Sniffing a shot at his first ever Rally Argentina win, Sébastien Ogier woke up on Sunday 24 April 2016 with just one thing on his mind. His Volkswagen Polo R WRC was 29.8 seconds adrift of the lead with 34.34 miles and three stages of rallying left. The win was dangling there, waiting to be snatched.
Hayden Paddon’s Hyundai i20 WRC was the target. Paddon had led rallies before, but never into Sunday – this close to the final time control. Could he hold his nerve? Or would the Ogier express steamroll yet another helpless rival?
The first pass of El Condor reduced Paddon’s gap to 22.4s; a blow, but a similar deficit on the final two stages would be just about enough.
But then the times came in from Mina Clavero. Ogier had ripped Paddon’s lead to shreds, beating him by a whopping 19.8s in 14 miles. It set up a thrilling powerstage shootout that had all the hallmarks of an Ogier walkover.
In the regroup before the stage, Paddon lay under his car, got his phone out and studied. Studied hard. He wasn’t prepared to wilt and just accept Ogier’s advances. And he didn’t.
Emerging from the final test 11.7s quicker than Ogier, Paddon leapt out of his Hyundai to take his first WRC win. “I gave that stage absolutely everything!” he exclaimed, shocking the rallying world after beating Ogier at his own game. He had well and truly arrived at rallying’s top table.
Fast forward four years and four months and things are a little different. Ogier has claimed three more world titles, driven for three other teams and won 14 more rallies. Paddon? He notched up five more podiums but took no more victories and finds himself at home without a seat in the WRC.
But that steely determination? That’s still there. In the last 12 months, New Zealand’s finest has been kicked down thrice, but just like before El Condor back in 2016, he refuses to go down without a fight.
“I never wanted to be the person that’s won one rally and I know we could’ve won more,” he tells DirtFish.
“I think off the top of my head we had three other opportunities to win a rally that we threw away, so it’s frustrating not to have more. At the end of the day, to win a rally in that fashion against the world champion in a final stage battle with it being even-stevens, I can always be proud of that.
“[But] there’s still a part of me that wants more.”
Paddon was immediately back down to earth after his breakthrough victory, crashing out of both the Portuguese and Sardinian rounds of the championship that followed. This, at a time when Thierry Neuville was rediscovering the form he had lost in the back end of 2015, reversed a shift that had been occurring where Paddon had looked to be Hyundai’s main man.
The introduction of new regulations in 2017 didn’t bring good fortunes for Paddon either. A freak accident where a spectator lost their life “affected me for a few months” but he was back on form when the WRC began its European gravel phase.
He recalls: “By the time we got to Portugal and Sardinia we had some technical faults and a couple of driving errors as well, but we were leading both these rallies and then things started coming back together.
“But from then on in, it was hard, especially once our contract was cut back, we were just in one of those unfortunate years for so many reasons and we’ve never really been given a proper, real chance after that to build back up. Obviously just a lot of things [have happened] outside our control.”
That was no more evident than his Finland testing crash 12 months ago – the first of Paddon’s three thwarted comeback attempts. He was dropped from Hyundai’s roster despite finishing in the top five in all but two of the seven rallies in his part-time 2018 program and had found the funding for a Rally Finland and Australia entry in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC last year. But a testing accident in the car he’d drive on the rally quite literally wrecked his chances of competing.
Paddon explains: “It was just a complete freak accident. You look back at it now and just the fact that there’s nothing I would have done differently.
“We saw even with Thierry this year in testing in Finland, [it was the] same sort of scenario with a rock. In Finland the margins are so small, the roads are fast because they’re generally smooth, you’re running the cars quite low so therefore your room for margin with loose rocks on the road and all sorts of things is a lot smaller, and at the end of the day we’re not at that level to drive slow and it’s the same at testing.”
Rally Australia was then canceled due to the devastating bushfires and Paddon had even plotted a four-round campaign this year – Portugal, Sardinia, Finland and crucially New Zealand – in a Hyundai i20 WRC, but coronavirus had other plans for him.
Despite all of this, Paddon still isn’t turning his back on the WRC. But he’s not prepared to come back at any cost and keep putting “money down an empty hole” to secure it.
“I’d love to be back. I love driving, I still feel like I’m definitely not getting slower,” he says.
“[But] corporate businesses are probably going to scale back in investing going forward and that’s what we’ve been relying on so I think it would be, at this stage, unrealistic to think financially we could put something together.”
Paddon isn’t the only one with a tale of WRC rejection to tell though.
The man who ultimately reduced Paddon’s Hyundai program, Andreas Mikkelsen, is another victim of the WRC’s revolving door, but for him his demotion last year was his second knockback.
Mikkelsen was left high and dry at the start of 2017 despite a stunning win in Australia that closed out the previous year. Volkswagen left the WRC at short notice, but it was his team-mates Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala that secured the lingering seats at M-Sport and Toyota respectively.
He then failed to gel with the i20 Coupe WRC, particularly on asphalt, and found himself unemployed at the beginning of 2020. Mikkelsen has since secured a testing role with Pirelli, but he too wants more.
