Forging a career in the World Rally Championship requires a special blend of focus, resilience and opportunism – and nobody has displayed that more than Hayden Paddon over the years.
Hailing from the beautiful country of New Zealand which boasts some of the greatest rallying roads anywhere in the world, it might be argued that Paddon had a natural advantage with some stunning stages to hone his craft on.
But speak to anybody from the rallying community in the southern hemisphere and you’ll quickly realize that the European-centric WRC feels like an entire world away. Breaking into that bubble is a near impossible task for somebody from ‘the other side of the world’.
The Paddon family wasn’t a rallying dynasty until Hayden’s father, Chris, watched Markku Alén, Walter Röhrl, Juha Kankkunen and the rest of their mates driving the flame-throwing Group B supercars on Rally New Zealand.
“He went home from that going ‘I want to do that same thing’ so he’s the one who I guess started it all, and then of course I was brought up around it as a kid,” Hayden tells DirtFish.
“That’s when he was sort of at the height of driving here in New Zealand, he was just doing local competitions and a little bit of national rallying, that’s what I was brought up around.”
Rallying was therefore all a young Paddon knew from his very first days: “Yeah,” he agrees, “not that I remember but there were photos of when I was literally a toddler I was in service parks with him and then he’d have me in the shop when I was two or three years old, washing cars and probably just getting in the way more than anything!
“But we grew up with a rural lifestyle so again the old adage, back in those days you’d sit on your dad’s lap and drive the car when you were three years old and get away with a little bit more when you’re out on the farm.”
It’s often said that early experiences can shape a lifetime, so it’s little surprise that Paddon was so captivated by rallying given he was immersed in it from day dot. But transferring that love into a career – that was never realistically on the cards.
“I was always a rally nut, [but] it was always just a dream to go all the way,” he says, “because particularly when you’re on this side of the world and as a kid watching the likes of my heroes Colin McRae and what not on videos, back then I used to watch on videos maybe a month after the rally actually happened on the other side of the world, you just felt so far away from everything.
“But I was a rally nut, that goes right back from when I was a kid. I’d take the pot plant dirt from the plants around the house and use that as the gravel for the little Matchbox toys for example.”
It wouldn’t however be long before Paddon was experiencing the real thing. He began racing grass go-karts at the age of six and soon had his first proper car – a Mini. His father asked him if he wanted to race or rally it, but you don’t need us to tell you which Paddon elected to do.
Although for a brief period it looked like Paddon might be destined for the other side of the car: “Actually from the age of 13 he [my dad] started having me co-drive for him quite a bit, and I was actually really enjoying it because he was actually quite a good driver,” he explains.
“He didn’t go far with the sport because he was very busy with his business as well but when I was co-driving him to begin with I actually fell in love with that side of it because he could really drive the wheels off a car and it just felt like poetry in the car. I even said to him I could do this for a while.”
But there was a surprise in store for Paddon’s local event in 2002, the Hanmer Rally.
I had no idea about until I read this entry list that had come in the mail two weeks before the rally!Hayden Paddon on his first rally start
“For me as a kid the local rally was like the big rally – that was the one you always looked forward to and you loved and you always wanted dad to do really well on it,” Paddon says.
“But just after my 15th I remember when the entry list used to come in the mail back in those days, the postal mail, and you’d look at the entry list and you’d look where everyone is and where dad was on the seeded list, and I was surprised that on this particular event he had entered me – which I had no idea about until I read this entry list that had come in the mail two weeks before the rally!
“At first I was sort of in shock because that was dad’s gig, that was something I was looking forward to seeing him do well in. It was a big surprise, and pretty much from that day he’s never driven a car again.
“Without knowing it at the time, that was the day he sort of handed the keys over.”
The particular keys in question for Paddon’s first event were to a modest Toyota Levin, but compared to the Mini he had previously driven it “was a bit of a step up, so it took a little bit of adjustment.
