As Hyundai sign new WRC star, what happens to Hayden Paddon?
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The motorsport world can be a savage place, especially when it comes to those top echelons where dog eat dog is very much a common occurrence. The World Rally Championship is one such place, and we're beginning to see some of the savagery unfold before our eyes.
The latest news is that Volkswagen refugee Andreas Mikkelsen has secured a two-year deal with Hyundai Motorsport. The Norwegian was very impressive at Volkswagen, showcasing himself as a potential future champion while racing alongside Sebastien Ogier. But when the 'Dieselgate' saga struck, Volkswagen Group had to pull various motorsport programs to cover off costs; including the WRC.
Mikkelsen was thus kicked to the curb, picking up minor drives in the feeder WRC-2 class with Skoda, as well as a few drives with Citroen and Hyundai. The latter comes in the form of stand-in drives at the final three rounds of the championship, where he will replace Hayden Paddon at Spain and then it's expected Dani Sordo will give way at Great Britain and Australia.
In the process of announcing the signing, Hyundai reiterated that Paddon and Sordo would both be retained for 2018 as per their existing contracts. As it stands, this means that we'll either see the team expand to four cars, or (much more likely) Paddon and Sordo will be forced to share a car throughout the season.
It's been a very tough season for Paddon. This was meant to be 'the year', and it's been anything but. Three DNFs and the horrible events of round one punctuate a year filled with crap luck and occasional mistakes (including one that probably cost him victory in Italy). His equally embattled teammate Sordo has had a more consistent season, but it's hard to ignore that he hasn't won a WRC event since 2013 with Citroen.
Speculation time ... One has to wonder if he has any other options outside of staying on board as Hyundai's gravel wing man. Yes a contract is in place (and note that loyalty is typically very strong in drivers from Geraldine), but if Paddon were to negotiate an exit clause things could get very interesting indeed.
Hyundai isn't the only team in the paddock undergoing change. Both M-Sport and Citroen are on tenterhooks, waiting for Sebastien Ogier to side with one or the other.
The former champ has said that he would stay with M-Sport if the team can gain more backing from Ford — citing in interviews that he doesn't believe the team's Fiesta package will stay competitive with the factory efforts of teams like Hyundai. Citroen meanwhile have said that they want him, saying that signing him is a "priority".
Either way, one party is going to walk away with Ogier, and the other will need to find themselves a driver to plug the hole. And Ogier isn't the only one who could be on the move ...
Ford's Elfyn Evans isn't locked in, nor is the team's part-time young up and comer Teemu Sunninen, or even their lead driver Ott Tanak after enjoying a breakout 2017 season. There's potentially a seat available at Toyota too, with the team's third driver Juho Hanninen potentially on the outer. Then there's Citroen, who only have the sometimes-exciting sometimes-terrifying Kris Meeke locked in. The French manufacturer could even woo Sebastien Loeb out of WRC retirement for a rally or two...
A driver of Paddon's caliber could in theory slot into any of these seats, amidst the swarm of paying drivers who are also trying to sniff out an opportunity.
Still, there are three rallies in the season left. Three events for drivers to impress. Three chances for people to turn their own tides.