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Motorsport great Hayden Paddon on bouncing back from the toughest years of his life

Hayden Paddon in action at the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship in Portugal (Photo: supplied)

Motorsport great Hayden Paddon on bouncing back from the toughest years of his life

After hitting a career-low in recent years, New Zealand’s most successful rally driver ever is ready to once again take on the world. He talks to George Driver from his Cromwell garage about reaching WRC success against all odds, the trauma and disappointment of the last few years, and his plans to build the world’s first-ever electric rally car.

I’m in Hayden Paddon’s happy place and I’m trying not to cover it with vomit.

Screeching sideways around Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, Paddon’s calmly demonstrating what he does for a living, and he’s kind enough not to laugh as the colour drains from my face.

Fortunately, as we fly over a blind crest and plunge off the track, the flood of adrenaline counteracts the nausea. I’d spent the past two weeks watching videos of Paddon, including footage of his car bursting into flames after rolling down a bank in Portugal and plunging over a cliff in Sardinia. For a second I wonder if people will soon be watching similar videos of me on YouTube.

But as we deftly slide back onto the tarmac and into another hairpin bend, I remember to enjoy it. I remember that the man behind the wheel is the greatest rally driver New Zealand has ever produced.

Earlier that day, Paddon told me that this – finding the line between gracefully sliding around a corner and plunging off the road in a burning wreck – is the only place he feels truly at home.

“For me, it’s my safe place, my happy place,” he says.

“It’s probably the only place in the world where every problem in the world disappears. For however long that stage might be – two minutes, half an hour – it’s fully fixated on that moment and everything disappears.”

In a place where most people find terror, Hayden Paddon finds solace and meaning.

He’s not like other people.

Paddon is the only New Zealander to ever win a stage of the World Rally Championship (WRC). His career has brought him global acclaim in a sport that’s viewed by more than 800 million people each year. He has 400,000 Facebook followers, which is more than Black Caps captain Kane Williamson and almost twice that of New Zealand’s highest paid athlete, NBA star Steven Adams.

And yet, despite being just 33 years old and at the peak of his abilities, it’s a career that’s now often talked about in the past tense.

“The last couple of years have been, how do I say it … Tough is probably an understatement.”

(Photo: George Driver)

Sitting in his office at the racetrack at Highlands, clad in Paddon Rallysport kit, he reflects on the highs and lows of his 20 year ride to the top of rallysport.

His life has been dedicated to rallying, a single and consuming focus, almost since birth. He grew up in Geraldine, a small rural centre on the edge of the Canterbury Plains. His father, Chris, had started racing a few years before Paddon was born and began encouraging his son from the time he could walk.

He got his first set of wheels when he was 18 months old – a go-kart powered by a windscreen wiper motor which his father built. He promptly drove it into the garden.

He graduated to a chainsaw-powered go-kart when he was six and began competing in local events, in between weekends tagging along with his father, who raced in the New Zealand Rally Championship.

“It’s always been a way of life really. When you’re brought up around that environment it just blossoms.”

At eight years old he set himself the goal of becoming the best rally driver in the world – a goal that would eclipse everything else in his life for the next 25 years. But from the small rural town at the bottom of the world, his prospects weren’t good. In his autobiography, Driven, he says it was about as likely as a Finnish club rugby team winning the Rugby World Cup. There has never been a WRC champion from New Zealand – no New Zealander had even won an event. There’d never even been a champion from outside of Europe.

Undeterred, he got his first rally car at age 13, selling the two pet cows he raised to buy a 1982 Leyland Mini for $500. He’d race “the brick” through back-paddock racetracks around Canterbury, funding the rallies by going door-to-door, selling sponsorship deals to Geraldine businesses at $100 a pop.

Hayden Paddon during his grass go-kart racing days (Photo: Supplied)

The pivotal moment came at age 16 when his father handed over the keys to his rally car, a Toyota Corolla Levin. Now outclassed by his teenage son, he never competed again. Instead, he dedicated his time to helping him achieve his dream.

