Hayden Paddon has achieved many extraordinary things, whether it be his epic Rally Argentina win in 2016, his record-equaling five New Zealand Rally Championship title wins, or his eight victories on the Otago Rally.
But one of his most spectacular, and perhaps lesser-known, feats potentially stands as the best of the lot: when he won the 2015 Otago Rally in a historic Ford Escort Mk2.
There was once a time when the BDA Escort ruled the world, but that was in the 20th century. Regardless of his World Rally Championship experience, for Paddon to show up and beat all the AP4 and R5 cars in a classic machine was, quite simply, extraordinary.
“It’s probably one of the biggest surprise results I’ve had, being honest” Paddon told DirtFish.
“You don’t go to a New Zealand Rally Championship event against top four-wheel-drive AP4 and R5 cars with a dirty old Mk2 Ford Escort and expect to win, so yeah, it was a surprise result.
“It was one of those weekends where everything just worked out in our favor: we had a really good, clean event and there was a little bit of attrition and we were able to capitalize. But the biggest thing I remember from that weekend was just how much fun it was driving a classic BDA Escort sideways everywhere and looking out the side windows. It was just a really enjoyable event.”
2015 was Paddon’s third attempt at Otago competing in the classic section and represented some “unfinished business” as things hadn’t gone quite as he had wanted in either 2012 or 2014.
But taking a completely unprecedented victory wasn’t part of the plan – at least not initially.
“To be honest most of the weekend we were just enjoying it,” he said. “Obviously the goal was to win the classic rally – we were well ahead in that section.
“It was the last service and that’s when we saw we were 30s behind, and it was at that point we thought ‘actually we can give this a decent go.’
“So those last three stages are where we decided ‘OK let’s actually take this’. Not that we weren’t taking it seriously – but let’s actually concentrate now and get good stage times. Let’s be smooth, let’s carry the speed, let’s try and extract the most from this car that we can and see what we can do.”
Up against the Mitsubishi Evo of Phil Campbell, that would be no easy feat. But Paddon had at least identified one potential advantage.
“The one advantage, probably the biggest advantage we had, was the classic rally was running at the back of the field so we had quite swept roads,” he recalled.
“The big thing with the rear-wheel-drive car was if we just tried to keep those rear wheels in the clean line we could try and reduce the disadvantage we had of only having two-wheel-drive, so we just tried to use that clean line to our advantage as best we could.”
The game was on, the target set. Over the next two stages, Paddon had managed to carve over 20s out of his deficit to the leader and headed onto the final stage, the iconic Kuri Bush, with a seven-second deficit.
The then Hyundai Motorsport driver aced it, beating Campbell by over 10s to steal the rally win on the final stage by just 2.6s.
“It was quite close! But to pull it off like that was a pretty special feeling and I think John [Kennard, co-driver] enjoyed it just as much as myself in the car,” Paddon said.
“Unfortunately it probably didn’t help us because it was so successful that after that Hyundai said ‘it’s maybe not a good idea that you were driving a Ford,’ so that ended that I guess! That’s the problem with success.”
This year though Paddon will be back in and his own Hyundai i20 AP4, looking to win by more than two seconds.
“My biggest competitor is myself, and saying that that’s no disrespect to the other competitors. There are a lot of fast drivers in New Zealand and I think this year we’re going to see a big step up with new cars; some of the younger guys are getting more experience, so I’m expecting others to be closer to us.
“But in saying that I don’t focus on that because I can’t control what they do. But I can control what we do and in light of that, I just want to make sure I’m putting in better performances than what I did last year.
“There’s a few stages we’ve got previous records on but even in the off-season we’ve been really focusing on developing the car more, trying to develop myself more with the training and make sure if I can get to the end of that rally and say ‘that felt really good, I did a good job there’ I can sit back and be proud of that.
“I’m not one to sit around and rest on my laurels even though it may seem like from the outside we had a bit of a competitive edge here in New Zealand the last couple of years, it could be very easy for us to sit back and go ‘it’s alright, we’ve got the car and everything to do this’ but I’m not that person.
“In this sport, if you’re standing still you might as well be going backwards, so we’ve been pushing forward over the off-season. I’ll probably say we’ve made the biggest steps forward in this off-season than what we have the last three years, so everything’s feeling pretty good for the year ahead.”
A record-extending ninth Otago win would be quite something, but Paddon will struggle to topple the majesty of his against-the-odds success in 2015.