At 36 years old, Hayden Paddon continues to find the form of his life, and his 2023 season was no different, with successes in locations all around the world.
It was the European Rally Championship where the Geraldine-born driver was on top of his game, becoming the first non-European to win the championship in its 70-year history, upstaging local hopes and achieving six podiums across seven rallies to claim a 29-point series victory over Latvia’s Mārtiņš Sesks.
With co-driver John Kennard by his side the entire campaign, Paddon piloted BRC’s Hyundai i20 N Rally 2 for all seven rounds, sitting out the finale at Rally Hungary, having already clinched the title without utilising a mandatory drop round.
March’s Rally Serras de Fafe e Felgueiras in Fafe in northern Portugal opened the 2023 championship, consisting of 17 special stages totalling 180.29 km.
The circumstances of Paddons’s victory were anything but mundane, with two leaders knocked out of contention through separate incidents and the Kiwi only taking the overall lead on the final stage for the win.
In difficult conditions, the late Craig Breen was the early leader but lost ground from a puncture on the final stage of the opening day.
That made Mikko Heikkilä the overall leader at the end of the day, shortened from nine stages to seven due to crashes and the conditions. Norwegian driver Mads Østberg was second, 4.2 seconds behind, with Paddon 17.2 seconds down on the lead in third.
A charging start to the final day saw the Kiwi reduce the lead to just 4.6 seconds after the opening loop and he was 2.8 down entering the final stage, having moved up to second. A puncture for Heikkilä on that run saw Paddon come home for the rally honours and take the early championship lead, a position he would ultimately never relinquish.
Rally Islas Canarias on the Canary Islands featured as Round 2, featuring 13 stages totalling 190km with frequent climbs and descents over abrasive sealed surfaces, partly constructed from volcanic lava. The team had initially planned to skip the event as their drop round but were rewarded with a second-place finish to extend their championship lead.
France’s Yoann Bonato was a dominating victor, putting 36.9 seconds over the Kiwis for rally honours, while Spanish driver Efrén Llarena was third, a further 16 seconds behind.
Sesks emerged as a genuine championship contender in Rally Poland, winning the event over Paddon, who opted for a cautious approach in testing conditions for second.
After three rounds, Paddon had a 37-point advantage over his Latvian rival.
Sesks reduced that further at his home event, Tet Rally Liepāja, dominating over familiar terrain for a 41.4-second victory. Paddon was again second, having lost significant ground on an extremely dusty SS2, which was ultimately called off after the leaders had completed their runs.
He would never recover that time but maintained the championship lead by 30 points.
The advantage sprung back to 36 points at the Royal Rally of Scandinavia in Sweden in July, which former WRC star and local driver Oliver Solberg won. Paddon finished second once again for his fourth consecutive runner-up result.
Solberg took a 22.5-second win over the Kiwi, while Sesks was third and a further 47 seconds down the road. Solberg and Paddon were the only stage winners across all 16 runs, the Swedish driver claiming 12 of those to the New Zealander’s six.
Paddon put one hand firmly on the trophy at Rally di Roma Capitale with his sixth podium in as many rounds, finishing third despite suffering damage on the opening day.
A rollover for Sesks on SS4 forced him from the event and gave the BRC entry a 55-point advantage ahead of Barum Czech Rally Zlin and guaranteed a top-two finish in the championship.
Special Stage 10 proved Paddon’s undoing in the Czech Republic, running wide on a high-speed left-hander, swiping a tree and parking up a few hundred metres later.
As the only remaining contender, Sesks had struggled through Day 1. He sat 13th overnight, leaving Paddon and Kennard sitting anxiously on the sidelines to see whether they’d claimed the title or if their rival could pull off an unlikely comeback to remain in contention.
He could not, finishing 11th and seeing the title go the way of the Kiwi pairing.
“It’s a strange way to win it today with the troubles we’ve had, but we’re hugely proud of what we’ve done with the team,” Paddon said after winning the championship. “We’ve had six good rallies and one bad one. All in all, it’s been a very good season, and it’s something for us to build on for the future.
“I’ve loved our time in the ERC this year. A real mixture of events, lots of challenges and the competition over here is huge. I think it’s one of the best rally championships in the world, and hopefully, we can be a part of it in the future as well.”
With the title secured, the duo sat out the season finale in Hungary, which was won by Ostberg.
The ‘Best of 2023’ series will revisit ten of Velocity News’s most viewed storylines from an incredible year of Kiwis competing abroad.
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