New Zealand’s international rally stars Hayden Paddon and John Kennard are excited but keeping things real as they prepare for their first competitive event in a world rally car with the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team at this week’s Rally RACC/Rally de Espana.
“Naturally, as a competitive person, I want to perform, but I don’t want to overthink it and put unnecessary pressure on myself,” Paddon said on Saturday upon his arrival in the rally’s host city, Salou on the Mediterranean coast about 100 kilometres south of Barcelona.
“The gravel will be a challenge for us as we have never driven a world rally car on gravel and our scheduled test with the Ford Fiesta RS WRC is on tarmac. Rally de Espana is unique in this year’s FIA World Rally Championship in that it’s the only mixed surface event – Friday and Saturday’s stages are asphalt and Sunday’s are mostly gravel.
“It is an event we’ve done twice before, so we have a good sense of it and it’s a rally I mostly enjoy. The tarmac stages are smooth and flowing, almost like a race track. However the gravel stages are quite tricky, with a soft sandy surface which can be slippery if wet or dry. Two years ago they had dust problems here, last year was the problem of too much rain, so hopefully this year there will be a happy medium.
“The first gravel stage on Sunday we’ll will be focussed on getting a feel for the car and the greater horsepower on this surface. Earlier, on the tarmac we hope to set some competitive times and get more used to the Fiesta world rally car.
“Of course, I’m very excited about the opportunity and cannot wait, but equally John and I are trying to treat the event like any other, to stay relaxed and focused and do the best job we can.”
Paddon’s Ford Fiesta RS WRC is one of five being run by M-Sport in Spain as he joins the team’s regular drivers Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov, Nasser Al-Attiyah and Thierry Neuville, as well as Ford Fiesta R5 driver Elfyn Evans as part of the Qatari team line-up.
“It’s all very new working with M-Sport at the moment but they are obviously a very professional team with a lot of experience. I’m sure they will help make our transition to the world rally car as easy as possible as they have been already very helpful and supportive.”
Kiwi rally fans won’t be surprised by Paddon’s no nonsense approach to the biggest professional opportunity he’s had to date. The down-to-earth three-time New Zealand rally champ, who hails from a farm outside the small town of Geraldine, south of Christchurch in the South Island, is well-known for his friendly demeanour and work ethic since he first started racing karts at the age of six.
During the past fortnight, Paddon has visited M-Sport at their Cumbria, UK home base to test a Ford Fiesta R5 rally car, which has a very similar chassis to the world rally car model. He’s also spent two days with high performance trainers Formula Medicine in Viareggio, Italy.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity to continue developing my abilities as an athlete and driver. Formula Medicine has worked with over 750 drivers from around the world, particularly in Formula 1. They’ve helped me focus on areas that I have not worked on before, but these are not things that I will perfect straightaway; it’s about developing new ideas which, over time, will become second nature. While we are also working on my training programmes, we also look at mental training as in being mentally efficient while expending as little energy as possible. It’s not the sort of stuff we think about every day so it’s really interesting and challenging, and helps me take those incremental steps forward.”
Now in Spain, Paddon has been joined by his Blenheim-based co-driver Kennard prior to their first and only test run in the Ford Fiesta RS WRC on tarmac on Monday. Following Paddon’s own vital work reviewing their pace notes alongside in-car footage from their and other drivers’ previous runs at this event, Kennard will tidy the notes in preparation for fine-tuning them further for faster pace of the world rally car which they’ll assess during their own reconnaissance through the 355.92 kilometres of 15 special stages on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning.
Kennard says he’s equally as excited as Paddon.
“We’re very much looking forward to the challenge of lifting our game to try to compete with the other seven or eight world rally cars at the front of the field that we haven’t been able compete with in the S2000 car,” says Kennard, a former WRC team manager who has partnered Paddon for all three New Zealand Rally Championship titles and his breakout 2011 FIA Production car World Rally Championship title.
Kennard adds: “My preparations will be much the same, although I will have to concentrate even more during recce on the linking of the pace notes, so their timing and flow suits the higher speed of the world rally car.
“This is hopefully the start of the culmination of eight years of hard work, from a multitude of fantastic, enthusiastic people who have worked on this project with Hayden and me. There’s still lots of work, and a bit of luck, needed, but it’s chances like this we have to grab with all four hands.”
On Thursday afternoon, Paddon and Kennard join other ‘priority 1’, i.e. WRC drivers, for the first time during the extended time made available for this elite group for their shakedown runs on a 2.15 km stretch of asphalt. Paddon and Kennard will also join their WRC colleagues for Friday afternoon’s publicity activities prior the event’s ceremonial start at 6pm in Barcelona. They then contest the first three special stages in the dark on their way back to Salou.
Paddon says he’s always enjoyed night stages. “We have not done any night rallying this year, however we generally have a good set of pace notes which means we can visualise the road ahead well in day or night.”
Six stages per day on Saturday and Sunday include some key challenges such as Saturday’s two runs of the monster 42.04 km El Priorat stage which combines very fast tarmac and twisty, narrow sections, and Sunday’s twice-run 35.68 km test, Terra Alta, which throws up five surface changes from tarmac to gravel and back.
Paddon adds: “Generally, the switch from asphalt to gravel is a real challenge for the drivers as you need to be able to adapt your driving style pretty quickly. For me, for example, I’ll be going from right-foot braking to left-foot braking over the course of just a few hours. That aside, we have the perfect opportunity to show what we can do on both surfaces.”
Rally de Espana wraps up in Salou around 4.30pm on Sunday.
Paddon welcomes New Zealand supermarket chain Pak ‘N’ Save to the Stadium Cars World Rally Team’s 2013 programme. His national and international campaigns are made possible with the support of Pak ‘N’ Save, VINZ, Giltrap Group, PlaceMakers, Z Energy, Stadium Cars, Telecom New Zealand, CP-Carrillo, Saddle Hill Quarries, Heartland Potato Chips, New Balance, Scott Sports, Total Automotive Timaru, Coxy’s Panel Repairs, Resene, All About Signs, Reaction Racing, In-Tune Automotive, Racetech, Chicane, Endless Brakes, Nichibo, Choice at Team Ralliart, Andar The Front Store, MCA Suspension, Tyre General, Dunlop, Pope Print, Bluebridge Ferry, ION, and 1Group.