It wasn’t the result Hayden Paddon was looking for on his first attempt at Rallye de France, the World Rally Championship event he contested as a Pirelli Star Driver over the weekend of 1 to 3 October.

The young Kiwi rally star suffered mechanical woes and challenging conditions to finish seventh in the Production World Rally Championship category in France, losing the chance to fight for the championship victory at the final WRC rally of the season, Rally Great Britain, in November.

Paddon was excited to start the French event for the first time, with the rally having moved from its long-time home in Corsica to Strasbourg near the German border. Paddon and co-driver John Kennard’s two days of reconnaissance highlighted the speed needed to do well on the mostly wide tarmac roads, with the 23-year-old saying:

"The stages are grouse! They are in complete contrast to Germany, the biggest difference being the speed. Most of the stages have extremely fast sections that are also very wide, requiring smooth lines and a lot of commitment to get the best speed. There are also a lot of cuts that, once the WRC cars have negotiated them in front of us, will see a lot of mud and rubbish dragged onto the road.”

The New Zealanders started the first day very strongly, winning the first three stages and opened up a lead of 13 seconds.

“The surprising thing was that it was all happening so easily and there was a lot left in the tank, with places where we could drive a lot faster,” says Paddon. “Unfortunately, on stage four we had a front left puncture with five kilometres before we could change it. Now 40 seconds down, we lost the PWRC lead, but I was confident we could claw back the lost time lost, so rather than going out for the afternoon’s stages on full attack, we decided just to keep doing what we were doing and let the times come to us.”

However the Kiwi ended the day hugely disappointed, as the alternator in his Pirelli-sponsored Mitsubishi failed, leaving him unable to finish the day’s stages.

Paddon had won the first afternoon stage by 0.6 seconds. “But on the next, the car began to drop power and the warning lights for low battery voltage came on. On the road section we tried everything we could to fix the problem and managed to start the next stage, albeit with a battery indicator showing just 11 volts. The car seriously lacked power and instruments starting to stop working. Despite that our time was still surprisingly good and we recovered to second-placed PWRC. How we were going to get through the final stage and the 100km road section back to service, we didn’t know. In the end, the car died on the road section despite us jump-starting it many times and trying to make temporary repairs.”

With the alternator replaced, Paddon was able to restart on day two under SupeRally regulations, copping a ten minute time penalty. Sadly for the two-time New Zealand rally champion, things simply got worse. A spin off the mud-slicked tarmac left his car with a crushed exhaust and limited power, then three punctures meant Paddon and Kennard had no spare replacement tyres and were again unable to finish the day.

With repairs made during the lunch-time service, Paddon assessed his own driving style during the next two stages. “I felt I was attacking the tighter corners too much, thereby losing exit speed. The next stage was much better, being less aggressive on the corners helped and we were possibly on target to win the stage until – you wouldn’t read about it – we punctured again! With two punctures and only one spare, we had no option but to pull out for the day… again.”

With another ten minute SupeRally time penalty and just four stages scheduled for the rally’s final and third day, there was no hope of catching the leader, defending PWRC champion Armindo Araújo, who romped home for an easy class win despite the tricky conditions.

“Too many spectators meant the second 24km run was cancelled so effectively the day consisted of only one proper stage, but it was still incredibly difficult with a lot of mud on top of smooth, new asphalt, which made it like ice in many places. Combined with small problem we had with the car meant we spun fully three times, but surprisingly still set a competitive time.

“What can you say about this sort of event? You’ve just got to put it down to experience,” concluded Paddon who continues to hold third place in the PWRC standings, but no longer has the opportunity to fight for the championship title at Rally Great Britain.

“It’s been a very frustrating rally. Considering where we were after stage three on the first day it has been a steep fall and I am a little lost for words.

“Of course I am very disappointed and the six points that we salvaged for seventh in PWRC is not enough to keep our title chances alive. That is the worst part; one bad round and all the hard work earlier in the year is to no avail.

“But, in saying that, it’s happened and I now I must focus both on securing a budget to allow us to try to win a world title next year and on Rally Great Britain. I’m really fired up for the PWRC final in Wales and showing what we can do. It will also be good to be back on my preferred surface, gravel, with effectively nothing to lose.”

Before the 12 to 14 November event, Paddon is staying in the UK having arranged some work experience in a rally workshop while he tries to progress plans for next year.

Rally Great Britain is Paddon’s last event of the season where the young Kiwi looks set to finish his first-ever attempt at the FIA Production World Rally Championship in third place, which is still a significant achievement despite the challenges that Rallye de France threw Paddon’s way.
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