Young Kiwi rally driver Hayden Paddon has successfully completed his first World Rally Championship event as a Pirelli Star Driver, the Rally of Turkey.
Despite the severe disappointment of being knocked out of the first day's running with an unexpected dirt chicane just eight kilometres into the very first stage, Paddon bounced back with his trademark determination to be the first of this year's five Pirelli Star Drivers to the finish line in 26th position.
"When we recced the first stage on Wednesday there was no dirt chicane " nothing marked there, just a long straight piece of road which we had noted," explained a still-puzzled Paddon after the rally. "Preceding the straight was a flat right-hand corner over a crest. We went over that crest flat-out in fifth gear, at around 150 km/h. As soon as we did, I saw a large dirt wall in front of us, a man-made chicane that had been put in place after recce [reconnaissance] which was noted in the road book, just in a different position.  There was no way I could pull the car up, so we slammed into it sideways, beaching the car on the dirt wall.  I tried everything to dig the car out " there was only light panel damage otherwise - but to no avail."
Paddon, from Geraldine, and co-driver John Kennard, from Blenheim, had to watch the rest of the field pass them by until the Ralliart Italy-prepared Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X could be driven back to the service park for repairs.
"Speaking to other drivers, many didn't have that chicane noted either. We were the unlucky first to get completely caught out by it. At the end of the day we made a mistake in recce of missing the chicane in the road book which we have already learnt from and put processes in place to make sure it doesn't happen again. Although this silly accident is frustrating, it is all learning and sometimes you have to learn the hard way!"
Under SupeRally regulations, Paddon was able to restart on Saturday. "Under those rules, our times for day one were calculated from the fastest time in our class, plus five minutes' penalty per stage missed. From our starting position of 17th, we dropped to 36th with these 45 minutes of penalties."
The day two stages took Paddon and fellow competitors north from the rally's base in Pendik, near Istanbul, to the coast of the Black Sea.
"The team did a great job repairing the small amount of damage to the car, and we were able to drive at a good pace from the first stage this morning. That first stage, which was repeated again in the afternoon, comprised 13 km of tarmac, which, when tackled with gravel tyres and gravel suspension set-up, was as slippery as ice."
Paddon set the fastest Group N, or production car class, times on three stages and broke into the top ten with his time on stage 13 against the best WRC cars and drivers. Dust hampered Paddon on two morning stages, and a bent front wheel on the penultimate stage meant he had to drive slowly out of the stage before changing the wheel and finishing the day with a real flier through the rough Riva stage.
"Saturday's last stage, the longest of the rally at 27 km, was the first time that I started to feel at one with the car, especially the second half where I felt I could drive with good confidence without taking risks. It's all a matter of time in the seat and I certainly felt much better after a good day, setting some good stage times."
Overnight rain meant the inland stages of day three were muddy with very inconsistent grip, so much so that the first two stages were cancelled. Paddon completed the day's third stage with the 14th quickest time, only to pass hard-charging Pirelli team-mate Ott Tanak and his stranded car.
"After passing Ott's big crash, we decided to ease off a little and concentrate on getting the car to the end of what was a very tough event for the whole team.
"Driving the afternoon's stages " the first two being the stages cancelled in the morning " we found a very slippery downhill section comparable to the slippery mud that we encountered in Malaysia. All in all, not easy, but the last stage was one of the most exciting stages that I've ever driven! Very fast and flowing with big jumps, and now I know, the EVO X flies brilliantly! Leaving the ground and looking at the sky with that brief moment of silence until everything lands, is just the best feeling ever..."
Paddon's finishing position included being seventh among the other Group N, or production car, competitors, not that this rally counted for points in the global production car series (PWRC) that Paddon also tackles this season.
"Overall it's been great to get more time in the car and my confidence with it has been growing every stage in Turkey. Once I get a little more confident in driving it consistently, I will be able to focus more on fine tuning the set-up of the car with the team, which I hope I can do during the next Pirelli Star Driver event, in Portugal.
"A huge thanks to the whole team: FIA, Pirelli, Mike, Loris, Carlo, Walter and the rest of Ralliart Italy crew, who did a fantastic job all weekend keeping the cars going and repairing the damage from the rough conditions."
Paddon expects to be back in New Zealand on 21 April, subject to the volcanic ash issues affecting flights from Europe, and the day after he turns 23. Paddon and his Paddon RallySport team have just one week to complete their preparation of their championship-winning Mitsubishi Lancer EVO IX before leaving Geraldine bound for Auckland and their next event, Rally New Zealand, which starts on 6 May.
"I can't wait for Rally New Zealand where we'll start our Production World Rally Championship campaign. Then just two weeks later John and I will be flying back out to join the Pirelli Star Driver and Ralliart Italy teams again in Portugal."
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