Between a heartbreaking spectator incident at Rally Monte-Carlo in January and a costly missed opportunity at Rally Sardegna in June, Hyundai Motorsport’s Hayden Paddon has openly had a season to forget, and currently sits in 10th place in the drivers’ standings.
With the 30-year-old Kiwi on Northern New South Wales’ Coffs Coast for Rally Australia – the final round of the 2017 World Rally Championship – RallySport Magazine caught up with Hayden Paddon one-on-one, to find out why it’s all gone wrong and how he plans on turning his fortunes around.
RallySport Magazine: Nice to be back in Australia for your ‘almost’ home rally?
Hayden Paddon: It definitely is. It’s the closest we get, and with all the Kiwis that come over, they try and make it a bit of a Kiwi rally if you like.
I think it’s good to come here, the atmosphere is more relaxed. We’ve done the rally many times so you have a bit more confidence than other rallies perhaps.
RSM: How does Rally Australia stack up to others on the calendar? Are the stages ones you particularly enjoy or find particularly challenging?
HP: It’s certainly one of my favourites. For me, it’s up there with the likes of Finland and some of those fast gravel rallies.
Here, it’s very fast. If it’s dry, it’s probably one of my favourite rallies. If it’s wet, maybe not. So we’ll see how this weekend pans out.
RSM: What are the most challenging elements of Rally Australia compared with other rallies?
HP: It’s very fast, as I say, but it’s in the forest and it’s tree-lined.
There’s a lot of blind crests and it’s really difficult to read the road, and the room for error here is nothing. In other rallies you might have ditches or things you can bounce off on the side of the road. Here you’ve only got trees – and they don’t move.
So, for sure, I think the commitment level probably has to be just that little bit higher.
Hayden Paddon will be looking for a strong result this weekend to sign off on what has been a difficult season. Photo: David Zalstein
RSM: This time last year you said you were targeting a WRC title win in 2018. How likely is that looking now?
HP: Yeah, I think that goal’s out the window now.
Unfortunately, we’re not really going to be given an opportunity by the team to do the whole championship [next year].
You’ve got to be doing all the rallies to have a chance, and this year we’ve taken a little bit of a step backwards. But, we’re not going to dwell on that, we’re going to try and learn as much as we can from this year and come back stronger and still build towards that [goal] maybe in the future.
[Winning a championship] is why we’re all here, so I won’t lose sight of that goal just yet...
RSM: With that in mind, what’s the new target at this point?
HP: At the moment, it’s just to get back to myself. Just to get back to what’s natural and get that confidence back up again. That’s all taken a bit of a hammering this year.
We do the best job we can when we come to every rally, but when things are like this, when you’re in the car, you’ve got to let it naturally happen. And at the moment, it’s not quite what it should be, so, we’ve just got to build that up.
And it’s not a switch – you can’t just flick it on and off. Like any sport, you go through troughs and highs, and we’ve just got to get back up on that high again.
RSM: What do you think has caused this lack of confidence?
HP: Well, the year started very badly [in Monte-Carlo].
Then we had a lot of technical problems in the first part of the year. And then, I think since Round Four/Round Five [Rally Corsica and Rally Argentina], we’ve just been chasing our tail.
Of course, then the pressure was just building up and up and up, and we’ve been on the back foot from the word go – [not to mention] a couple of little mistakes from my side as well.
It’s just meant you’ve had the pressure on a lot, and that’s meant things just haven’t been flowing.
RSM: You’ve publically said that this year has been the most difficult year you’ve ever experienced. What’s made it such a difficult year? And what do you feel have been the toughest moments to bounce back from?
HP: It’s just been one of those years where anything that can go wrong, has gone wrong.
It’s just amazing how many things have gone wrong – and not just professionally, but also personally and many things behind the scenes and on events and commercially as well. So yeah, it’s just been one of those years.
For sure, moving forward, the one thing I’m positive of is that it can’t get any worse than what it’s been this year. That means next year, hopefully, things will be better.
RSM: Although it’s been a challenging year and clearly an emotionally tough year, what positives can you take away from 2017? And what have been some of your highlights from the season?
HP: I think we’ve made a small step in terms of how competitive we are this year.
From the outside it doesn’t look that way, but when we’ve been in similar positions as the others, in terms of road order and things, [we’ve definitely been more competitive].
I think we could have been fighting for the win in Portugal – until the car stopped – and we could have been fighting for the win in Sardegna.
Germany, okay, the first day in the wet on the tarmac was not so good, but by the end of Day Two and Three we we’re setting the top three times on tarmac. So, there are all these little things that are a step up from last year.
The Hyundai mechanics work on Paddon's car after Thursday's shakedown stage. Photo: David Zalstein
RSM: How’s the car been from your point of view? And how much blame for your difficult year do you apportion to yourself, and how much do you feel is because of the car?
HP: I think a lot of it is coming from me.
I know that things aren’t flowing naturally like they normally would, so I think 80 per cent of it’s got to come from me. I think 20 per cent of it I’ve still got to work with the car.
With the new centre differential and the new aerodynamics, you’ve got to use the car in a different way, and I probably haven’t quite adapted to that as well as I could have.
We’re trying some things this weekend just to see how it works and, if we can get on top of that, I’ll have less [to do] next year.
RSM: Sitting here now, are you still enjoying rallying?
HP: I hope to this weekend, but to be honest, the fun factor has gone out of it a little bit this year.
