Hayden Paddon opens up about the Monte Carlo Rally crash that killed a spectator
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But the path to success hasn't been easy for Hayden Paddon.
The 32-year-old has suffered bullying and depression. On January 19, 2017, he and co-driver John Kennard withdrew from the World Rally Championship in Monte Carlo after his car plunged into a spectator while sliding on black ice.
The 50-year Spanish man died.
The incident left him "at rock bottom" and happened the same year his 10-year relationship ended.
In the following extract from his new book, Driven, he details the incident.
Around 2km from the end of the test, we unexpectedly hit the black ice that the bleak, inhospitable Monte Carlo Rally lays out for the unwary. We came out over a bridge and into a long left-hand corner. This section was where the road had dried out in the past. We were on the other side of the mountain face where there is usually less ice. We had nothing in our ice notes. We had no warning.
The first part of the corner looked like it opened up and cleared. Driving to what I saw and with no cautions from John, I was on the throttle. I put my foot down. Black ice out of nowhere. I didn't even see it. The car snapped completely sideways at full power. Keeping my right foot hard up it was the only way to get out of a situation like this.
When I was a young lad, learning to drive a rally car, it felt unnatural to get on the accelerator when I was sliding out of control. Common sense suggested I should slow down, hit the brakes. That just makes it worse. Counterintuitive as it was, I had to learn to hit the gas instead. Dad instilled this driving tip in me early on.
A memory of him teaching me to drive on the lawn behind our house flashed into my head — just for a split second. I had a serious situation on my hands demanding all my attention.
We were sliding sideways on sheet ice, on this long, long left corner. There were Armco barriers on the inside. A rock face stretched along the road as far as I could see on the outside. I glimpsed spectators standing on it, watching us approach. With no control over the car, I was as much of a passenger as John was.
Then I saw him. One spectator. Standing on the roadside. With his camera. He's got no escape route. There is a rock face behind him, which he can't leap 5m up in a single bound.
He should never, ever have been there. The first rule of rally spectating is don't walk out onto a "live" stage. Once the non-competitive zero car has been through — lights flashing a warning — spectators shouldn't be anywhere near the road. Stand behind the safety tape if it's there, and if not, don't stand on the outside of a corner — it's the worst place to be if a rally car steps out of line.
In utter disbelief that someone was standing right on the roadside, I slid helplessly towards him at about 80km/h. There was nothing I could do to prevent the inevitable collision. I couldn't slow the car down and I couldn't get enough grip on the ice to power out of this terrifying drift.
Just before the impact, I looked out John's window at him. His camera was up to his face until that moment. He didn't even run. He didn't move. Nothing. Didn't even drop his camera. Did he even register what was happening?
The clash of his lens hitting the rear window was sharp enough to pierce through my helmet's sound-proofing. The car's back end collected his body. A sickening thump. I couldn't see what had happened to him. I know we hit the camera. I know we hit him. I desperately hoped that at the last second, he'd stepped away. Maybe he'd escaped with minimal injuries?
The car hit the cliff face, spun around and landed on its side. The windscreen was smashed open, but otherwise there was no mechanical damage. Ordinarily, John and I would have got out, pushed the car back on its wheels and carried on. There was nothing ordinary about this crash.
Shaking uncontrollably, I crawled out the front window to find complete chaos. People were running around the car. I felt like I was going to throw up and everything began spiralling out of control.
"This is not good," I found myself repeating.
Like when I'd hit the spectators in Argentina two years earlier, there was no way I was going behind the car. I couldn't go there. Didn't want to see the damage a rally car does when it barrels into a human being.
Again, it was John who took on this unenviable task. He went behind the car — trying to survey the situation, trying to help.
I ran up the road to stop the next rally car, which is standard rally procedure in the event of a serious accident. We also immediately activated the car's SOS safety switch, which sends a distress signal to rally HQ calling for urgent help.
I knew I'd hit the spectator because there were people crowding around the back of my Hyundai. I felt completely untethered. Like all the accidents I'd had over the years, it had happened so quickly.
Sitting down, my head in my hands, anguished questions chased themselves through my mind. Why was he standing there? He might as well have been standing in the middle of the road. Why didn't anyone tell him to get off the road? He was in the most dangerous place you can stand in a rally, on the outside of a corner.
We were the third WRC car to go through that stage. The two cars before us also had moments there where they nearly crashed. The black ice, we couldn't see it. It wasn't visible white ice. We came off the white ice and thought it had improved. Click fingers — black ice that's invisible at night.
Time slowed down and everything that happened next took on a blurred, unreal quality. We waited for the helicopter to come to take the guy away to a hospital in Nice. Was he alive or dead? I didn't know.
The stage got cancelled. Someone picked John and me up in a car and we left the accident scene. I hoped with all my might that the spectator was hanging in there. I kept trying to get answers, but no one could give me any. What was going on?
"'He's in critical condition but he's still breathing," someone said.
I had an ounce of hope.
Then the ambulance officer told me something different.