“But that was one thing dad always drilled into me, it was about finishing rallies,” continues Paddon. “You’re not here to win straight off the bat, you’re here to enjoy it and finish, and to be honest it’s how I’ve sort of set the rest of my career.
“Rather than going s*** or bust on the first rally and crashing and putting on a big show, for me it’s always been about doing things in a methodical way and that was the same right back at day one.”
After two-and-a-half years in the Leven, Paddon took a big leap into a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV for the 2005 season as his rallying career really began to gather momentum.
“Again that was a decision very much directed by my father. At the time I was just finishing up at school, so I was 17, and I actually remember a road trip – I think we were driving back from one of the rallies I did in the Toyota – and he saw an advert in a magazine for an Evo IV for sale.
“He was ringing asking about it while we were driving along back from this rally, a deal was done while we were driving along and I actually thought this was going to be his new car, he was going to get something faster and better and what not.
“But again he surprised me and said ‘now you’re going to jump in the seat of an Evo IV.’ At that stage it was two years after my first rally, I think I still had in the back of my head that my dad was going to drive again still. So when he got me into that car and started driving, going to that power wise felt like going into a World Rally Car, it was a big step up really.”
I think it's our 17th year together this year actually, so yeah it's been an amazing relationshipHayden Paddon on John Kennard
Paddon contested the South Island championship in New Zealand and “it was a reasonably good year for us, we were showing speed for the first time in four-wheel-drive, winning stages, leading rallies”. But his season was wrecked when he crashed his Mitsubishi and it burned to the ground.
“We were sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place because over here we don’t really insure rally cars, so we had no money,” Paddon remembers.
“We weren’t a wealthy family, my dad worked very hard for every cent that he had and we couldn’t afford to replace that car but that’s when the local community got behind us, did a whole lot of fundraising, it was quite a humbling experience, and then from that that’s what then got us into an Evo VIII and the New Zealand Rally Championship the following year, from all that support we had from so many people.
“Going into that New Zealand championship we wanted to start working with a co-driver who had experience at that sort of level, and that’s when we were starting to look at the bigger picture: what’s beyond New Zealand in terms of getting overseas?
“We heard that John [Kennard] had returned from Europe, he’d been over there working with Prodrive for a number of years and he’d moved back to New Zealand to somewhat semi-retire.
“We gave him a call and surprisingly enough he was interested to come along to a test, we started with a test, got to know him a little bit and pretty much it went from there. We haven’t gotten him out the car since! I think it’s our 17th year together this year actually, so yeah it’s been an amazing relationship.”
It’s been an important one too. As Paddon openly admits, “John was instrumental in terms of my development as driver”. His experience and knowledge was invaluable for a young Paddon who was like “a sponge” every time he was with Kennard, and Kennard soon formed a formidable trio with Hayden and Chris Paddon as they began to plot a plan to progress.
“John would come up with some quite literally left-field ideas sometimes,” Paddon explains, “so when we went and built a new car in 2008 John’s idea was ‘you should be building a left-hand-drive car’.
“Simple things, it sounds really simple for Europeans, but here in New Zealand everything’s right-hand-drive. The idea of building a left-hand-drive car was a bit odd but of course we could see the sense of it so it’s the route that we went down, we imported the car from Dubai to bring into New Zealand to build up as a left-hand-drive rally car and that’s what gave us the experience of left-hand-drive before we left New Zealand.”
Things were starting to become more than just fun and a hobby. Paddon was one point away from the national title in 2007 and settled the score a year later with his first of an eventual five New Zealand championships. But there was now something far more elusive to aim for.
“I’m terrible in that respect in that I always want more. Initially the goal was to be New Zealand Rally champion, that was the first goal as that was something that felt achievable and of course trying to be in the WRC, that was more like a dream. That was more like a kid wanting to be an astronaut because that’s literally how far away it felt.
“But I guess the first point we had a realization we could actually go somewhere with this was when we won that Pirelli Star Driver scholarship, because without that scholarship we never would have had the money or funds or opportunities to go to Europe, and then that’s what opened our eyes and once we were there we were like OK, we’ve got to try and stay here.”
