Interview by Ross MacKay, photo by Timo Anis
Kiwi rally ace Hayden Paddon is the quiet achiever in the World Rally Championship (WRC). In this exclusive interview he talks about success in Sweden, his new Hyundai i20, and how starting out in New Zealand has shaped his career.
MEN: Nice drive to P2 in Sweden Hayden. Must be a confidence booster heading into the rest of the 2016 season?
HP: It certainly is. Was much more than we were ever expecting from such an event. However, at the same time the goals and objectives remain the same for each rally and the year. We will continue doing our own thing.
MEN: Great way to start off your campaign in the new car as well. What – from the driver’s seat if you like – is the biggest change from last years’ car? More or better power? More or better grip? Better brakes and/or under brakes? Etc.
HP: You can’t really compare the cars, it has been completely redesigned from the ground up. The biggest advantages are the engine and the stability/balance of the chassis. The car is a little longer so not as nimble, but this is overcome by the step with the suspension and geometry that has been made. It does require a small change in the driving.
MEN: Roll back the years now. When you were growing up in Geraldine did you ever imagine you’d be in the position you are now? Or were you always more of a one-step-at-a-time-and-we’ll-see-where-it-gets-us’ type of guy?
HP: I always had goals and dreams to be at this level, but I do have to pinch myself how far we have come. All those years ago it was a passion and a dream - but a far-fetched one at that. But I have been single-minded throughout the whole journey; rallying is not just a part of my life, it IS my life, and that is how it has been treated the how way along. We did what we had to do, and when things got tough we didn’t throw the towel in – that was never an option.
MEN: Speaking of growing up in New Zealand, we’re on a bit of a roll at the moment in terms of producing world-class drivers; you in WRC, Earl Bamber at Le Mans, Brendan Hartley in World Sportscar Champs, Scott Dixon in Indycars etc, etc. They all started in karts then moved to cars via a fairly well-worn path. What about you, though? Was NZ a good place for you to learn the basics of rally driving? Or could you have done the same just as well, say, in Aussie or anywhere in the UK or Europe?
HP: There are pros and cons both ways. The grass roots level of motorsport in New Zealand is the best in the world – easily accessible and encouraged. Also, in New Zealand you can obtain motorsport and civil drivers licenses quite young compared to most countries, which helps you to get a jump start. However, being so withdrawn from the rest of the world and our small economy makes it more difficult to make that step into world motorsport. It’s not impossible, but does require proper planning and A LOT of patience. It’s amazing to see what Kiwis are achieving on the international motorsport arena, and I’m sure there is much more to come.
MEN: You and John Kennard have what looks like a rock solid driver/co-driver relationship. How did it start? And how important is that relationship in and to your success to date?
HP: Rallying is a huge team sport, not just the co-driver, but the whole team. But yes John’s role is key in the car. We first got together in 2006, and John joined us on the basis of “see where it goes”. At that time we were just starting on the national scene, and were looking for someone experienced to help me develop. As time went on our relationship has grown immensely. Now we are both striving to do the best job we can each do, and trying to achieve the same thing. We know each other inside and out, and despite that personality-wise we are quite different, I think we complement each other perfectly, with the right mix of everything.
MEN: Speaking of relationships, one of the areas (from my point of view anyway) you excel at is communication. You obviously realise how important it is for your career progression in terms of looking after your backers, sponsors and fans?
HP: It’s one of the most important aspects. Right from when I secured our first sponsors when I was 12. Looking after and giving our partners “bang for buck” is the only way you can progress in the sport. The power of social media has also changed things a lot, and we like to share our journey and experiences with as many people as possible. Especially Kiwis who because of the sheer distance to Europe find it difficult to attend events - so we share it with them online to try and make it feel like they are there. Also I have been lucky to have a lot of help, support and advice from a lot of people over the years, and get a real kick out of helping as many others as possible and passing on some of the things we have learnt.
MEN: Speaking of which, I know lots of people have helped you get to where you are, but is there someone or some group or some company that helped at a pivotal time to get you to where you are today?
HP: There are literally 100s of people, and I am hugely grateful for every single person who has helped and believed in my dream. The biggest turning point for us was the creation of our company Hayden Paddon Rallysport Global (HPRG), where we opened up to sell shares in my future. We had over 60 shareholders invest in my dream, and this was the core of our funding (along with key partners) from 2011-14. This was the stage of our career where we had to self-fund campaigns in support championships to the sums of millions of dollars – without this we would never have had a chance to get first, the event experience required at WRC level and second, the attention of the factory teams. HPRG is a big family, and one that I am very proud and humbled to be part of.
MEN: Better ask the obvious question : what are your goals for 2016 –.and beyond?
HP: Obviously my ultimate goal is to be world champion, but that won’t happen this year. This is a sport where things take time, and we are targeting to try and win the world title by 2018. In the meantime we need to continue developing, and the next step is to try and win our first rally. I have specific goals/targets for every rally, and this will remain unchanged this year. It is about the process, and putting all the building blocks in place to achieve the ultimate goal.
MEN: Another typical question you must get asked all the time. Why rallying? And allied to that, who was your hero when you were growing up?
HP: My father was rallying when I grew up, and it was the environment I was brought up in. I did a stint of karting for a few years at the Carrs Road track in Christchurch, and at the end of that I had a choice between rallying or circuit racing, and where I wanted to spend the $500 I got from selling my go kart – a rally car or a circuit car. It was an easy decision, rallying was what I loved! Growing up, Possum Bourne and Colin McRae were massive inspirations.
MEN: OK, now some quick-fire questions from our readers. Favourite rally? Favourite surface to drive on? Least favourite surface (to drive on)? Favourite part of the world apart from home? Best fans (at which rally)? And here’s a good one to wrap things up: .Audi Quattro (like Stig’s) or Escort Mk 1 (like Hannu Mikkola’s)? If money was no object , which one would you have liked best if you had been born in the 1950s or 1960s rather than the 1980s?
HP: Favourite rally is of course Rally New Zealand, but outside New Zealand Finland is definitely a favourite. Gravel has always been my preferred surface as that’s what we grow up on in New Zealand, but at the same time to try and win a world championship you have to be fast on all surfaces. That means tarmac also, an area of weakness at the moment (due to a lack of experience) but it’s something we are working on to improve. Hard to pinpoint one country as there are so many passionate rally fans around the world. The ones that stand out are Argentina for the sheer volume (up to one million spectators over the three-day rally), Portugal, Finland (it’s a massive party the week of the rally), Poland (very passionate about Robert Kubica), Spain etc. Finally, if it was between a Mk2 and a Quattro, then a Mk2, but because it’s a Mk1, would probably be the Quattro, as it is a little faster. But they were all nice cars!
MEN: One last question mate. What advice would the Hayden Paddon of today (28-year-old WRC ace) give to a 15-year-old Hayden Paddon in terms of rallying, life etc?
HP: To be patient, it’s a long hard road ahead but never give up!