Every report was conflicting. It was an ongoing nightmare, but this wasn't one you wake up from, sweating. This was real.
When we were about 10km down the road being driven back towards the service park by a Hyundai team member, I got a phone call with the worst news I'd ever received.
"Sorry, he is dead."
Tears streamed down my face.
Five minutes later, my phone rang again. They told me he wasn't dead after all, but he was in a critical condition.
My head spinning, I went from total despair to tentative optimism, all within a few minutes. What was going on here? I had no idea.
Another 30 minutes later I got another phone call.
"Sorry, he is dead."
Within the space of about an hour, the spectator had been dead and alive and then dead again. I had no idea what was going on.
Deep down, I knew he had died on impact. I knew he was gone. The speed that we hit him, there was no way he was going to survive that.
I am incredibly saddened by today's accident and my thoughts are with the family and friends of the person involved...p1 https://t.co/Wu6Hw01LGJ— Hayden Paddon (@HaydenPaddon) January 20, 2017
It's difficult to say much more at the moment as we are in shock with what has happened. I'm sorry for the family, the fans & our sport! p2— Hayden Paddon (@HaydenPaddon) January 20, 2017
We went back to the service park, where the police turned up about midnight and I did a report with them. I told them the accident details.
John and I had gone through all the necessary processes. We'd pressed the SOS button in the car. We'd done everything the way we'd been trained to — we got the emergency services there and stopped the next rally cars.
Photo / Geoff Ridder
It was about 3am by the time we got back to the hotel. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I drifted off to sleep, but woke a few hours later hoping, wishing it had been a bad dream.
Looking at the news feed on my phone, reality crashed in. I spent a few hours just lying in the room that morning trying to regain my composure before I went to the service park to see the team.
My car was back sitting in the service bay. When I arrived, FIA inspectors were looking at the damage. It was minimal for an accident that had had a consequence of that magnitude. The covers were quickly pulled back over it, and that's where the car stayed for the weekend — covered up.
Feeling completely lost, I tried to do the right thing. Apologising to the team. Trying to be respectful of the situation. In the public eye, I tried to hold it together and not create a scene. After all, there was a grieving family back in Spain who needed everyone's thoughts.
In the coming weeks, I tried to contact the family, but understandably they didn't want to hear from me and I respected their wishes.
I couldn't wait to leave Monte Carlo later that day, to get away from everybody and be on my own. Like most stressful situations, I prefer to deal with them in my own space and in my own time.
Even though the car was fine, there was no way I was rejoining as I'd done in Argentina. I was anything but fine. It wasn't the right thing to do and my head was a total mess. I absolutely couldn't have got back in that car and driven the next day.
Heading back to Frankfurt early, I had two weeks before Rally Sweden to get my head straight and process the knowledge that I'd inadvertently killed someone. Yes, he was in the wrong place. Yes, I know it wasn't my fault. But ask yourself, how you would you feel in my position? That's right — pretty damn terrible.
The first day afterwards, I kept to myself, I shut down. You won't find me crying on someone's shoulder or talking it out.
The worldwide media were in a frenzy over the incident. I never talked to any of them about what happened. I declined all interviews. Still, the reporters wouldn't leave me alone. I didn't answer my phone. I refused to reply to any emailed questions.
I had a good team in New Zealand, especially my PR manager Kate Gordon-Smith, who was back there doing her best to shield me from the unwanted publicity.
The statement side of it, I managed myself with my own media team. Hyundai Motorsport put this out the day after:
Hyundai Motorsport is deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of a spectator during the opening stage of Rally Monte-Carlo on Thursday evening.
The incident occurred at the same time as the #4 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC of Hayden Paddon and John Kennard crashed into the mountainside, after the car hit a patch of black ice at the entry to a left-hand turn.
The team and crew have pledged their full support to the event organisers and authorities to understand the full details.
Hyundai Motorsport extends its condolences to the family, friends and individuals affected.
We'd released an earlier statement the night of the accident, which had been heavily criticised. When we put it together to let our fans know we were out of the rally, I was advised to not mention anything about the spectator. We said nothing about hitting anyone. It got posted during the time when I was getting the conflicting stories. It wasn't my place to say what was happening.
I copped a lot of flak for that. Apparently, it came across that I wasn't thinking about the welfare of the injured man. I was just worried about myself. I only cared about the rally.
Social media should've been a no-go zone for me. Like picking a scab that I knew I should leave alone, but can't, the aftermath was made even more painful by seeing all the comments. Every armchair expert was coming up with their own theory on what happened.
The big story for a while was that the spectator fell off the cliff when we hit the rock face. There was all this bulls*** going around. Only John and I knew what the real story was, but I couldn't very well come out and correct them.
There was no official statement put out to say clearly what had happened. For me, it was straight cut. A 50-year-old Spanish man was standing in the wrong place on a stage. I hit him by accident with my rally car. He died.
I went into radio silence for a couple of weeks. Had nothing to do with the media. Licked my wounds. Got ready for the next rally in Sweden, the best I could.
By Hayden Paddon
Penguin Random House
Released Aug 20