New Zealand's top rally driver Hayden Paddon created motorsport history today in becoming the 2011 FIA Production World Rally Champion after winning the production category at Rally Australia.
Paddon becomes the first person in the Southern Hemisphere to ever win a world rally championship, taking the 2011 PWRC title with four consecutive category wins - another new record set by the talented Kiwi in his second PWRC season.
He still has two PWRC events to contest this season but, with a perfect score of 100 points to his credit, the Subaru driver can't be beaten.
"I can't believe it, it's incredible!" Paddon said at the prize-giving.
"Rally Australia wasn't an easy rally at all for us, but we made it. Twelve months ago I was back home in New Zealand with no money, no sponsors and we didn't even think we would be able to do the PWRC. We found the sponsors, we found a car and a team and now we're here after a stunning year. And for sure there's still a lot to come. We'll try as hard as we can to come back next year in something bigger and better."
The 24-year-old's successful weekend in the forests and gravel roads around Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales coast was topped off by scooping eight WRC points for finishing sixth overall, a phenomenal feat in a Group N production car.
Paddon and co-driver John Kennard, from Geraldine and Blenheim respectively, started Rally Australia with 75 points on the championship points-table. His closest rival, Czech Martin Semerad, has 50 points, but didn't nominate Australia as one of his six PWRC events. Swedish driver Patrik Flodin was third on the leader-board with 34 points, but also skipped Australia. This left Polish driver Michel Kosciuszko as the competitor most likely to challenge Paddon for PWRC points.
Thursday evening's opening two runs around the harbour-side super special stage saw Paddon take it gently and Kosciuszko set the quickest times. But come Friday morning Paddon stormed through the rain-slicked, ultra-slippery stages, sealing a clean sweep of stage wins in the morning loop to build a 55.6s second lead over second-placed Kosciuszko. The unexpected rain made the afternoon stages a pure endurance test for all competitors, including Paddon, who said: "The clay-based roads were treacherously slippery."
Paddon tackled the second loop of three stages with his usual consistency and, despite easing off due to the adverse road conditions, extended his lead and finished Friday with a 1m, 22s margin over Kosciuszko who was unable to match the 2010 Pirelli Star Driver's relentless pace.
Day two, Saturday, dawned fine and sunny with perfect road conditions.
"Saturday's first stage started well until 3km from the end when the turbo pipe blew apart and we lost all power. We tried to make roadside repairs between each of the remaining three stages before service, but to no avail. We lost over two minutes to Michel, who took the PWRC class lead, and arrived back at service over 50 seconds behind him. With repairs made, we attacked on the repeated afternoon stages."
Paddon wasn't about to let his dreams of sealing the championship on his home continent fade. He whipped through the afternoon stages, clocking four stage wins to take the lead back from Kosciuszko by just 1s on SS18, the last gravel stage of the day.
Sunday and the rally's final day saw the Kiwi star rebuild a comfortable 51.3s lead on the opening loop of three stages before cruising through the final three stages to bring home his fourth consecutive event win and the provisional PWRC crown. Officials note that while Martin Semerad can still draw level with Paddon by winning the final two events of the season. However, the Czech would still lose the title on count-back, leaving Paddon the champion.
Paddon was also awarded the Abu Dhabi Spirit of the Rally for his record-breaking achievements.
When asked how hard was it for him, as a young Kiwi driver, to make his way into the World Rally Championship, Paddon replied: "It has definitely been hard. Possum Bourne was a rally legend in New Zealand for a long time and along with a lot of other people, I looked up to him and when he passed away rallying took a bit of a hit back home. There has never been a set pathway for Kiwi drivers to make their way to the WRC, so that has been the hardest thing. Also finding the budget has always been an issue, there are some big companies in New Zealand but with the global crisis it is hard to find financial back-up.
"Having said that, the team at Subaru has been really supportive to us and they helped us to make the move from our long-time association with Mitsubishi to drive a Subaru this season. They make a big effort in the PWRC backing up teams and drivers. The Belgian team that is working with us - Symtech Racing - is very passionate and enthusiastic and they did a fantastic job this year, as has the loyal Kiwi crew who are here with me this weekend to run our New Zealand-owned CR Properties/Placemakers Subaru."
Paddon and Kennard head back to Europe late in October to contest Rally Spain in the Symtech Racing-built Subaru before wrapping up their current season at Rally Great Britain in November. Plans for 2012 are still to be decided as Paddon and his New Zealand World Rally Team continue to seek commercial partners and the right deal to progress Paddon's stellar career.
- HERALD ONLINE