KIWI driver Hayden Paddon’s return to the FIA World Rally Championship has ended brutally with a high-speed collision with a rock during testing for next weekend’s Nesta Rally Finland.
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Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta they were to drive in the rally when they hit the rock on the road in a blind sixth-gear corner in Finland on Monday afternoon. Both were unhurt.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team principal Rich Millener said the car was too badly damaged and there was not enough time to send a replacement from Britain before Thursday’s start of the season’s ninth round.
Millener immediately absolved Paddon of blame for the crash, WRC.com reported.
Paddon was returning to the WRC after an eight-month lay-off, having been dropped by the Hyundai team at the end of 2018. He finished fourth for the team in Finland last year and second in his final event at Kennards Hire Rally Australia in November.
The M-Sport deal was confirmed earlier this month, after Paddon was overlooked for a Hyundai berth in Finland in favour of Irishman Craig Breen.
Paddon was heartbroken by the crash.
“I’m gutted because I came to Finland in such a good place, mentally and physically I’ve never been so well prepared for a rally like this,” he said.
“Everything was right and everything was ready. There was no lack of effort anywhere or from anyone, we put everything into this. Everything. I’d say I’m gutted, but that doesn’t come close.
“After all the effort so many people have put into this, I just don’t know what to say. It’s sport. Sport can be like this, you know. You can’t have the roses every day. For the absolute highs to matter and mean so much, you have to have absolute lows and this is one of them.”
Millener said the rock had been pulled out on a run on the test stage and hit by Paddon as he returned up the road.
“The rock hit the bottom of the sump guard and lifted the car into the air. They were just passengers, nothing they could do about it,” Millener said.
“You can’t go into every corner lifting off in case you’ve pulled a rock out. It’s the nature of testing, you’re always going to be the first person to find anything you’ve pulled out on the previous run.”
M-Sport had worked through every possible alternative to get Paddon out on the rally, he said.
“The first reaction from Malcolm (Wilson, M-Sport managing director) was to find a way to get him to the start, but it’s just not possible.
“It’s a horrible situation for Hayden. The guy’s just having the worst luck right now. Unfortunately, this is the risk you run when you test with your entry car.”
Paddon had been impressed with the Fiesta WRC after driving it for the first time in anger.
“I was wondering how it would feel after eight months away from a World Rally Car,” he said.
“It felt great. It felt like I’ve never been away. Within the first kilometre I was straight back into it.
“The corner’s pretty much flat out, but the approach to it is blind because of a small crest. We came over that crest committed to the corner and on the same line we’d been on plenty of times before and the rock was just sitting there.
“If you move even half a metre off line at that speed, it’s the end, you’re gone. We hit the rock right in the middle of the car and it just threw us off line and straight into the trees. At that speed, on a narrow piece of road like that, there’s nothing you can do.”