I wasn’t at El Cóndor that famous day – I wasn’t even close.
Instead, I was taking the ScotRail service south from Elgin to Edinburgh on the way home from my third ever rally as media, the Speyside Stages.
Garry Pearson’s first ever overall rally win had certainly impressed me the day before, but what Hayden Paddon was about to produce raised the bar to an entirely new level.
Back in the era when live World Rally Championship coverage wasn’t quite as immediate as it is today, I’d hit send on my Scottish Rally Championship rally report and turned to Twitter, fighting for any pocket of 4G I could find as the train snaked its way through the countryside.
Digesting the times from Mina Clavero, I’m ashamed to say I almost lost interest. The writing, I thought, was on the wall. Sébastien Ogier was just 2.6 seconds behind, having grabbed a stunning 19.8s in 14 miles.
Paddon didn’t stand a chance.
The rest of rally Twitter seemed to agree with me. But then El Cóndor happened. Paddon did the unthinkable, and absolutely smashed Ogier. I sat there, sent some excited tweets, and couldn’t quite believe what had unfolded.
It was one of those victories that you don’t forget. Even if, like me, you were 7000 miles away from the moment.
So that’s why when these quotes landed in my inbox and then appeared on DirtFish last week, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness.
“I’ve got no regrets. I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I’m not chasing a Rally1 car anymore. I’ve accepted everything and I’m living my own life from here.”
Paddon is no longer chasing the WRC dream. A drive in a Rally1 car – that he should arguably never have lost – has been erased from the priority list.
That means there’s a very real chance his wonderful win in Argentina back in 2016 will be all she wrote in terms of Paddon’s WRC wins.
But, if we’re honest, that’s a reality he’s been facing for quite some time now. Paddon knows that, particularly after his latest attempt to land a front-line drive in New Zealand last year fell through.
He’s been trying to kick down a door that simply won’t budge.
It’s frustrating, but the rights and wrongs of the situation are irrelevant in a practical sense. Paddon, as always, is being pragmatic. There’s no point chasing a near impossible target and feeling like he’s failing, even when he’s succeeding in so many other ways.
This year that means at home in New Zealand and over in Europe. Currently, he leads both the NZ and European Rally Championships.
Mentally, that means he’s winning. Not losing because his Hyundai i20 has Rally2 printed next to it on the entry list and not Rally1.
A move back home to New Zealand, and COVID-19, seems to have changed everything.
Trading Frankfurt’s suburbs for New Zealand’s shoreline helped clear his head – reintroducing him to a life he was comfortable with and used to have but had to sacrifice in order to achieve the best with Hyundai Motorsport.
And the global shutdown the pandemic prompted not only kiboshed a planned four-rally program in an i20 Coupe WRC, but it reset the goalposts too. Finding the funds was hard enough pre COVID, but the financial hit many companies faced made them even more reluctant to part with any capital for sponsorship.
Add to that the stricter COVID guidelines in New Zealand than most other parts of the world, and Paddon couldn’t even get to a WRC round even if he had wanted to.
But make no mistake, that remained the goal for quite some time.
I spoke to Paddon in the summer of 2020 for a big feature on the biggest losers of that year’s silly season on how they planned to break back into the WRC, and then the messaging was clear.
“I never wanted to be the person that’s won one rally and I know we could’ve won more,” he said.
“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.”
Then, just a year on from being dumped by Hyundai which picked up Sébastien Loeb instead, the desire to show the team it was wrong was clear as day.
But even last year, two years later, when Paddon dipped his toe back into the WRC’s waters for a very concentrated WRC2 program, the plan was a full WRC2 campaign this year that would hopefully tempt Rally1 manufacturers into offering him a drive for 2024.
As large a mountain as it would be to climb, he wasn’t prepared to let the dream die.
But the rhetoric’s changed. The W has been switched for an E as Paddon has opted for WRC Promoter’s other series for Rally2 cars, ERC, instead, and he’s seemingly now at complete peace with where he finds himself in his career.
“I’m not bitter about it,” he said last week.
“I was. For about a year. But everything happens for a reason. My quality of life is so much better and I’m way happier than I was.
“Driving a WRC car was a dream, but everything that happened outside of that wasn’t exactly what you would call a dream lifestyle.”
It would be an injustice if Paddon never gets a chance to fight at the front of the WRC again. But he can’t control that. Despite all of his efforts, it’s not fully up to him.
Letting go of that niggling frustration, though, not only releases a weight off his shoulders and allows him to focus on new goals, but also puts the ball back in his court.
Now running his own team, Paddon can control his own destiny. Mentally, he’s free. Not obstructed by impossibilities but unleashed to explore opportunities.
Don’t mistake it for giving up. It’s just a realigning of priorities. And you need only look at what the comparative lack of pressure and expectation is doing for Ogier right now to realize that relinquishing the Rally1 dream is hardly the worst of tactics from Paddon.