New Zealand's world rally stars Hayden Paddon and John Kennard are determined to come back fighting at this week's FIA World Rally Championship rally on the Italian island of Sardinia.
From the highs of their first-ever WRC win in Argentina, the Kiwis suffered a tough blow in Portugal, after their car caught fire following an off-road excursion on the opening day. But with their trademark determination, Paddon and Kennard have put that drama behind them as they make their third start on the narrow, rocky roads of Sardinia, an event which marks their second anniversary with Hyundai Motorsport and their first WRC podium finish last year.
Paddon's crew returned from Portugal earlier than the rest of the Hyundai Motorsport team to begin work on a new i20 WRC car and impressively turned around the job in just seven working days. At the same time, the team also carried out its pre-event test in Sardinia with all four driver crews - Paddon, Dani Sordo, Thierry Neuville and Kevin Abbring - spending one full day each preparing for the event.
"The boys did an amazing job building the new car," said Paddon. "They had a spare bare shell but then everything needed sourced or made which was the big part of the job. I was able to get to the workshop a couple of times, and as much as I would have liked to be helping, in this environment it's best to leave to the experts. But hats off to them all for a job well done.
"To go straight into a really good test day is also positive. We were able to clarify the problems from Portugal, but also find some small steps forward with other parts of the car - it's the best feeling I have had driving the New Generation i20 WRC. We are still learning and developing new setups with this car every time we drive it."
Hosted in the coastal resort town of Alghero in the north-west of Sardinia, Italy's summer WRC round is a rough, rock-strewn gravel challenge that often favours a lower road position. Ambient temperatures can top 30 degrees Celsius and cause strain on engines, tyres, components and crews as the cockpits reach 50-plus over a stage.
Starting fourth on the road for Friday and Saturday's long sets of special stages, Paddon says: "Rally Italia Sardegna is a very tricky rally due to its rough narrow roads and high temperatures. We have some new stages on day one but day two - the longest of the rally with 177 competitive kilometres - is similar to previous two years. The key is to set a consistent pace from the start and try to stay out of trouble.
"This rally generally has a lot of sweeping for the earlier runners so being fourth on the road won't be as advantageous as we had last year [when Paddon and Kennard were 11th on the road]. However our main rivals are ahead of us on the road and we have to take advantage of that. Generally, grip levels are quite high on the second pass.
Paddon adds: "It's not a rally I used to enjoy, but with it marking our second anniversary with the team and since our first podium, it's now an event I look forward to. This will also be our first time doing an event in a WRC car for the third time, that alone will help a lot."
Following the dramatic fire in Portugal, Paddon says he's more determined than ever. "Particularly to repair the work the guys have done. We have left no stone unturned in our preparation and aiming to compete near the front."
Kennard says returning to Sardinia after last year's podium means they both have a very positive feeling, despite Portugal.
"Add to this, our very good pre-event test and our confidence levels have stayed high," says Paddon's Blenheim-based co-driver. "The biggest challenge in Sardinia is probably the heat - it's always hot and sunny. On test we had 35°C, but luckily it looks like the rally maybe a bit cooler. The technical stages also mean there's quite a bit of information in the notes to capture during reconnaissance and then convey to Hayden during the rally."
Rally Italia Sardegna is often a rally of attrition, as ruts and rocks form car-damaging hazards especially during the repeat run of each stage. The rally opens with a new Ittiri Arena Show super special near the service park location in Alghero on Thursday evening before eight tests on Friday to the east of Alghero, including the all-new Tula stage. Saturday's six stages total a massive 177 competitive kilometres with two repeated runs on two 22km tests and the rally's longest stage of 44.26km. The final day, Sunday, takes place just north of Alghero with the picturesque Cala Flumini coastal road and the new Sassari-Argentiera stage, which forms the event's 6.96km power stage.
Paddon says as a medium speed event, the narrow nature of the stages makes this a technical rally. "There some tyre tactics in play on the first loop but generally on the second pass we'll all run the hard compound option."
The New Zealanders are running car #3 for the Hyundai Shell World Rally Team with team-mates Dani Sordo and Marc Marti in the #4 i20. Kevin Abbring will join Thierry Neuville in the Hyundai Mobis World Rally Team in the #10 and #20 cars respectively - the second time Hyundai Motorsport has fielded a four car team this season.