Hayden Paddon became the first Hyundai driver to win an FIA European Rally Championship round after he grabbed a remarkable Rally Serras de Fafe, Felgueiras, Boticas, Vieira do Minho e Cabeceiras de Basto victory from under the nose of Mikko Heikkilä earlier Sunday.
Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were on blistering form throughout the final leg, seizing second overall from MRF Tyres Dealer Team rival Mads Østberg earlier in the day before whittling down the deficit to Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo driver Heikkilä.
Pirelli-equipped Paddon, the reigning FIA Asia-Pacific champion, trailed Heikkilä, who had led since Friday evening, by just 2.8sec heading into the final stage of the three-day event in northern Portugal. But when the Finn stopped to change a front-left damaged tyre less than five kilometres from the finish line, glory fell into Paddon’s lap.
As well as notching up his maiden ERC victory, the BRC Racing Team-run i20 N Rally2 star becomes the first driver in history to win an ERC event at the wheel of a Hyundai.
"I’m sorry for Heikkilä,” said New Zealander Paddon. “We want to try and overcome those 2.8sec fair and square. But we’re happy, very happy and this is definitely right up there [with my other career achievements].
“We just wanted to build our way into the championship and just get a strong result this weekend, we’ve been pushing, but not taking the risks and that’s been the whole philosophy for the whole weekend, pick a speed and hold it and today that went down quite well. We weren’t the outright fastest this weekend but we had the pace to hold it consistently throughout the rally.”
Heikkilä plummeted to eighth overall as a result of his time loss, allowing Citroën C3 Rally2 driver Østerg to inherit second overall just 10.7sec adrift of the top spot. Estonia’s Georg Linnamäe – also driving a Hyundai – completed the podium another 16.8sec in arrears.
“I have no idea [where the puncture came from],” Heikkilä explained. “It’s easy to have a puncture because there are so many stones out there. I am happy with the tyres. But crying won’t help – it is what it is. I just want to say thanks to my team, they worked very well.”
Miko Marczyk’s warm-up for May’s Vodafone Rally de Portugal WRC round ended with fourth place on what was the double Polish champion’s debut in his Škoda Fabia RS Rally2. The Pole completed the gravel event 45.9sec back from Linnamäe, but almost one-minute clear of Citroën stalwart Yoann Bonato, who said: “this is a really good result for us, especially on this surface.”
Out of contention for victory following a damaged tyre on Saturday, Craig Breen overcame a powersteering issue on SS10 to claim a quartet of fastest times. It could have been five stage wins had it not been for a wild moment on SS14 when Breen’s Pirelli-shod Hyundai went up onto two wheels after hitting a bank through a fifth-gear left-hander nearing the stage finish.
Defending ERC champion Efrén Llarena was never able to get back on terms following his mistake on Friday afternoon’s Qualifying Stage, which left him 18th on the road for Saturday’s rain-hit tests. The Spaniard was passed by Breen on the Power Stage and ended the rally in seventh overall.
“It wasn’t all about the road position because we were losing time today in the slow corners, we had no traction and for me it’s a disaster,” said the Spaniard. “I was pushing like hell, but we lost a lot of time.”
Tom Kristensson opened the road for much of the day on his first outing in a Citroën C3 Rally2, but the Swede climbed to a respectable ninth overall by close of play. He leapfrogged Fabia duo Miklos Csomós and Simone Tempestini on the Power Stage, the latter of whom limped to the finish with front-right wheel damage after hitting an embankment.
Jon Armstrong took FIA ERC3 honours aboard an M-Sport Poland-built Ford Fiesta Rally3, while Roberto Daprà stole the ERC4 victory from Ernesto Cunha after outpacing the Portuguese driver in the Power Stage.
The 70th-anniversary ERC season resumes with the all-asphalt Rally Islas Canarias from May 4-6. Organisers have prepared a 13-stage route over a competitive distance of 190.06 kilometres.
1. H Paddon / J Kennard NZL Hyundai i20 N Rally2 1hr 42min 21.3sec
2. M Østberg / P Barth NOR Citroën C3 Rally2 +10.8sec
3. G Linnamäe / J Morgan EST Hyundai i20 N Rally2 +27.5sec
4. M Marczyk / S Gospodarczyk POL Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 +1min 13.4sec
5. Y Bonato / B Boulloud FRA Citroën C3 Rally2 +2min 11.8sec
6. C Breen / J Fulton IRL Hyundai i20 N Rally2 +2min 19.7sec