New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon was in seventh place overall midway through the opening day of Rally Australia in Coffs Harbour today, the latest round of the World Rally Championship.
The 27-year-old from Geraldine was 22.1 seconds behind Kris Meeke (Citroen) after three stages on country roads south of the tourist destination on the mid-north coast of New South Wales.
Although Paddon, who is four races into his debut season with new WRC manufacturer Hyundai, was familiar with elements of the route having competed in the round twice previously, today’s stages were relatively unknown because mechanical difficulties prevented him tackling the opening day of competition 12 months ago.
Consequently he took some time to adjust to the intricacies presented by the opening 10.73km opening stage at Hydes Creek, an almost identical distance at Bellingen and then the longest assignment of the day – the 24.91km journey through forest at Newry.
Paddon was 4.4 seconds down on current world champion and defending Australian title holder Sebastian Ogier (Volkswagen) and lost further ground when Meeke built a 2.2 second advantage before the first service stop.
Meeke led Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen (Volkswagen) while Finnish Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen was 3.3 seconds behind the Northern Irishman.
Ogier was well-positioned in fourth having been disadvantaged by being the first driver designated gravel clearing duties.
After three stages only 9.4 seconds covered the top six drivers before a gap back to a frustrated Paddon, who expected to benefit greater from being the 10th starter on the course because the surface should have been quicker.
“No problems – just the driver,” he admitted, before heading back to the service park.
“We haven’t done these stages before and I thought there would be more grip that there has been.
“We seem to have a lot of mid-corner understeer, we can’t get a rhythm and that doesn’t help the confidence.
“It makes it hard to commit when the front of the car washes out mid-corner.”
Paddon and his support crew were making adjustments before he and co-driver John Kennard had a second crack at the stages this afternoon before short super special stages at the rally base on the outskirts of Coffs Harbour rounded out phase one of the three-day rally.
The Kiwi, who claimed the second-tier Production WRC crown at Coffs Harbour in 2011, at least had the satisfaction of pulling clear of Australian rival and fellow Hyundai Motorsport driver Chris Atkinson.
Competing at WRC level for the first time in six months, Atkinson was 10th overall and 24 seconds adrift of Paddon.
“I couldn’t get into any rhythm. It’s isn’t due to a major set-up issue – take six months away and sometimes you can get into the rhythm straight away, but after making a few mistakes I backed out. I just have to pull my finger out now.”
Meanwhile, Ogier and Finnish teammate Jari-Matti Latvala jointly need only five points from the rally, the 10th of 14 rounds of the WRC, to clinch the manufacturers’ championships for Volkswagen.
Should the German team achieve that goal, it will be the earliest point of the season that a WRC title has been decided in 25 years.
Volkswagen is already assured of the drivers’ crown as Latvala and Mikkelsen are the only drivers in a position to catch Ogier who leads the title race with 187 points.
Paddon is 17th on the standings after a 12th on debut in Italy was followed by eighth placings in Poland and Finland.