Hayden Paddon has clinched his maiden WRC win after an enthralling final day at rally Argentina. The Hyundai star capped off his 29th birthday celebrations in some style by pipping world champion Sébastien Ogier to the winning post by 14.3 seconds after three days of intense completion. In doing so, Paddon becomes the first New Zealander to win a WRC round since the series’ inauguration. The triumph, which dashed Volkswagen’s ambitions of amassing a record-breaking 13 consecutive rally victories, was also the maiden success for Hyundai’s new generation i20 world rally car.
It was a mixed bag for championship leaders Volkswagen, with Ogier and teammate Andreas Mikkelsen completing the podium places. However, for the second consecutive year, the ultimate prize eluded the German outfit in South America. Jost Capito’s team will be left reflecting on what might have been had the then rally leader Jari-Matti Latvala not crashed out on Saturday evening.
Eighteen special stages covering a total distance of 364.68 kilometres awaited the WRC’s finest for the 2016 instalment of South America’s sole top tier rally. Not a single special stage remained unchanged from last year with almost a quarter of the route held on completely new road sections and the remainder tackled in the opposite direction to 2015. As well as drawing up a set of brand new pace notes, penetrating the thick autumn fog that envelops Argentina’s mountainous regions, particularly on the early morning tests, is a constant hazard for crews. Although a pure gravel rally, another potential pitfall in Argentina lies in the sharp contrast between the softer, sandier roads over the first two days of competition and the narrow, rock-strewn tracks encountered on Sunday, deep in the Traslasierra Mountains.
On Friday morning, it was not Paddon but Latvala who had the best of the rally’s opening exchanges. Fresh from his victory last month in Mexico and blessed with a favourable road position, the Finn scooped four of the days eight stage wins to sit atop the standings by 7.9 secs on Friday night. Close behind, almost inevitably, was VW teammate Sébastien Ogier, defying the burden of road sweeping to snatch the fastest time on the day’s first stage and posted a consistent string of top three finishes thereafter.
However, if the VW boys thought they would have things all their own way in Argentina, they were in for a surprise. Oozing with confidence after recent triumphs back home in New Zealand during WRC’s spring break, Hayden Padden proved a constant thorn in the Polo duo’s side throughout the first leg. The Kiwi traded places with Ogier four times during a topsy-turvy opening day, and ended the super special evening test well-placed in third, just 3.5 secs off the defending champion.
With Ogier once again first on the gravel roads, Saturday presented Paddon with a prime opportunity to leapfrog the Frenchman and cement second place. By the time day three was out, the Hyundai man had not only demoted the reigning world champion but also stood almost 30 secs clear out front and on the cusp of WRC history. On a dramatic day of action, a mix of sublime driving and a little good fortune conspired to leave the Kiwi in command of Rally Argentina.
Starting the day in third, Paddon immediately demoted the gravel-bound Polo of Ogier by going fastest on stage 10 before repeating the trick on the next test to make severe inroads into leader Latvala’s advantage. As the world champion’s pace waned throughout the day, the shakeup was beginning to look decidedly like a two horse race. His lead chipped away to just 6.7 secs after stage 11, the Latvala rallied well by posting a brace of fastest times on stages 12 and 13. Gambling on a full set of soft rubber, the Volkswagen man reaped instant rewards and wrestled back the momentum from Paddon to end the Villa Bustos test with a 14.5 second cushion.
However, the following stage would prove to be the rally’s decisive moment. Running a minute ahead of Paddon mid-way through the Los Gigantes test, Latvala’s Polo R struck some bedrock on a fast section, the impact causing his car’s front-right suspension mount to break and the damper to the pierce the bonnet. With no steering response, Latvala lost control, careered into a bank and rolled, his rally effectively over.
