Paddon’s revised plan for ERC glory

Reigning champion heads to Estonia this weekend as joint leader in points but with only one podium to his name


The conclusion of this weekend’s Rally Estonia marks the halfway point of the European Rally Championship season – a season defending champion Hayden Paddon had hoped to grab hold of and dominate.

“I’d love to go back and dominate the rallies – try and win as many of the rallies as we can, not worrying about championship like we did this year,” he told DirtFish just after becoming the first non-European to claim the title.

“Just go all-out.”

But after three rounds, Paddon is yet to win an event and has only scored one podium finish last time out at Sweden’s Royal Rally of Scandinavia.

“It could be worse, so there’s always a silver lining,” Paddon admits today. “At the end of the day when you’re joint-tied for the championship lead it can’t be that bad.

Hayden Paddon
The mindset's probably changed a little bit from what we wanted to set out and do this year Hayden Paddon

“But the reality is we do know we’ve got our back up against the wall a little bit this year in terms of trying to repeat what we did – everyone else is catching up, whether it be the cars, and obviously others are driving very well as well.

“We can’t afford to be giving away points and that’s effectively what we’ve done in the first few rounds, we’ve just given away points to others which have been in our control in some sense and that’s the part that frustrates me.

“This year more than ever, we can’t afford to be doing that and we’ve probably let ourselves down a little bit in that respect. So we need to do a better job.”

That’s a typically brutal self-assessment from Paddon, but it’s certainly true that his 2024 season has been littered with ‘what ifs’ so far.

On the new opening round in Hungary, Paddon had just climbed up to second before a powerstage puncture dropped him off the podium to fourth – and of course denied him the chance to collect any bonus points.


Hungary had being going well - until powerstage puncture consigned him to fourth

Rally Islas Canarias yielded just a sixth place finish – but that performance was far better than it looked as the Hyundai pilot finished just four seconds further back from winner Yohan Bonato than he did in 2023, yet in 2023 that was good enough for second position.

Sweden though was Paddon’s best event yet as he initially led home hero Oliver Solberg before looking like a dead cert for second when Solberg got more comfortable in his Škoda on day two. But, again, a final stage puncture cost Paddon powerstage points and dropped him down the leaderboard, although a crash for title rival Mathieu Franceschi enabled him to collect his first podium of the year in third.

Before dropped scores are considered, Paddon is currently tied with Franceschi at the head of the table on 56 points. But what makes an ERC title fight more complicated is the consistent presence of interlopers doing events as either one-offs or part of a limited program.

Two of this year’s three event winners so far have been drivers in such positions, but Paddon has learned to block them out with his priority now firmly on a second successive championship rather than domineering rally wins.


Mathieu Franceschi has become Paddon's chief title rival - the pair are tied on points heading into Estonia

“I’d say the mindset’s probably changed a little bit from what we wanted to set out and do this year,” he says.

“Initially at the start of the season, after winning the championship last year we said we wanted to come out and win rallies and try and dominate. The reality is we probably don’t quite have the tools in the toolbox to do that, so I guess the mindset has moved towards ‘how can we try and win this championship again?’

“To do that you do almost have to block out the fast locals that come in. Obviously, naturally, you want to win rallies but also we want to give ourselves a chance of winning the championship so basically the focus really has to be on making sure we score more points than Mathieu Franceschi.

“Again, this weekend, for sure we saw in Poland last week Robert Virves is very fast, Georg Linnamäe, obviously Mārtiņš Sesks is going to be fast, you’ve got the Finnish guys, you’ve got a few other locals so there’s going to be a lot of fast guys here again.

“Scoring the most points against our main rivals is the focus.”


Paddon's last Estonia outing was blighted by illness

So what are Paddon’s chances this week on an event he has contested twice before?

“I don’t really remember 2022 because that was a decent bout of COVID, it was a bit fuzzy back then!” he laughs. “But in 2018 I actually really enjoyed the rally.

“It’s a high commitment rally so you find the young guys who go crazy can be quite fast here, but the surface I really enjoy. It’s a softer type of surface where you can get a lot of grip out of the road so in that respect I quite enjoy it.

“I enjoy the fast stuff but we can see now all the young guys go very well on the fast stuff as well, so I’m expecting it to be super-competitive again this weekend.”



Third on Royal Rally of Scandinavia is Paddon's only ERC podium of the season to date

Is it now a case of podium results are the minimum requirement?

“I’d like to be winning rallies, to be honest – it’s been a while since we won a rally!” Paddon replies.

“Luckily we’re winning plenty of rallies in New Zealand, that sort of whets the appetite somewhat, but of course I’d like to be winning some more here in Europe. We can only do what we can do.

“Between us and our team we’re definitely giving it 110% every event we go to in terms of our prep and development. The job John [Kennard] and I are doing, we’re all doing the best job we can so that’s all we can do at the end of the day.”

Rally Estonia kicks off today [Friday] with the Tartu vald superspecial before 13 further stages and 116 competitive miles of action.

Georg Linnamäe topped qualifying in his Toyota, while Paddon was 14th – one spot behind Franceschi.