With the WRC circus due to arrive on our shores, motorsport pundits are once again predicting big things for Hayden Paddon’s future. A good showing against the crème of WRC2 talent on home soil is viewed by many as an essential step to regaining a factory drive. No pressure, then.
Of perhaps more interest to local competitors, however, is determining who might accompany Hayden if he returns to the world stage. And a tarmac rally in Wales is providing us with the biggest clue yet.
It’s no secret that Paddon Rallysport has been searching for a replacement for the venerable John Kennard for a number of years. The 63-year-old officially retired from navigating in 2017 but has since kept re-surfacing on demand. Hayden has tried a number of alternatives but has yet to find the perfect substitute for his long-time partner. Curiously, he has never reached out to this correspondent – I fear my catering demands are well outside his budget.
A successful trial run together at Rally South Canterbury saw young Christchurch co-driver Jared Hudson suddenly leap into contention. At age 18 he already has six years of rally navigating under his belt so the kid’s no novice – especially when every other member of his family has co-driven at the top level.
The pair have entered a Hyundai i20 R5 in Rali Ceredigion – the Welsh tarmac round of the British championship – to conclusively determine if Jared indeed has The Right Stuff.
I interviewed the lad before his departure off to the Aberystwyth asphalt.
“Jared – you’ve never left the Southern Hemisphere, never rallied on tarmac before and don’t speak Welsh. Why do you think you’re a better option for Hayden than me?”
“I’ve yet to develop any ingrained bad habits, plus I’m 40kg lighter.”
“Touche. I don’t actually speak Welsh either but I thought it might rattle your composure.”
He appeared decidedly unrattled. To be honest, he looked like he should be reading Harry Potter or sitting NCEA Level 1 rather than plotting the intricacies of the Cambrian countryside.
“Look,” I continued, “I’m having trouble getting my head around your obvious youthfulness. This is easily the most plumb navigating job that has arisen in the last decade and you appear to be on the verge of nailing it.”
He matter-of-factly explained this had always been his target from Day 1 – to compete as a professional in the world championship. If the offer from Hayden hadn’t occurred, then he would’ve concentrated on building his skills and relationships with other Kiwis on their way to the top.
“But you’re only 18,” I protested. “When I was 18 my biggest concern was getting chucked out of the public bar for underage drinking. I even grew a moustache to convince the publicans how mature I was.” Note to self: facial hair is no guarantee of maturity.
Jared pointed out that youth was fast becoming the norm at international level. “Kalle Rovanpera won his first title in Latvia when he’d only just turned 15. Are you going to ask him at the Rally New Zealand press conference if he’s too young to be world champion?”
The truth hurt. Liam Lawson is still only 20 and appears poised on the verge of greatness. Marcus Armstrong, Hunter McElrea and a host of other Elite Academy graduates are leading the charge and waving the Kiwi flag on circuits around the planet.
I’ve even noticed it on NZRC events. While I’m idly flicking through restaurant menus, my young rivals are sitting in their motel rooms poring over video footage and agonising over every millisecond they can potentially gain.
Jared looked at me earnestly. “Have you ever thought that perhaps you’re no longer cut out for rally navigating?”
I felt a cold shiver pass through my body.
“Don’t say that!” I hollered. “Kyle recently asked me exactly the same question about journalism…”
This article first appeared in the September 2022 issue of NZ Autocar Magazine.