Hayden Paddon and John Kennard are just over 17 sec behind rally leader.
New Zealanders Hayden Paddon and John Kennard hold a strong second place on the leader-board after the first two days of Rally Sweden. Paddon and Kennard are just over 17 sec behind rally leader and three-time world rally champion Sébastien Ogier with just one special stage to run on Sunday (European time).
With colder weather improving road conditions significantly since the pre-event reconnaissance, the World Rally Championship’s only true winter, snow rally was able to get underway with six stages on Friday instead of the scheduled eight. Rally organisers had shortened the whole rally due to earlier rain and warmer than expected weather creating soft, muddy roads rather than the ice and snow for which the compulsory studded tyres are made.
Driving the five-door New Generation Hyundai i20 WRC car in competition for the first time and running ninth on the road (with start order decided by drivers’ championship positions), Paddon and Kennard had steady start on the first three stages which took them into Norway.
We are aiming to defend second place, which will be a very good result for the team and, of course, for Hayden.
“Driving the car in competition for the first time means a few things to adapt to,” Paddon said, having finished the morning in sixth overall. “We know from experience that the afternoon loops are better with the road conditions, so we’ll have to hope we can get a bit closer.”
As heavy snow started to fall, the three stages were run in reverse order for the afternoon. In what would be a significant move, Paddon and Kennard were able to take advantage of their road position – a clearer line in the falling snow from earlier competitors – and push on to win Friday’s final two stages. This saw the Kiwis leap-frog other competitors suffering mechanical woes and take second place overall, 32.4 sec behind Ogier.
At the end of Friday, Paddon said: “To be in second was much more than we were expecting, especially after this morning. Okay, we had an advantage this afternoon (running ninth on the road) which was a disadvantage this morning when there was no snow. To come up to second, to be in a good close fight with four or five of us to be on the podium tomorrow is a nice position to be in. But it’s going to be a big fight; very close. We have to try and find some improvements overnight, try and get a bit more comfortable in the car. There’s a lot more room for improvement so we have to keep pushing.”
Just 15 seconds separated Paddon in second and Andreas Mikkelsen in sixth, setting up a closely-fought five-way battle going into Saturday. Plenty of long-awaited snow in the region overnight meant the stages were in much better condition for the studded snow tyres. For Saturday’s five stages (reduced from eight), crews started in championship order, which put Ogier first on the road again and Paddon seventh.
Paddon and Kennard delivered a strong performance on Saturday morning, with consistent top three stage times, including a stunning run through the popular Vargåsen stage – which features the spectacular Colin’s Crest jump – to slash the gap to Ogier to just 8.8 sec. More importantly, edging closer to Ogier meant a bigger buffer to the hard-chasing Mads Ostberg in third.
By the end of Saturday, the Kiwis continued well and finished the day comfortably holding second. Their margin to Ogier was 17.1 sec, and they were 25.2 sec ahead of Ostberg.
“We went into the penultimate stage 10 sec behind Ogier and that’s like a minute to anyone else,” said Paddon after SS16. “We need to be smart.”
Of Saturday overall Paddon said: “It’s been a good day. To consolidate our positon in second is very good. That was obviously the target today. We got pretty close to Seb there in the morning run when road conditions played into our hands. We weren’t able to quite keep pace on the afternoon stages, but still we’re very happy to be where we are.
“It’s a short day tomorrow. We really just need to concentrate on maintaining the position. This would be a great result for the team and for ourselves if we can finish it off, so that’s the target now.”
Rally Sweden concludes on Sunday (European time) with just one special stage, after organisers cancelled yet another of the scheduled four stages.
Of Paddon’s Hyundai Motorsport team-mates, Dani Sordo continues to hold sixth place despite suffering a puncture on Saturday morning’s opening stage, which lost him a minute of time, and Thierry Neuville attempted to rebuild his rally after Friday’s differential troubles and set a massive 44-metre jump through Colin’s Crest, which equalled his record-breaking effort from last year.
Team Principal Michel Nandan commented: “We’ve had another day of mixed fortunes for our three drivers. Hayden has had another fantastic day, working very well to make the most of road position advantages to reduce the gap to the rally leader. Our focus is not on fighting for the win, although it has been good to see our New Generation i20 WRC again show its potential to be quickest on stage. We are aiming to defend second place, which will be a very good result for the team and, of course, for Hayden.
Anything can happen, even with just one stage left, so we have to remain cautious. Dani is still inside the top-six despite his morning puncture. Thierry, meanwhile, has had a generally good run today, although he suffered a broken damper at the end of the second run through Vargåsen. Let’s hope for a trouble-free final stage tomorrow and – I hope – to see Hyundai Motorsport colours on the Rally Sweden podium again!”