He quickly climbed the ranks and won the New Zealand Rally Championship in 2008 at age 21, becoming the event’s youngest champion. He went on to win the Production World Rally Championship (PWRC), a feeder into the WRC, in 2012. In 2014, at age 26, he made it to the very top tier of the sport. He was signed to the Hyundai Motorsport team and began competing in the WRC.

The WRC is the pinnacle of rally sport and is said to be the most challenging form of motor sport there is. Competing over 12-13 events around the world on gravel, tarmac and snow, it pushes drivers and their cars to the very limit – physically, mentally and financially.

It’s enormously popular. The rallies regularly attract crowds of over 300,000 – there were more than four million WRC spectators in 2018 – and TV audiences regularly top 80 million.

The stakes are literally life and death: 19 competitors and at least nine spectators have been killed in the sport’s 48 year history. And despite the pressure on the driver, much of the result is out of their control – a mechanical failure or an errant rock can, and frequently does, end a driver’s race, wasting the hundreds of hours and millions of dollars that went into it.

On top of this, it’s a sport dominated by Europeans, almost to a hostile degree. Today, there are no WRC drivers from outside of Europe.

But by getting signed to a manufacturer’s team, Paddon had cleared one of the biggest hurdles. Searching for an analogy, I suggest to him it’s the equivalent of getting signed to an NBA team.

“No,” he says, “it’s even rarer”, likening it to getting signed to an NBA team if there were only nine players in the entire competition.

“Basically, at that end of the sport, the only way you can make it is in a manufacturer’s team. There were only three manufacturers teams then and only three drivers in each team, so in the world, there were nine seats,” he says.

“To get one of nine seats, coming from the other side of the world, where there was no pathway, no fellow countryman to follow – it was a pinch-yourself moment.”

Hayden Paddon racing during the WRC Finland, 2016 (Photo: Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

But for Paddon, it was just another step towards his goal.

The following year he became the most successful New Zealand rally driver in history, winning his first podium, coming second in Sardinia (Possum Bourne’s best result was third in the Rally NZ WRC event in 1987). Paddon’s success was so unexpected the event organisers didn’t even have a New Zealand flag to fly at the prize-giving. Fortunately, a Kiwi fan lent them one.

Then on Anzac Day in 2016, Paddon was the best driver in the world, beating the world champion Sébastien Ogier to win Rally Argentina, becoming just the second driver from the Southern Hemisphere to win a WRC event.

“It was definitely surreal. But as soon as that rally was over, and once all of the hours and hours of media stuff was finished, my brain was on the next rally,” he says. “I wanted to win another one.”

Everything was falling into place for his dream of becoming world champion. Then it started to fall apart.

He crashed out of his next two races. He recovered later in the season, finishing a respectable fourth overall. But it foreshadowed what was to come.

His first race of 2017 was the worst moment of his career. At the notoriously difficult Rally Monte Carlo – defined by black ice, narrow roads and hairpin bends – he lost control and hit a spectator, who died soon after. The 50-year-old Spaniard was crouched on the roadside, backed against a rock face. He was in a restricted area. He wasn’t meant to be there. There was nowhere to escape – nothing anyone could do. It’s another ever-present risk in WRC, where the crowd can often be all but on-road (this dashcam footage from Paddon’s win in Rally Argentina gives you an idea).

Paddon was devastated and pulled out of the race. Based in Germany away from family and friends, with little emotional support from his team and hounded by international media, the traumatic event had a lasting impact. And his next race was just two weeks away.

“It took a few months to emotionally recover. Any sort of trauma like that will affect your performance, whether you like it or not. You’re human.”

Hayden Paddon at the World Rally Championship Great Britain on November 2015 in Pont Rhydgaled, Wales (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Paddon finished towards the bottom of the table in his next races and failed to finish four times that year. Then he was dropped for the penultimate race of 2017.

He says it wasn’t just the disaster in Monte Carlo that affected his performance.

