World rally star Hayden Paddon returns home this weekend for the latest New Zealand Rally Championship event on the roads he learned to drive on.
Rally South Canterbury makes a return to the national championship this year — the first time since 1984 — and features roads in and around Timaru and Geraldine, where Paddon grew up.
"It is definitely pretty special," Paddon told the Weekend Herald. "This is obviously where it all started for me. This is where I learned to drive. My first rally, my first crash — everything was here.
"This district is why we got to where we have today so it is nice to come home and compete on some of my favourite roads in front of those people."
While it would be easy to think he will have the advantage of local knowledge, the 31-year-old Hyundai driver can barely remember what the roads are like having been away for so long.
"To be honest, I don't remember them at all," he said. "The last time I drove these stages was 10 years ago. I have driven a lot of roads since then. I am sure once we go out and do the recce some of the memories will come back to me."
Having convincingly won the first two NZRC events this year, Paddon missed the most recent round in the Canterbury forests because of his WRC commitments.
He crashed heavily at Rally Portugal and received injuries that were worse than first reported.
Paddon was battered and bruised when he contested Rally Sardinia this month and was concerned another big accident could be a major issue for his health. But time is healing the injuries and he is nearly back at full fitness.
"Everything is feeling pretty good. Sardinia was always going to be pretty hard on the body because it is such a rough rally. It is one of those things with every day and every week it is getting better.
"For New Zealand roads it is not a problem — the roads are so smooth and we don't really have the jumps or compressions, which is where the problem was.
"I am back to full training now — it is a matter of being careful with it but there are no restrictions now."
Paddon will also get some tougher competition this weekend with one of the strongest fields assembled for an NZRC event. Reigning champion Andrew Hawkeswood will compete for the first time this year while three Australian stars have made the trek over — reigning Aussie champion Nathan Quinn, Australian-based Irishman Richie Dalton and the impressive Brendan Reeves, who has won Rally Coromandel for the past two years.
Reeves, who is good friends and works alongside the Kiwi at the factory Hyundai WRC outfit, is expected to really push the local star.
"Brendan is a good driver and I rate him very highly and I think he will be very competitive" Paddon said. "From our point of view it is nice to have that sort of competition because it keeps you honest and makes you push a bit more.
"Not only is it Brendan but Ben Hunt has been doing very well this year. You have got Nathan Quinn and a few others.
"I think it is a huge testament to where New Zealand rallying is at the moment — to have 96 entries and a quality field; lots of AP4 cars and the top 20 are all capable of a top-five finish."