Experiencing the terrifying beauty of rallying with Hayden Paddon
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There's a hidden, unspoken truth with this motoring journalism malarkey.
Just a few inches beneath the surface of most of these pencil-swinging, word-writing, key-pushing automotive types you will discover that plenty of them believe that they — through their experiences behind the wheel — are actually above average drivers.
But I'm not just talking about driving the morning school run; I'm talking about proper high intensity stuff. Pedalling supercars around race tracks and four-wheel drives around mountain tops. They're the kind of people who could believe that given the right training regime, the right set of circumstances, they could probably outgun Louis Hamilton around Spa.
Or maybe it's just me.
But it's always good to keep the ego in check, and nothing can do that like complete and utter devastation of personal ability. Nothing can quite do that like sitting in the passenger seat of a purebred gravel war machine next to Hayden Paddon.
We're in Maramarua Forest at Rally Drive NZ — a fabulous little loop of gravel that snakes through a forestry area, and my trembling self is squashed into the passenger bucket seat of Paddon's AP4-based Hyundai i20 built by Force Motorsport.
Paddon, like the Dixons and Hartleys of this world, is deceptively cool and calm. His greetings are jovial and his eyes reveal a smile within the confines of his helmet.
It's almost enough to lull one into a false sense of security, but then the engine begins to bash against the rev limiter. It's only a 1.8-litre Hyundai four-pot, but with it's more than adequate for the task — especially given the addition of a Garrett turbo, four-wheel drive, and a decreased weight of 1,230 kg.
He releases the clutch, we shoot forwards with remarkable force, and for the next five minutes I become a blubbering child.
The major difference when riding shotgun in a circuit car is that nine times out of 10 you're familiar with the circuit. You brace for brake markers and sharp corners, while also tracking the car's path to the next apex with your eyes.
In a rally car, at least in this instance, I have no clue where we are. No clue where the next bump, the next deeply cambered corner, the finish line is. My eyes are darting around the horizon as we rocket along reaching speeds of over 150km/h, searching for any kind of clue as to where the next apex lies, only to find nothing.
I catch glimpses of Paddon out of the corner of my eye, and by contrast he looks a little bit like my mother does when she's trying to insert a thread into a needle. His eyes pierce the windscreen and the dust to seek out the optimal line, operating the car like it's on some kind of gimbal — floating from corner to corner while hanging its rear end out and spraying the locals with rocks and dirt.
We reach the end of the course, and I can feel my heart trying to phone it in for the day. The seat-belts feel tight, and my hands are twitching.
“Bit of a boring road, I know,” says Paddon.
I muddle something incoherent about disagreeing, as he performs a three-point turn and directs the car towards where we've come from then a couple of minutes later we're back, and the most intense and exhilarating experience I've ever had on four wheels is done.
As you read this, the 29-year-old is on the other side of the world in Mexico at round three of the 2017 World Rally Championship.
His Hyundai Motorsport team are in the hot seat to challenge for overall victories this year. And, I can't see why he can't be central to that charge. We're right behind you Hayden.