Hayden Paddon starts this week’s Barum Czech Rally Zlín on course to clinch the FIA European Rally Championship for 2023* with fifth place enough for the Pirelli-equipped star to be crowned.
Paddon has been the standout performer during the ERC’s 70th-anniversary season, winning once and never finishing outside the podium places aboard the BRC Racing Team-run Hyundai i20 N Rally2 he shares with co-driver John Kennard.
While Paddon still needs to master Czech Republic’s hugely demanding Tarmac stages, which he’s tackling for the first time from 18 - 20 August, his closest rival, Mārtiṇš Sesks, faces an extremely tall order if he’s to keep the title fight alive following his non-finish on Rally di Roma Capitale last month.
Latvian Sesks, who drives a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 for Team MRF Tyres, must win in Zlín and set the fastest time on the Power Stage, while also hoping that Paddon finishes no higher than sixth. Paddon would also need to be outside the top five on the Power Stage, which awards bonus points to the fastest five drivers. Even then, Sesks, who trails his New Zealand rival by 55 points, would have to win again in Hungary with the Power Stage best time and with Paddon non-scoring.
While Sesks has landed two victories in the ERC this season, both those triumphs came on gravel, while there hasn’t been a non-Czech winner in Zlín since 2012 when Finn Juho Hänninen claimed top honours.
Despite the odds being stacked in his favour, 36-year-old Paddon is determined not to lose his focus when the penultimate round of the ERC season gets under way in Zlín, which rose from small town to big city after Tomáš Bat’a founded a shoe factory there in 1894.
“It’s certainly looking positive now but you can never take anything for granted,” said Paddon. “We’ve still got a job to do but the target is to try to wrap it up in [Zlín], which is going to be a challenging rally on its own.”
“Dry, smooth, fast Tarmac like [Rally di Roma Capitale] I quite enjoy but I understand Barum is bumpy and can be wet, the two things I hate the most on Tarmac. We will go with no expectations and build on it from there.”
Strong entry for fast-paced Tarmac test
Aside from Paddon and Sesks, the Barum Czech Rally Zlín entry is packed with driving talent, most notably Jan Kopecký, the 2013 European champion who is gunning for an 11th victory on his home round of the ERC.
Kopecký’s fellow Czechs Adam Březík, Erik Cais, Filip Mareš and Dominik Stříteský will also be rapid, as will ERC champions present (Efrén Llarena) and past (Chris Ingram and Alexey Lukyanuk).
Mads Østberg will also be a contender in his MRF Tyres-equipped Citroën C3 Rally2, as will Michelin-equipped Austrian champion Simon Wagner, French gravel champion Mathieu Franceschi and multiple Romanian title winner Simone Tempestini.
Support championship titles also up for grabs
While Jon Armstrong has already secured the FIA ERC3 title*, the FIA ERC4 and Hankook-supported FIA Junior ERC crowns are up for grabs with Roberto Daprà and Norbert Maior set to take the race for both titles down to the wire on the Rally Hungary finale following Ola Nore’s late withdrawal from Zlín due to funding shortages.
An asphalt rally like no other
Part of the ERC schedule since the championship’s streamlining in 2004, Barum Czech Rally Zlín is based in the South Moravian university city, 300 kilometres south of the Czech capital Prague.
It is a Tarmac test like no other due to the bumpy and sometimes broken nature of the road surface. To add to the challenge, several stages feature high-speed blasts through forests and intermittent showers are always possible. While the weather might be hard to predict, huge numbers of fans follow the action each year.
Featuring 13 all-asphalt stages over a competitive distance of 200.43 kilometres, only the legendary Slušovice and Semetín tests are unchanged for this season compared to the 51st running of the event in 2022, while the Kateřinice stage returns for the first time since 1994, albeit in a different layout than 29 years ago.
The action begins with a spectacular super special stage through the streets of Zlín from 21:00 CET on Friday.
*Subject to confirmation of the results by the FIA