Dale Budge is a sports writer for the NZ Herald.

Motorsport: Fresh start for Hayden Paddon at Rally Mexico

Hayden Paddon was playing catch-up during his last event in Sweden. Photo / photosport.nz
Hayden Paddon was playing catch-up during his last event in Sweden. Photo / photosport.nz

In many ways this week's Rally Mexico marks the start of Kiwi rally driver Hayden Paddon's 2017 season.

His accident on the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally's first stage saw him take no further part in the event while he played catch-up to his rivals learning his new generation Hyundai i20 on the snow and ice of Sweden last time out.

So back on his favoured gravel surface Paddon will be hoping to factor at the front of the field.

"Sweden was important - obviously to get over the accident from Monte Carlo but also to get some time in the car," Paddon told nzherald.co.nz.

"A lot of people forget that because we didn't do Monte Carlo, Sweden was effectively our first rally with the new generation car. Even I probably under-estimated that. It didn't gel at the beginning of the rally and things weren't feeling comfortable but certainly by the end it was starting to feel normal."

The first two rallies of the season have thrown up some rogue results. Kris Meeke (Citroen), Thierry Neuville (Hyundai) and Paddon were all seen as genuine title contenders alongside four-time world champion Sebastien Ogier. But all three drivers have failed to bank a big pile of points and find themselves some way behind Frenchman Ogier and surprise championship leader Jari-Matti Latvala's Toyota.

"It is certainly wide open," Paddon said. "The obvious thing is there doesn't seem to be a clear manufacturer that is leading the way. All four teams seem to be quite close with the cars and there are a lot of variables that are affecting the results and that is great - close competition and not knowing what to expect."

Paddon is confident Hyundai has a car that is as good as any of his rivals and points to Neuville's speed in the first two rallies - the Belgian led both events at the midway point before running into costly problems.

"I think we have got a strong package - Thierry has shown that. He has had good speed. It hasn't quite gelled for us just yet for several reasons. We have to refine the set-up to suit my driving style a little bit better and that is something we have been working on recently.

"We certainly don't have a bad car that's for sure and I think it is a car we can challenge for wins in this year.

"We've had two bad rallies - that's fine. We'll put them in the back pocket and now we have another 11 chances."

Mexico is a unique event in itself. The predominantly mountain stages are at altitude and the light air significantly reduces the car's power while there a numerous obstacles scattered around the roads to catch out any small mistakes.

"It is a specialist event - we are losing up to 20% power," Paddon explained. "Because we have more power this year it will make the car feel more comparable to what we have been used to previously. But still when you do lose that power you have to be smoother and more precise with your driving.

"It also does come down to which team can tune the car best for high altitude. You can't really simulate those conditions very well in Europe so there is some guess work there. You just trust that your team is making the right choices.

"When you keep it in the middle of the road it is actually quite a smooth gravel rally. As we have found out at our last two attempts there are a lot of obstacles on the side of the road - rocks and ditches and that is what has got us unstuck before - hitting things.

"The key is to keep it on the road. It can be quite slippery so it can be challenging to do that."

Not prepared to say he is targeting a win in Mexico Paddon is hoping to be in the frame.

"I enjoy being back on the gravel especially after Monte Carlo and Sweden but it is probably not my favourite gravel event but in saying that we said the same about Argentina last year and we got a win there."

- NZ Herald

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