally winner Gryazin by another 11.9s at the finish.
Ex-Citroën WRC driver Stéphane Lefebvre brought his C3 Rally2 home fifth, 13.1s behind Paddon, while 11-time Italian national champion Paulo Andreucci finished sixth, 3.8s clear of Giandomenico Basso.
Current European Rally Championship leader Efrén Llarena finished 10th on a one-off rally behind the wheel of a Citroën instead of his usual Škoda.
Llarena will race against Paddon once more next weekend when the ERC resumes on Rally Liepāja.