How Paddon’s seven-man army is upstaging the WRC

The New Zealander's new electric Hyundai Kona is targeting a full-length rally in 2021

Hyundai EV rally car _team Graeme Murray Photography

In the second half of next season, when World Rally Championship manufacturers are looking to sign-off on 2022 Rally1 cars capable of running around six miles on a hybrid charge, Hayden Paddon will likely be starting his first full-length event in an all-electric rally car.

How is it that Paddon has already accomplished more than the collective brilliance of the FIA’s technical department in terms of a genuinely sustainable solution to our sport?

I privately put this question to high-level technical experts around the service park and it’s fair to say the overwhelming response was one of frustration.

Frustration – and admittedly a significant level of admiration – at being left behind by a seven-man team working out of a trackside garage in rural South Island, New Zealand.

Actually, that’s unfair. Paddon Rallysport’s base is as slick as anything you’d find in some of Europe’s bigger and more impressive factory satellite teams. But, logistically speaking, it’s still at the wrong end of planet earth.

Yet, the Hyundai Kona EV has gone from drawing board to delivery in 18 months.

Hyundai EV rally car _action4 by Graeme Murray Photography

Photo: Graeme Murray Photography

As you’d imagine for a project partnered by Hyundai New Zealand, everything has been done to the highest possible standard.

I was fortunate enough to be at the official launch of Paddon’s project in Queenstown last August and I was struck by the ingenuity of the team around the 2016 Rally Argentina winner. And the fact that they simply didn’t seem to stop working. 

Even while Hayden was downstairs talking to the wider world and NZ’s mainstream media about his intentions to go all-electric, the likes of Matt Barham (project manager and electrical engineer), Mike Pittams (lead technician), Rory Callaway (mechanical engineer), Ben Fretwell (technician), Ari Pettigrew (technician) and Matt Bowater (plant manager) were all in the office studying CAD screens.

There is the argument that one team making one car is very different to one governing body designing and writing one set of technical regulations to fit current and potential future manufacturers. Moreover, don’t forget, hybrid’s only half of the 2022 changes – there’s the radical new tubular chassis coming in as well.

There’s no doubt that the WRC could have pulled off full electric as well and it would be naïve to think otherwise. But for the FIA to do that, there would be a significant number of regulatory – in terms of health and safety – hoops to be jumped through.

That’s not to say the PRG team won’t be passing through the same hoops, but doing that at a domestic and regional level is, I’d imagine, different to trying to get global buy-in and understanding of what’s needed if, for example, an all-electric car crashes into the trees in the heart of rural Kenya.

But still, it’s impossible not to be enormously impressed by what Paddon has achieved.

Hyundai EV rally car _static2 by Graeme Murray Photography

Photo: Graeme Murray Photography

Have you seen the thing? It’s mental. It’s like a spaceship World Rally Car. Spectacular doesn’t come close.

To think by working closely with STARD (the Austrian firm which has partnered Paddon on the electronic side of things), Meridian Energy (New Zealand’s largest renewable energy supplier) and leading battery charge experts YHI Energy, Paddon’s confident he’ll be able to run a regular rally in around eight months’ time is simply incredible.

It remains to be seen how he’ll achieve this, whether it’s by mobile charging between the stages or an enhanced battery capacity, it doesn’t matter. Fact is, he’s out there and he’s doing it.

An awful lot of fuss was rightly made of Extreme E’s launch last month. In terms of geography, climate awareness and driving us to a sustainable future Formula E’s muddy cousin is a world-leader. But it’s still racing, and it’s racing for 10 minutes or so.

Paddon’s talking about driving a day-long rally. Maybe even a two – or three-day – rally.

And he’ll be competing in a pukka stage rally. No racing, no side-by-side stuff, just the crew against the clock, going as fast as possible from point a to point b.  

In that respect, Paddon and his small team are genuine world leaders.

Hyundai EV rally car _detail2 by Graeme Murray Photography

Photo: Graeme Murray Photography

For a long time now, I’ve pondered the theory that the WRC missed the hybrid boat some time ago. Like I’ve said before, Toyota’s Prius road car has had the ability to silence internal combustion and maintain forward motion via a battery since 1997.

Elsewhere in motorsport, Audi’s R18 e-tron quattro and Toyota’s RS030 Hybrid landed on the Le Mans grid eight years ago and F1 is in its seventh season of racing with hybrid power. 

However, the WRC is still two years away from a car that might be able to offer a couple of thousands of metres of power boost in the stages and/or then be able to run through a town on battery power – But only if the route through town’s less than five or six miles.

I didn’t set about to berate the WRC’s next-generation here, there are undoubtedly significant hurdles to overcome before a full electric WRC is on the cards. What I set out to do here is heap praise on the quite brilliant achievement of Paddon and his team.

Yes, there’s still a long way to go in terms of testing a Kona EV with a potential 800kW on tap and yes, there’s the whole charging issue, not to mention the consideration of how this genuinely cutting-edge motor is incorporated into standard rallies.

As well as underpinning all of that is the understanding of how to run a Rally1-speed electric vehicle through the woods safely.

But, again, he’s done it. He’s turned the world upside down and put the Otago-based Paddon Rallysport Group bang on top.