Kiwi rally driver Hayden Paddon and co-driver John Kennard overcame both personal and competitive challenges to secure a confidence-boosting seventh place at Rally Sweden, which concluded around midday Sunday (CET) 12 February.
Rally Sweden, round two of the FIA World Rally Championship, marked Paddon’s first full event of the season following his crash and subsequent death of a spectator on the first day of Rally Monte Carlo in January.
The WRC’s only true winter rally, Rally Sweden is one of Paddon’s favourites and it got underway with the hugely popular, head-to-head super special stage in Karlstad on Thursday evening. Paddon admits his run was messy, setting the 11th fastest time, “but tomorrow’s when the rally really starts”.
Friday’s seven special stages took competitors over the border into Norway with WRC drivers running in championship order – Paddon was 11th on the road as competition got underway in -4 degrees and overcast conditions.
It wasn’t an easy morning for the New Zealander who continued to set stage times well down the running order on the mix of fast and slower predominantly forest-lined roads. “We expected there to be some challenges this morning. I certainly underestimated the mental challenge of getting back in car in competition and everything really felt abnormal on the morning loop.”
After talking with his Hyundai Motorsport engineer, Rui, during the lunchtime service break, they made some changes to the car. “To make it easier to drive, not necessarily changes to make it faster, just to get some confidence back in.”
The afternoon’s stages show those changes helped Paddon make a big step in the right direction, with second, third and fourth fastest times, moving the New Zealanders up into sixth place overall by day’s end.
“Things don’t quite feel 100% yet, we’re working on it piece by piece, but the feeling’s starting to come back and we’re starting to enjoy it this afternoon,” Paddon said. “It gives us something really good to build on going into tomorrow. I’ll get in the car with a lot more confidence with a setup that’s working and try to get a bit of momentum on our way.”
Unfortunately, that momentum was lost just seconds after the start of Saturday morning’s first stage when the power steering unit on Paddon’s Hyundai i20 world rally car failed.
Running sixth on the road in grey, cloudy, windy conditions and -5 degrees, Paddon had to wrestle the car through three special stages before the mid-leg service. “It felt like an extended gym session, or wrestling a lion – and coming off second best! To make it through the loop was an achievement in itself,” he said.
The resultant time loss dropped them down to tenth overall by the end of the morning. With the cancellation of stage 12 for safety reasons, the Kiwis had two snow stages, plus the super special at the Karlstad Arena to navigate with a fully-functional rally car and they improved to move into seventh by the day’s end.
Paddon said: “A trying day today. We really struggled this morning when the power steering failed near the start of the first stage. Trying to manhandle a WRC car through a whole morning was certainly one of difficult, physical things I’ve had to do. These cars are not made to be driven with no power steering so we dropped a lot of time. This afternoon we were hoping to pick up the pieces, unfortunately things are not quite working. We have to look at the data to actually see what’s going on because at the moment we’re not quite sure, but it sums up the weekend so far. It’s just been a lot of disappointment. Nevertheless, there’s still one day to go and we’ll try and finish on a positive note, and take away some information tonight so we can finish on a strong pace tomorrow.”
For once on this rally, Paddon’s plan came to fruition with top-five stage times in all three of Sunday’s special stages. With the third-quickest time on the penultimate stage, as well as one bonus point for fifth place on the rally-concluding power stage, the Kiwis showed their determination to overcome the mental challenges of returning to world-class competition plus the physical challenges of power steering failure. Seventh place overall gave the pair a considerable boost in their confidence.
Wrapping up the Swedish Rally, Paddon said: “Certainly, it’s been a trying weekend. We always knew it was going to be tough coming here after Monte, and I certainly underestimated that challenge. So, to get to the finish, I must admit, realises the pressure a little bit. I certainly feel a lot more relaxed and more back to normal, if you like, going forward towards to Mexico. To get a few points amongst all our difficulties this weekend at least gets us on the board.
“We know where we can improve. We know how we can build on the confidence. We’ve got a good two-day test ahead now to prepare for Mexico and get back onto the gravel. So not all lost, we’re just looking forward now. There’s a long way to go in the season, 11 rallies. We know where we’re missing the speed, so that’s what we’ll focus on now and make sure we have a good two-day test and develop the car to work for myself a bit better.”
Seventh place plus one power stage power point puts Paddon ninth on the WRC drivers’ championship points-table after two rounds of the 2017 WRC. Round three is in Mexico, 9-12 March.
Paddon and Hayden Paddon RallySport Global (HPRG) Ltd appreciates the support of their exclusive partners, Hyundai New Zealand, Pak’nSave and Z Energy and associate sponsors Scott Sports and All About Signs Timaru.