The leader’s sudden demise left Paddon well clear out in front, unfamiliar territory for a man who has to think back to Rally Italia 2015 to recall the last time he had such a strong sniff of victory. Paddon won the stage by 0.9secs from team-mate Dani Sordo, but the stat that really counted was the 34.3sec lead over the now second-placed Sébastien Ogier. Despite making small inroads on the day’s final stage, the Frenchman still ended Saturday’s leg almost 30secs in arrears with just 60km on which to claw back an unlikely victory on Sunday’s three speed tests.
Much like the rocky roads in the Traslasierra Mountains, the path to victory for Padden would not be a smooth one. Potential disaster loomed large on Sunday’s opener where the leader was blighted by a perilous cocktail of near zero visibility and persistent gear change problems that caused his i20 to stall twice in the opening kilometres. The lingering morning fog reduced the high altitude test to a mere survival exercise in places, preventing both front-runners from landing any significant blows. Nevertheless, it was the chasing Ogier who came out on top, setting the second fastest time behind DMACK’s Ott Tänak and shaving 7secs off of Paddon’s 29secs advantage.
The gap, by now reduced to 22.4sec, was to be almost entirely eradicated on the very next stage. Ogier, free of fog and road sweeping, was finally able to unleash the full force of his Polo R. His spellbinding run through the penultimate Mina Clavero test blitzed the rest of the field, including Paddon, who saw his advantage almost entirely obliterated in the blink of an eye. Ogier’s brilliance set up a grandstand finish to the rally, with the lead pair separated by a mere 2.6secs ahead of the famous El Condor power stage.
Ogier has made a career of stunning his opponents with earth-shattering performances, crushing their resolve in one foul swoop time after time. This time however, it was the Frenchman himself on the receiving end of a battering, as Padden produced the drive of his life on El Condor. Throwing caution to wind after haemorrhaging time earlier that morning, the New Zealander made mincemeat of the infamously tight and twisty mountain stage. With the Hyundai i20 pushed to its absolute limits, Paddon flew down the mountain over 11 seconds faster than anyone else in the field, leaving a flabbergasted Ogier powerless to stop the Hyundai star putting a definitive end to Volkswagen’s record-breaking ambitions.
Andreas Mikkelsen provided some consolation for the German outfit by securing third place in the number three Polo R. The Norwegian was quickly able to get the better of Hyundai’s Dani Sordo on Friday to cement fourth before profiting from Latvala’s retirement to climb in to the podium places. A spin in the fog on El Condor saw Mikkelsen drop 10secs but it wasn’t enough to allow fourth-placed Dani Sordo to crash the podium party, the Hyundai team leader coming home 11.9sec further back in a second Hyundai i20.
Beginning the rally second in the championship standings, M-Sport’s Mads Østberg proved unable to keep pace with his chief competitors. Well off the leader’s pace in fifth, the Fiesta RS pilot can count himself lucky not to have joined fellow Scandinavian Latvala back in the service park after a pace-note error saw him spin off on Sunday’s opener. Bundled back on the road by spectators, the 30secs lost here made no real difference in the final shakeup; with sixth-placed Thierry Neuville too far adrift to threaten after a loose fuel pipe cost him over 6 minutes on Friday.
Rounding out the top eight were home hero Marcos Ligato, who scooped a remarkable seventh place on his WRC debut in a DS3, and M-Sport young gun Eric Camilli. The latter will be content to have finally completed a WRC round unscathed after previous accidents in Mexico, Sweden and Monte Carlo.
The championship picture looks decidedly different following Hyundai’s second ever success at WRC level. Reigning champion Ogier still leads the way with a comfortable 39 point cushion over his rivals. However, it’s all change in the chasing pack where the Norwegian duo of Østberg and Mikkelsen both find themselves demoted by the jubilant Paddon. He climbs to a career high second in the drivers’ standings after his maiden triumph in Argentina.
Following its brief sojourn in Latin America, the WRC heads back across the pond for the inaugural gravel rally of the European season in Portugal. The action on the Iberian Peninsula gets underway on the 19 May.
Final Results: Round 4 – Rally Argentina:
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