“We were plagued by technical problems. After the halfway point of the year, 75% of the failures in the three Hyundai cars were in our car. It got to the point we were thinking ‘what is going on here? Why is all this stuff happening in our car?’”

On top of everything, his relationship with his fiancee and partner of 10 years ended – she would end up marrying one of his Hyundai teammates.

“It was one of those years where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. We lost a couple of sponsors, the family cat died. Pretty much everything I touched in 2017 just turned to complete and utter rubbish.”

To finish the year off, his contract with Hyundai was cut back for 2018 from competing in all 13 WRC rounds to just seven.

“We had one bad year and actually the only bad year I’ve ever had in motorsport, but we seemed to get heavily punished.”

Paddon believes being a New Zealander in a team of Belgian’s and French worked against him.

“We were always on the outside. And for sure there were hidden agendas in the team,” he says. “Something changed in 2016. We know the number one driver in the team (Thierry Neuville) wasn’t happy that we were beating him, so something politically happened there. We’ll probably never know the answer.”

Paddon, however, fought back. He won two podiums in his last three races in 2018 and finished in the top five in five rallies. He had an agreement to race in seven rallies again in 2019. But then just before Christmas, he found out he was dropped from the team. Hyundai had instead signed nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, the most successful WRC driver of all time. Paddon was left stranded, his dream crushed.

“We were left high and dry. Because of our commitment to Hyundai NZ and the brand, which I’m committed to the long term, we couldn’t really go and talk to other teams or look for other opportunities.

“We got completely blindsided and unfairly too. The last rally we did we got second, so it’s not like we were performing badly.”

Paddon refused to give up on his dream. He hustled, drawing on 20 years of experience of finding a way. He managed to get a deal with the M-Sport Ford WRC team (remarkably, with Hyundai’s permission) to compete in two rallies in 2019 in Finland and Australia. A foot in the closing door of the WRC.

The first rally was over before it began. He hit a rock which had fallen onto the road during testing, writing off the car. Too late to find a replacement – rally over. Three months later, Rally Australia was cancelled due to the bush fires. It all came to nothing.

But it gets worse.

Next to winning the WRC, his dream was to win a WRC round in New Zealand. The event had been a regular feature of the WRC circuit for decades, but it was dropped from the championship in 2012. Paddon had campaigned for its return and it was set to come back this year in September. But in a cruel twist, without a driving contract, it looked like he might not be able to compete in his home rally where he had a huge chance to win, in his own conditions, in front of a home crowd.

Again, he hustled. He managed to convince Hyundai to launch a second rally team to compete in four events in a new multi-million dollar agreement. He had new and distinctly Kiwi livery developed for his car – black and green emblazoned with a silver fern.

Then when he was about to sign the deal, Covid-19 brought the world to a halt. The NZ rally was cancelled in June.

“Again it got ripped away from us,” he says. “If anything I can probably laugh about it now. The amount of times we’ve tried to get back into the WRC, and the amount of funding we’ve had to try to find to make it happen, and for it to fall on its face three times in a row is very frustrating. But you’ve also got to laugh as well.”

Despite all of the work, planning and investment to bring the WRC back to New Zealand, the event appears to have been dropped from next year’s schedule. The itinerary is still being developed, but with Australia already confirmed, making a surprise return to the circuit, it’s very unlikely both countries would be included.

Hayden Paddon at Paddon Motorsport headquarters in Cromwell (Photo: George Driver)

So what do you do when being among the best in the world still doesn’t seem to be good enough?

After his contract with Hyundai was a cutback in 2017, rather than abandoning his dream, Paddon made it bigger. He moved back to New Zealand and started planning to win a world motorsport championship, but with a local team.

“All of that experience ignited the fire to go ‘well, we’ll do it with our own team then and we’ll do it the Kiwi way’.”

WRC teams typically have budgets of up to 100 million euros a year and 250 staff. To do that from the other side of the world on a relative shoestring budget seems like an insurmountable challenge. But then, so was making it into the WRC to begin with.

