Despite sitting in fourth after the first day, with only two short super special stages to run later this evening, Hayden Paddon is still the favourite to take the event. In fact, the only thing stopping Paddon’s chances are the Volkswagens of Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) and four-time champion Sebastien Ogier (France), although tyre choice cost him time in the morning loop as he opted for a combination unlike many of his competitors.
"You've got to try these things sometimes. Okay, it didn't quite work, but we're still in the fight with a long way to go. Tomorrow is the day I really enjoy. I just want to stay close today,” Paddon said.
And stay close he did. Despite sitting in fourth, he’s only 22 seconds down on the leader and a mere 0.7 seconds down on team-mate Thierry Neuville, who stole the final podium place off him late in the afternoon.
It’s clear that Mikkelsen is determined to win this rally, though, and to prove he belongs here in the WRC. With VW pulling out of the WRC next year, Mikkelsen is without a drive for 2017 and says he will have to “take whatever is left after Sebastien”. But a win here could make all the difference for the young Norwegian.
His event, and 2017, hopes, nearly came to an abrupt end earlier today when a water bottle got in the way. "It felt really bad in there [SS8], to be honest — oversteer and understeer in every corner. Then I got a water bottle stuck between my feet. I managed to catch it in one corner, but that was scary,” he said at the end of the stage. If a driver gets scared, you know it’s bad…
No such drama for Ogier, apart from sweeping the road during the morning stages and losing some time. However, the Frenchman made up most of this time on the second pass of the stages when he fought his way back up to second.
"I pushed as hard as I could all day. I have nothing to lose, let's see what we can do. This one was quite slippery for us and the tyre wear was high. Usually when this happens we play well. Let's see if this helps us to counteract the [road-sweeping] handicap,” said Ogier.
M-Sport’s Mads Ostberg (Norway) rounds out the top five after Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) damaged his suspension in the first stage and dropped over seven minutes as a result.
But, despite the international flavour, the event also draws hundreds of Kiwis across the ditch, including over 100 on Paddon’s dedicated rally tour with well-known motorsport icons Greg Murphy and Clint Brown joining them as hosts.
In fact, even the Australians are rooting for Paddon. Almost every local I’ve spoken to has said they’re cheering for him and co-driver John Kennard as he’s “one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet”, “he’s fast”, and “don’t tell anyone, but we like the Kiwis”. Well, the secret’s out now and it’s official: the Aussies love us. Well, our talented drivers, at least!
But with Paddon so far up the leader-board, the Rally New Zealand discussion has surfaced again, and it follows you everywhere. As soon as your accent gives you away — something that happens pretty quickly around here, to be honest — the conversation goes like this; “Will New Zealand get the WRC back?”
Unfortunately, no one from either side of the Tasman is saying anything.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the WRC just decided to have both Rally Australia and Rally New Zealand on the calendar only a few weeks apart? It has been discussed before but commercially it would be difficult justify.
There are still two full days of action left, with tomorrow starting at 10.16am New Zealand time.
P.S. A quick shout-out to Hyundai Motorsport who created a line of honour at the official start ceremony last night as the VWs went over the start ramp for the last time. If that doesn’t show mutual respect and good sportsmanship, I don’t know what does.
Results after SS9 (difference to previous / difference to leader):
1. Mikkelsen 55:10.9
2. Ogier +16.8 / +16.8
3. Neuville +4.7 / +21.5
4. Paddon +0.7 / +22.2
5. Ostberg +14.9 / +37.1
Thanks to Alana McIsaac for the words, and Alana McIsaac and Jeremy Rogers for the photos.