In 2008 Pirelli launched a talent detection scheme from all of the FIA’s regions, meaning that through qualifying events two drivers were selected from the European Rally Championship and one was picked from the African Rally Championship, Middle East Rally Championship and, in Paddon’s case, the Asia Pacific Rally Championship. The winners would get a season in the PWRC in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.
Paddon thought he had blown his shot, crashing into a tree on the Malaysian Rally in 2008 and therefore missing out on a place on the program. But he would make amends a year later, and ultimately that proved to be to his benefit.
“I remember at the time being absolutely gutted, thinking s*** have I just blown one of the biggest chances of my life here? But as it turned out it was probably one of those things that was meant to be as I came back and won it the second year, and the benefit of that was unfortunately the drivers that won it in year one probably didn’t get a fair shot,” he explains.
“It was a brand-new program, brand-new cars and they had quite a lot of teething issues, so the drivers didn’t really get the full event mileage and maybe a proper chance to shine.
“By the time we turned up in year two the cars were sorted, the team was working really well and apart from the first event I think we finished every stage of every rally after that. It was a really good base to build some experience and try to put our name on the map a little bit.”
Eight years on from his rally debut, Paddon had reached the WRC – but it wasn’t easy. Looking back he believes 2010 that “was just a massive adaptation to everything and was probably my first realization of how much of a benefit it was to be European” as the majority of his rivals were familiar with the terrain and even how the rallies were run.
“It was a massive culture shock, shall we say. As some people may know by now us Kiwis are a little bit different in the way that we live life and our culture is quite different here, so going to Turkey, our first rally, yeah it was a big shock to the system.
“As the year progressed we got more used to it, but even the simple things like the amount of people you have at rallies and spectators. I remember that first year, as you drove along on the stages being in just absolute awe of how many people there were and how close they were to the road compared to what we have in New Zealand.
“Over time you just learn to ignore that, you just focus on the road and driving fast but to begin with you couldn’t not see the people, and of course if you were distracted by the people you’re never going to drive fast.
“So that first year was where we started to learn s*** there’s actually a lot for us to learn coming from the other side of the world. It’s certainly a lot more difficult for us, so it probably put things into perspective a bit more.”
But never one to be fazed, Paddon took it all in his stride. Returning to the PWRC in 2011, but this time in his own car, Paddon made the switch from Mitsubishi to Subaru Impreza and put the experience he had gleaned from his first few WRC events to fantastic use.
Winning Portugal, Argentina, Finland and Australia, Paddon was only beaten on his fifth and final appearance in Spain by which point he had already wrapped up the title. However things were far more sketchy behind the scenes.
“We were under some pressure that year because we were funding that year through shareholders in New Zealand, and sort of funding it as we were going,” Paddon says. “And we knew to get the shareholders onboard we had to show promise, we had to show good results.
“Every time we won a rally we would go home and were able to find more shareholders which would help us keep funding the year, and of course when we won four rallies out of four it was the perfect year in terms of results but also in terms of building up the support network back in New Zealand to help fund it.
I was quietly quite pleased with myself for maybe five minutesHayden Paddon on his PWRC title
“To be honest 2011, ’12 and ’13, those years we were doing support categories, they were all very much on a knife edge. At any time it could have completely collapsed, in fact it did a couple of times, so yeah that was just sort of what was normal for us – not in a good way, but we’d learnt to deal with those challenges and we learnt to find solutions to get back up and to carry on.”
The 2011 PWRC title was a massive statement of intent – the world could no longer ignore Paddon’s talent. Even to this day Paddon isn’t the sort of driver who revels in his achievements, but he does concede that that was a hugely important step.
“Yeah I think I was quietly quite pleased with myself for maybe five minutes,” he laughs. “I’m one to be hard on myself when things don’t go right but when things go well I probably don’t celebrate enough, so there’s a few regrets about that.
