Interview: Hayden Paddon
New Zealand’s first WRC winner on Argentina and his triumphant homecoming. By David Evans
The Long White Cafe just outside the arrivals area in Auckland Airport was doing an unusually keen trade given the hour.
The hour was shortly before five in the morning.
Being a fan of the World Rally Championship in this part of the world means burning the midnight oil. Fortunately, Long Whites and Short Blacks were on offer from the 24-hour establishment.
Coffee was great, but the real shot of adrenalin came every time the doors slid back to reveal another tired-eyed traveller, deeply grateful to have arrived in the City of Sails. Trans-tasman trips aside, it’s always a hike to get to this point.
And it certainly had been for the fans’ man, who has hopped across eight time zones to get home.
This arrival hall’s not unaccustomed to lively receptions. But this time there’s no Richie Mccaw carrying a cup back from some far off, foreign land.
Not an All Black in sight. Just New Zealand’s latest sporting sensations: Hayden Paddon and John Kennard, winners of round four of this year’s World Rally Championship: Rally Argentina.
The cheers erupted when the Hyundai pair emerged and only stopped long enough for an impromptu, pre-dawn haka.
“We expected something when we came out at the airport,” Paddon tells Motorsport News. “But nothing like that. That was definitely a great way to wake up. And the haka was really cool. There must have been a couple of hundred people waiting there. Amazing.”
Fortunately, somebody had told them the return of their king had been delayed by a day.
Paddon’s original plans were to be Pacific-bound out of Buenos Aires as soon as possible after Rally Argentina. Winning changed all of that. A steady stream of interviews followed a Sunday night South American debrief, but it was the chance to come together as a team that the Kiwis really didn’t want to miss.
“It’s been 20 months since the last win,” says Paddon. “And the team has worked so hard for this; everybody’s been flat-out on the new car and we’ve been on a pretty long road. Sunday night was a night for John and I to be sociable.”
Paddon’s problem – and it’s one he won’t mind encountering more often – is that those celebrations impacted on his preparations for his next event: the Whangarei Rally.
Not content with laying the foundations for his maiden World Rally Championship, targeted some time this side of 2019, Paddon’s also built his own team and rally car for the New Zealand and Asia Pacific Rally Championships. It was that i20 AP4 he was using on the North Island roads. And grabbing his bags at AKL, fully loaded with jet leg just over 48 hours out from the start of the Whangarei Rally, wasn’t exactly ideal.
“It was crazy after we landed,” he says, “just manic with all the media stuff. We ended up being on television channels we’d never even heard of !”
There are few drivers as media-savvy as Paddon in the World Championship. It’s a necessary evil for a driver who has to offer a return for the 70-odd investors, the very folk that made it possible for him to take that step up onto the top of the world in Villa Carlos Paz last month.
Even for him, his post-argentina commitments were a bit busy.
“It was full-on. I’d say we did quadruple the amount of media we normally do,” Paddon says. “But it was great. It was fantastic to see so many different people interested in what we were doing and what we’d achieved. It wasn’t just the regular sports channels and sports people either, it was news channels that wanted to talk about Argentina. It’s great for the sport in New Zealand. But I was definitely surprised at just how much interest there was.
“It wasn’t just in the media, either. Just walking down the road in Auckland, people were coming over and saying ‘well done’. People who don’t really know what motorsport is have been recognising us in the street. It’s been pretty unreal.”
But come Saturday morning, Paddon was back where he belongs.
“Honestly, that was about the first time we got a break,” he says. “When John and I got in the car to go out to the first stage, that was when we got a moment to stop and think about things.”
And reflecting on things meant going over that final-stage dash down the road known as El Condor. The one where he took a quite astonishing 11.7 seconds out of triple world champion Sebastien Ogier, securing his first win.
Paddon: “The key was not worrying about how rough it was – and it was pretty rough in places – and just getting on and driving as neat and tidy as I could. There were some small mistakes…” Small mistakes? Seriously? “Yeah, but that’s me: always looking at the negatives and trying to find ways that I could have gone quicker,” he adds.
Heading north of Auckland, Paddon was on a hat-trick, having won the Otago Rally just before Argentina. Unfortunately, he missed out on the win courtesy of some transmission problems aboard his Hyundai NZ car.
No matter. Paddon’s won there before. Competing regularly at home laid the foundations for his career.
“We had to build up step by step,” says Paddon. “We didn’t have the money to jump ahead two or three steps at a time. But I think that helps. We’ve always had a plan, always had a target and apart from 2012 – when we missed out on the SWRC title – we have always achieved our target. Always ticked the box.” The next box is the big one. “When I signed for Hyundai,” he says, “I said I wanted to be world champion in the next three years. That hasn’t changed.”
The focus returns to Europe. By the time you read this, Paddon will be back to his second home in Frankfurt. The team is testing this week, trying to find more responsiveness from the rear of his New Generation i20 WRC in slow-to-medium-speed corners.
Paddon’s obsessive about driving his career forward, and breaking his WRC duck is not about to change that.
And next time he’s home, he’s got the big welcome to come. He was so busy when he landed in NZ, he didn’t have time to dash across the Cook Strait to the South Island and his hometown of Geraldine. Don’t worry, not just Geraldine, the whole of Canterbury won’t forget. It’ll be waiting for the fastest and most famous thing without a rugby shirt. ■
Photos: Euan Cameron, mckleinimagedatabase.com