Kiwi rally star Hayden Paddon makes his debut as a full-time Hyundai works driver in the World Rally Championship this weekend.
Paddon and co-driver John Kennard are in Sardinia, Italy for round five of the 2014 WRC series -- making Paddon the first New Zealander to sign on full-time as a pro driver with a factory WRC team.
They've proven that they can mix it with the best gravel bashers in the world after being crowned FIA Production World Rally Champions in 2011 -- another Kiwi first.
A seven-event schedule lies ahead of the duo, who are yet to race the Hyundai Motorsport i20. It's also their first crack at Rally Italia Sardegna -- meaning the bar has been set pretty high.
Driven caught up with Paddon shortly after his first pass through the rally stages to see how he felt and how the vital pace-noting process was going.
"We're just finishing sorting through our pace notes now and fine-tuning them," said Paddon.
"It's our first time at this event and the roads are pretty much what we thought they would be like.
"We did most of the stages and they're definitely quite technical with lots of corners and the roads are quite narrow," he said.
Paddon and Kennard aren't overly fazed by the weekend's task, after contesting several WRC rounds in recent years. But not only have they spent more time in the car this year than the previous three combined, Paddon has spent a lot of time in the workshop, chatting with team engineers and mechanics.
He also has the luxury of consulting with drivers Thierry Neuville, Juho Hanninen and Dani Sordo about the i20 WRC's behaviour.
Although this will help in a number of ways, Paddon will want the car set up for his smoother driving style.
"As much as I would like to win, that's a wee way away yet. We just have to get the experience this weekend, as it's been eight months since we did a WRC round, so it'll take a bit of time to get back into the swing of things.
"Everything is new for us and things take time to gel. This weekend is more about getting the maximum amount of seat time, so the idea is to finish all the stages and bring the car home in one piece," said Paddon.
The official opening and super special stage was on Thursday night in the south coast town of Cagliari followed by yesterday's repeated loop of four stages from the rally host town of Alghero on the west coast into the hills and undulating forests in the centre of the island. Today's long 188km leg returns to the same area and comprises just two stages.
The 59.70km Monte Lerno is one of the longest tests of the whole WRC season. Drivers then have to battle four final stages tomorrow to make it to the end of the rally.
"Sometimes when the helmet goes on the red mist descends but I've got firmly in my mind that we're here to learn first and foremost, and we also have directions from the team about what they want to see.
"We're not driving for ourselves anymore, we're driving for a team and have to be respectful of what they want out of the rally.
"Having said that, there's a huge amount of pressure off us knowing this is not just a one-off event and that we have more rallies to go this year," said Paddon.
Paddon has made great progress with his physical and mental training in the past six months and both he and Kennard are focused on working hard to make the most of their opportunity and be fully ready for the challenge ahead.