That’s only natural [though]…
We’re all here to be competitive and when you’re competitive, it’s much easier to enjoy. But also the politics, and all that sort of stuff, I think puts a bit of a dampener on it.
But we’re trying to leave it all in the past now, and I enjoy coming here, I enjoy the stages, and there’s a lot of people here, so I’m just trying to get that enjoyment factor back this weekend.
RSM: You were talking about confidence before. With shakedown now done, how’s the confidence going into Rally Australia proper? Not only in yourself, but also in the team and in that relationship?
HP: It’s certainly not as high as what it was 12 months ago.
But in saying that, it only takes one stage or one good result just to try and start building it up again.
And obviously, the Nambucca stage here, is one of my favourite in the whole championship. If I can get a really good feel and get my teeth into that stage, then all of a sudden it might just start coming back, so we’re just looking for little ‘triggers’ to help if you like.
There’s two sides to the story this weekend: obviously I want a good result, but there’s another side of me that just wants to get this year finished and then press the reset button for next year.
The Nambucca stage (pictured above) is one of Paddon's favourites of the season. Photo: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
RSM: How easy or difficult has the transition been switching from your long-time co-driver of 12 years, fellow Kiwi John Kennard, to 27-year-old Brit, Seb Marshall? How’s the relationship between the two of you going? And do you feel the change has either helped or hindered your progress this year?
HP: It’s actually worked really well – it was a very seamless change.
We’d been working on it for 18 months, so John was part of that as well, and the first rally Seb was in was Portugal, where we’d just took the lead before the car stopped, and Sardegna we were leading.
So, yeah, I think the transition hasn’t been a problem, and everything in the car is working well, and John’s still involved as well, helping us out behind the scenes. So that side of things is one positive.
RSM: You had a short break from the WRC when you went home in August to tackle Round Four of the 2017 New Zealand Rally Championship, Rally Coromandel, in a Hyundai i20 AP4+. Not the ideal result, but how was being away from the main game?
HP: I love going home and doing some rallies at home with our own team.
You know, family, friends, obviously the atmosphere’s a lot more relaxed.
Ultimately WRC is where I want to be, but sometimes it’s taking a breather from it and getting rid of all that pressure and just going into that relaxed environment sort of reminds you why you love rally: just simply putting on a helmet and going to drive the car, forget about the stage times, and have some fun with friends.
Paddon enjoys the relaxed atmosphere of rallying in his home country. Photo: Peter Whitten
RSM: How much do you think you’d benefit from more time away from the WRC circus? And how big a risk is there, that if you step away for any length of time, you might not be able to get back in?
HP: Well, we’ve still got a contract for next year.
We’re going to be doing at least half the championship, and at the end of the day, all four drivers have got the same contracts, so anything could change throughout the year if we’re having good rallies or bad rallies.
But it’s important to still be driving and doing well. So if we can do more rallies in New Zealand, it just keeps you fresh. It doesn’t matter if the car’s different, it’s competition – it’s keeping you on your toes.
RSM: How do you see the relationship going forward with Hyundai Motorsport, beyond next year alone?
HP: I’ve made no secret that I want to try and be loyal to the brand.
I grew up idolising Possum Bourne and what he did with Subaru, and that’s something I was trying to build here [with Hyundai].
Okay, obviously the sport’s built on results as well, but we’ve got a lot of support from Hyundai New Zealand, and that’s something we can build off in the future.
Naturally, I’d like to stay here long term, but that’s going to mean we’re going to have to have a good year next year. But in saying that, it’s no different to 2014 and 2015 when we first came into the team and had to prove ourselves. So we just have to go through that process again.
Paddon says he wants to be loyal to the Hyundai brand, like idol, Possum Bourne was with Subaru. Photo: McKlein
RSM: If other opportunities were to come up, is there another team you’d like to potentially drive for? Or could you even be tempted out of WRC and into something else, such as rallycross perhaps?
HP: At the moment, the priority is still WRC – this is where I want to stay for the immediate future anyway. And as I say, the plan is to stay with Hyundai.
I think nowadays there’s a bit of a shortage of seats, there’s are few young guys around, and I don’t think opportunities are going to be opening up that quickly anyway.
We’ve also built good relationships here, we get along well with everyone in the team, and we’ve been here since day dot for us, so this is where I’d like to continue.
RSM: How much support are you getting from within the team, in terms of where your confidence is at but also in a broader sense?
HP: We’ve always had good support here. All the guys in the workshop working on the car, the engineers, it’s always been very good – even this year.
Okay, it’s been tough for me, but it’s also been tough for the guys working on the car and the guys who’ve got to fix the car. But they’re fully behind me and they’ve always given me a lot of support and a lot of encouragement.
RSM: You’re 30 years old, you’re still young, you’ve proven you’ve got the speed, you’ve proven you’ve got the skills, what do you think needs to change for 2018 and beyond to see you achieve your true potential? What areas do you feel you need to improve on?
HP: I just need to relax and, as I say, enjoy it and let the confidence come back.
I’m doing something that comes naturally to me with the driving, so the only thing that’s going to get it back is time and patience.
As I said, it’s not a switch, I can’t just switch it on and off, so I’ve just got to be doing the rallies, bear with it in the meantime, and understand that this is just a phase that we’re going through.
And hopefully we have a good result this weekend.
RSM: Absolutely. Hayden Paddon, thanks very much for chatting with RallySport Magazine.
David Zalstein is a freelance motoring journalist based in Melbourne. He’s an avid car enthusiast, as well as a big fan of all things motorsport.
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