“But I do recall crossing the finish line in Australia, over the flying finish, and I do remember a very small tingle up the back and that sort of made me realize this does mean something. But yeah for sure at this stage of my career my eyes were much further forward in terms of WRC and so I saw it as another step, but ultimately not where I wanted to go.
“For sure there was definitely a huge pride in funding it and running it with New Zealand people behind us. Only a few years prior to that many people told me it wasn’t possible and that was probably what drove me to go out and make it possible was the fact there were quite a lot of doubters out there, we wanted to show that we could do it.”
The 2012 and ’13 seasons – in the SWRC/WRC2 with a Škoda Fabia S2000 – were less prosperous but Paddon was hard at work fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw together. Leaving New Zealand behind to live in Europe instead, he just had to keep performing at a high level while also negotiating with the right people to put his case forward for a factory WRC seat.
“We tried having some discussions with M-Sport and Citroën because they were obviously the two manufacturers at the time [but] there simply just wasn’t any interest,” Paddon admits.
“M-Sport obviously we ended up doing a one-off rally and that sort of came about after we did a rally in Australia prior to that and we met who’s now turned into a family friend that at the time and was one of our shareholders, and he asked us a question after Rally Australia and at that point we had pretty much no money.
“We’d already dug ourselves a pretty big hole and this particular person turned around and said ‘hey look, we’ve got to get you in a World Rally Car’. So because of that person, that’s where the one-off WRC round in Spain  came from.
“The discussions with M-Sport probably didn’t get a whole lot further at that stage, it was more we were a customer turning up to do a rally. I’m not sure of the discussions that were happening behind the scenes, I wasn’t involved in some of those, but basically when Hyundai announced they were going to be entering in WRC that’s when there was a lightbulb moment for me personally, and that’s when I thought ‘this is our opportunity.’
“I went after it like a dog with a bone, more so through Hyundai New Zealand than Hyundai Korea just pestering them with emails and phone calls and sending CVs and everything, and then joining the dots with some of the people who were helping us in Europe to finally get some meetings with the right people.
“We’d sort of gathered that Citroën and Ford weren’t really going to be an opportunity for us, mainly with our nationality. I think that wasn’t helping us, whereas Hyundai I think filled a few of those gaps.”
Paddon had his target, shot his shot, and was successful. Signed up to contest six rounds in 2014 as Hyundai trialled several drivers, Paddon earned a full season (bar the Monte) in ’15 and remained with Hyundai until the end of 2018 – peaking with that famous Rally Argentina win in 2016.
Despite three attempts to break back into the WRC that were ultimately thwarted for a variety of factors including a freak testing accident, horrific natural disaster and crippling global pandemic, Paddon will finally be back in 2022.
He’ll drive an i20 N Rally2 in WRC2, competing on Rally Estonia, Finland and New Zealand before a full season in 2023. That same determination that elevated him into the world championship against the odds is very much still alive today, perhaps even more so.
“To be completely honest with you, OK the one thing we’re lacking now is seat time and a bit of experience of the stages over there but in saying that, not to blow smoke, I’ve got a very good memory, I still remember the stages pretty well but other than that I actually think I’m a more complete driver now than what I was three years ago,” Paddon says.
“I feel like with the experience I’ve been gathering here [in New Zealand], running the business, building the EV rally car, I’ve got a lot of cars I’ve worked on but also I think I’m a lot more patient in myself and can handle the emotional side of things a little bit better and the pressure, so all that combined with missing out for the last few years probably means I’m more determined than what I’ve ever been.
“But I’m also a realistic person as well – the chances of a full-blown WRC drive again are probably pretty slim but in saying that I would love the opportunity to be back in a World Rally Car [Rally1] for some events.
“It’s a very, very deep feeling for me that I don’t want to just win one WRC rally, I feel I’ve got it in me to win another one at least, so that’s a life goal now to try and get back in a World Rally Car for some selected events.
“Events like Rally New Zealand if there’s an opportunity of course to have a good go at that would be a dream come true but also I’m under no illusions that it would be a big task and we need a lot of preparation and things to go our way.
“But I guess stranger things have happened.”