Hyundai's failed WRC challenge highlights Hayden Paddon's value
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It’s worth considering the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship in halves — the seven rallies in the first part of the season and the six more since a northern hemisphere summer break.
When the championship resumed at Rally Finland in late-July, Hyundai Motorsport’s first term performance saw it leading the Manufacturers’ title with 212 points ahead of M-Sport Ford on 184 and Toyota Gazoo Racing on 161.
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville (Belgium) also headed the driver’s title standings with 149 points from defending champ Sebastien Ogier (France) on 122 and Ott Tanak (Estonia) a distant third on 77. Things looked good for Korean success.
Four months later Rally Australia decided the World Rally Championship last weekend and as another big turn-out of New Zealand fans celebrated Hayden Paddon’s impressive podium drive, Hyundai Motorsport left Coffs Harbour empty-handed in the title stakes.
How did that happen?
Firstly, Tanak went on a three-rally win streak in Finland, Germany and Turkey to surge into contention. Radiator damage in Great Britain cost him a very likely fourth win on the trot and ultimately a non-finish in Australia ended the Estonian’s slim hopes. But Tanak was the dominant driver through the second half of the season in terms of stage wins and scoring 104 points.
Ogier completed the year scoring on all six rounds and taking one rally victory. His second term tally was 97 points and that built on a similarly solid first half to secure his sixth consecutive title.
World title number six for Sebastien Ogier (right) and co-driver Julien Ingrassia. Photo INMOTION/Greg Henderson
What then of Neuville? The Belgian lost momentum with only 52 points accumulated from the last six rallies. Four other drivers outscored Neuville in the second half of the season, yet he was still Hyundai’s top points scorer in that period.
Crucially Neuville was outscored by Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi, who provided support to Tanak’s charge and powered Toyota ahead in the manufacturers title as the Hyundai effort faltered.
Hyundai had reached mid-season with three wins from seven starts. It didn’t win again.
It’s tempting to look at Hyundai’s mid-season lead and suggest it let the Manufacturers’ title slip from its grasp. The reality is no-one had an answer for the Tanak-Toyota surge which was supported by Latvala claiming three podiums before he took victory in Australia last weekend. And on the two occasions when Toyota didn’t win the big points went to Ford and Citroen.
Finland's Jari-Matti Latvala scored his only victory of 2018 in Australia with a well-judged drive in his Toyota Yaris WRC. Photo INMOTION/Greg Henderson
Analysis of the second half of the season also provides a clear measure of Hayden Paddon’s value to Hyundai.
When it was announced that Paddon and Spaniard Dani Sordo would make space in the 2018 Hyundai line-up for Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen — by sharing the team’s third car — the calendar saw Paddon’s campaign back-loaded into the second half of the year with four of the last six rallies. Sordo meanwhile contested four of the first six.
After a February fifth place in Sweden, Paddon crashed heavily in Portugal and then nursed a back injury through the Italian round in Sardinia to finish fourth and reach the summer break with only 22 points.
Since then two podiums, a fourth and a seventh in four starts has been worth 51 Driver’s Championship points, just one less than Neuville accumulated from six rallies and well ahead of Mikkelsen’s tally of 28 in the same period.
Power Stage bonus points don’t count toward the Manufacturers’ title so in terms of a contribution to the Manufacturers’ title Paddon led the way for Hyundai with 45 points. Neuville contributed 44, Mikkelsen 30 and Sordo provided 10.
Hayden Paddon in action in Australia. Photo INMOTION/Greg Henderson
From his full 14-round campaign Mikkelsen only managed 84 points. Paddon’s seven rallies earned 73 points and Sordo had a yield of 71 points from seven rallies.
Paddon delivered his most convincing performance of the year in Australia. Under pressure to score Manufacturers’ points, the Kiwi was a safe pair of hands delivering a consistently fast pace and a second-place finish. He outpaced his Hyundai team-mates, scored three stage victories and made certain Hyundai didn’t slip to third in the Manufacturer rankings.
So, what will Paddon be doing next year?
If Hyundai still had four drivers on its books for 2019 it would probably be another ride-sharing arrangement — perhaps with the additional twist of Mikkelsen being brought into the rotation policy as well.
Next year the championship expands to 14 rounds with the addition of a new event in Chile. There would be a strong case for giving Neuville a full season with Mikkelsen and Paddon getting 10 or 11 events each and keeping Sordo on a 6-8 rally programme. And if the championship expands again in 2020 a rotation system could have further benefit.
Chamionship-winning Ford is still looking for a driver next year. Photo INMOTION/Greg Henderson
But Paddon’s Hyundai contract expired after Rally Australia so staying with the Korean brand into 2019 requires a new agreement. The length of that contract and the scope of the programme being offered — somewhere between a full season and more than the seven events than he got in 2018 — is likely the key part of discussions. In Australia Paddon indicated that would likely take a couple of weeks to settle.
Paddon’s alternative for staying in the WRC appears to be severing his Hyundai connections — provided a solid opportunity exists with M-Sport rather than just speculation.
The car that has just won back-to-back Driver’s Championships in the hands of Ogier — who is departing for Citroen — remains the best unfilled space in the 2019 drive roster.