Hayden Paddon has all but wrapped up the trans-Tasman component of Rally Australia in New Zealand’s favour, but concedes his top-five aspirations in the latest round of the World Rally Championship appear out of reach.
Paddon, who is competing in just fourth event with WRC newcomer Hyundai Motorsport, had a mixed day on the mid-north New South Wales coast south of Coffs Harbour today as a wrong tyre choice for the second run on the rally’s longest stage saw him drop a place to seventh overall.
The 27-year-old from Geraldine shaved an impressive 16.3 secs from his first completion of the 48.92km stage at Nambucca, but was unable to prevent Norwegian Mads Ostberg making the latest move in their ran within a race.
Ostberg was 10.3sec faster than the Kiwi, a slick effort that gave him a 6.6sec buffer that extended by another 1.2 secs after the shorter 7.92km sprint at Valla.
Reigning world champion Sebastien Ogier carries a 10.3 sec advantage into the final day after the Frenchman’s defence of the Australian title gathered ominous traction.
Ogier was overtaken by Volkswagen teammate Jari-Matti Latvala in the morning stages but the championship leader regained the lead by blitzing the Nambucca stage at the second attempt.
Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke (Citroen) was third, 23.9 sec adrift of Ogier.
Barring a calamity during tomorrow’s six-stage schedule Paddon will finish comfortably ahead of Australian rival – and Hyundai team-mate – Chris Atkinson, who has struggled throughout to languish in 11th.
But that is scant consolation for Paddon who has revised his pre-race expectations of a top-five finish, realising only mechanical misfortune or driver error could help him achieve that goal.
He trails Ogier by more than two minutes and doubted his position would be boosted by the leaders crashing out in what has so far been a drama-free 10th leg of the 14 round championship.
“It’s a lot smoother than other rallies, it’s a lot easier on the cars.
“I describe these sorts of rallies as a driver’s rally. It more about the driving, you can really attack and not have to worry about looking after the car.”
There is barely a mark on his Hyundai i20 WRC but a wrong tyre choice and inaccurate weather prediction undermined his campaign.
“We took one soft [compound tyre] on the car thinking that there might be some rain so it was moving around a lot in the rear,” he said.
“It felt pretty hairy in places.”
Paddon’s priority tomorrow is to regain sixth by placing Ostberg in his rear view mirror.
“It has to be the goal. We can’t do anything about the top-five. They had a road position over us (today) but also they’re very fast.
“If we can close up on stage times that’d be great but at the end of the day we’re fighting against people with a lot more experience than us. We’ve got to be realistic as well,” he told Fairfax Media.
Paddon was relishing his duel with Ostberg, the Citroen World Rally Team star who made his WRC debut in 2006 and recorded his solitary win in Portugal two years ago.
“It’s nice to be in a battle. It keeps you on your toes. You can’t under estimate him, he’ll be trying hard as well,” he said.
Paddon sits 17th on the WRC standings after a 12th on debut in Italy was followed by eighth placings in Poland and Finland.