“It has been two frustrating years, struggling to get the results and the feeling in the car which you need now to be fighting at the very, very front,” Mikkelsen tells DirtFish.
“It’s not the first time I have to fight my way back so I will be patient, I will work hard and even though the last two years have been tough results-wise not winning any rallies, OK we’ve had some podiums, but it’s still not where I want to be.
“It’s just to keep that belief that I haven’t forgotten how to drive a rally car, I still know how to do it, I just need proper tools in my hands that work for my driving style and I’m 100% confident that we will be up there again.”
Mikkelsen is working hard to ensure he is in the best physical and mental shape to break back into the WRC. Driving the Citroën C3 WRC for Pirelli is a good start, and he’s even been racing Porsches lately to further build his time behind the wheel.
He has to do everything he can to convince the service park that he is the best bet for any potential vacancy. And that doesn’t just mean being a better option than other ousted stars like Paddon but beating the stars of WRC2 and WRC3 too.
“I’m 31, I’m starting to go on that second part of my career, but you know the tons of experience that I have,” he says.
“Remember that I’ve been with Volkswagen in the WRC, I drove for Citroën, I drove for Hyundai, I know how a world class winning car should feel like, while a WRC2/3 driver, it will be their first time in a WRC car and they have no idea how it really should feel.
“So that experience is worth its weight in gold I think and as well, I’ve proved before that I have the top speed. I just hope there will be some seats available.
“If not, it will be difficult for everyone, also for the youngsters to come in because if a manufacturer comes in, they want results straight away, then it will be hard for them to take some youngsters because this will take time.
“If they want results straight away, they need to take experienced drivers who can also develop a car quickly [and] know which directions to go and also have the speed to deliver.”
Mads Østberg is another that fits into this category, despite competing and currently leading the WRC2 standings for Citroën. Like Paddon and Mikkelsen, Østberg was shuffled out of the WRC, in his case at the start of 2019, when Citroën chose an Ogier and Esapekka Lappi line-up.
“Of course I want to be in a WRC car but the situation has been quite difficult for many drivers over the last few years, especially with Citroën pulling out, which was quite a big disappointment for me as well considering the plan was to go back to do some WRC rallies in 2020,” Østberg tells DirtFish.
However, finding refuge in developing the C3 R5 is giving the 2012 Rally Portugal winner a “big benefit” compared to some others. He is regularly competing in the WRC and even outside of it too, recently finishing second on Rally Liepaja in the European Rally Championship..
“I’m glad that they made the effort to give me a program in the Citroën car,” he says.
“I was happy to stay in the game and have a nice program and be involved in the development with the R5 car which is a good way to stay fit and stay competitive and actually do all the rallies. I think that’s important.
“Once you stay home for some time without driving, you quickly fall out of the system [so] I think that’s a big benefit for me to be able to still compete, driving a lot of kilometers, being involved in the development of the car. It’s a really strong point for the future.”
We can’t fully address the future without acknowledging the past though. The WRC’s most experienced campaigner Jari-Matti Latvala is the fourth big star sitting on the sidelines this year.
He may have been given more time than the aforementioned trio, with 2020 the first season since 2007 he’s not been a WRC full-timer, but the 18-time rally winner feels he has unfinished business in a World Rally Car.
Latvala tells DirtFish: “I must say now that at the end of last year it was very difficult to accept the situation but now when I look back, I must say I’ve had a fantastic career, and I must be very happy with what I’ve achieved.
“I guess now having a little break is also good for myself after being driving for a long time. You start to get a little bit tired and especially when I have been dreaming to achieve the title and I couldn’t achieve it, then you get a bit tired and then you need, let’s say, a little break because you have time to reset myself and get the energy back.
“I have now built a company for myself and I’m working with the historic cars, so I’m still working with the cars and the rallying and that’s why I built this company. I have things to do, I basically have a back-up plan.”
But don’t mistake any back-up plan for a reassessment of Latvala’s priorities. He’s prepared to give the WRC “110%” of his focus and is working on securing guest appearances in 2021 ahead of a hoped full-time comeback in 2022 when the new hybrid regulations are introduced.
That’s the key for these four, who share an impressive 529 WRC starts and 23 wins between them. The economic fallout from COVID-19 is still a question mark, meaning securing enough budget to drive in 2021 will be very hard, as will convincing a team to switch its line-up.
But 2022: that’s entirely different.
With new regulations, an experienced driver who knows how to develop a car is a far more attractive proposition than a blistering youngster – unless they’re a god-like talent such as Kalle Rovanperä.
For Paddon, Mikkelsen, Østberg and Latvala to seal a WRC return, they need to keep driving whatever they can and just pray nobody in Rally2 cars becomes too good for a manufacturer to ignore; or get their business suit on and convince the world’s OEMs that the WRC is the place to be. More seats will be a major boost to their chances.
Breaking back into the WRC is no easy task, but if there is any quartet that has the raw talent, commercial acumen and experience to make it happen, it’s this four. Because in some form or another, they’ve all already achieved it at some point in their careers.