Paddon has moved into an apartment at the Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, a racetrack often regarded as the best in the country. He has a workshop at the park and has recruited some of the country’s most talented engineers and technicians.

His first step is to try and change rally sport forever.

Currently, he’s developing the world’s first electric rally car, transforming a Hyundai Kona into something that can compete, and beat, the world’s best combustion engine vehicles.

“Motorsport has always been a place where new technology is developed and showcased, but it’s getting to the point that the sport’s getting left behind,” Paddon says. “Now you can buy a car off the showroom floor that is more sophisticated than a motorsport car.

“Electric cars have come so fast it’s caught the sport napping. We want to be the first to showcase how the technology can work.”

But it’s not just about showcasing new technology. Paddon believes an e-rally car can perform even better than a petrol-powered vehicle.

“At the end of the day I’m a petrol head, but the biggest appeal to me as a driver is speed. I just want to go fast and an EV will go faster,” he says. “An EV has more power and more torque than an internal combustion engine vehicle. But the biggest element is it has more tunability. Using computer programming software we can make the car do so many different things you could never do with an internal combustion car.”

After 18 months of development, the car is expected to hit the track in October and Paddon hopes it will compete against internal combustion engine cars in the New Zealand Rally Championship next year.

“That will put us on the map and we’ll use it as a launching pad to show what we can do and take it around the world.”

(Photo: George Driver)

But it all requires an enormous amount of funding, something that’s just as important as driving talent in succeeding in rally sport. Incredibly, Paddon wasn’t paid as a professional driver until he got a full-time contract with Hyundai in 2014.

“It took 15 years and a lot of funding to get to that point,” he says. “Even when we were trying to make a comeback during the last couple of years we’ve had to take a lot of money to the table. It’s just part and parcel of the sport.

“You’ve just got to accept how it is and try to find ways to overcome those challenges.”

As a teenager, on top of his “Shop Geraldine” sponsorship campaign, Paddon often worked four jobs as a motorbike sales agent, a paperboy, a fish and chip shop worker, and a potato harvester. Now with Paddon Rallysport, he’s developed a fully-fledged business. In his workshop below his office, a team of mechanics works at overhauling motorsport cars for other New Zealand teams. He’s also launched his own line of brake pads.

“A lot of European drivers are coming through on family money or wealthy investors, and a lot of people are buying their way into the top level of the sport. We never had that privilege and I prefer it that way. We had to work really hard, scrape the barrel for every single cent and that gave us the work ethic and the motivation to make it happen.

“Now we’re trying to grow the business to support our rally activities and draw on that experience we’ve gained from racing around the world.”

Sponsorship is still an integral part but Paddon says working with sponsors and building relationships is something he loves about motorsport. One of his longest supporters is Z Energy, a company that, despite its core product, has endorsed the role of electric vehicles in decarbonising New Zealand’s transport system and has invested in electricity retailer Flick Electric.

“Without sponsors, I never would’ve got where I am [today] and Z are my longest-standing partner. We’ve been with them since 2012. They came on board just as we were starting to make inroads overseas, which was our toughest time financially when we had to self-fund three years of racing on the other side of the world.

“We wanted to associate ourselves with good Kiwi brands with the same values that we had and it has worked really well. We’ve built a family environment and for us to be associated with them is humbling.”

But he also hopes he can inspire the country to get behind his vision.

“What we ultimately want to do is almost like the whole Team New Zealand thing with yachting, we want to do that with motorsport. Running it all out of New Zealand with New Zealand people taking on the world. And to be honest the rallying campaign would probably make a yachting campaign look cheap.

“It goes to show it’s not impossible.”

And New Zealand has a proud history of people working in garages and changing the world. The Aucklander who formed a racing team that’s become the second most successful team in Formula One history. The man who built a motorbike in his garage in Invercargill went on to smash the world speed record, later portrayed in a film by Anthony Hopkins

Can the boy from Geraldine take on the world from a garage in Cromwell?

“I don’t feel like I’m getting any slower and the fire’s burning pretty bright to make that happen.”

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