Hayden Paddon is the winner of the FIA European Rally Championship for 2023* despite his dramatic exit from Barum Czech Rally Zlín Sunday morning.
Pirelli-equipped Paddon was in fifth position and cruising to the coveted FIA title for BRC Racing Team when he stopped nine kilometres from the start of the 16.69km Halenkovice test with the right-rear wheel missing from his Hyundai i20 N Rally2.
He’d run wide on a high-speed left-hander, swiped a tree and parked up a few hundred metres later, his challenge over.
But with Paddon’s closest championship rival Mārtiṇš Sesks unable to secure the points he needed to keep the title fight alive until the Rally Hungary finale in October, New Zealander Paddon was able to celebrate becoming the first non-European to lift the ERC crown alongside his co-driver John Kennard.
“It’s a strange way to win it today with the troubles we’ve had but we’re hugely proud of what we’ve done with the team,” Paddon said. “We’ve had six good rallies and one bad one. All in all, it’s been a very good season and it’s something for us to build on for the future.
“I’ve loved our time in the ERC this year. A real mixture of events, lots of challenges and the competition over here is huge. I think it’s one of the best rally championships in the world and hopefully we can be a part of it in the future as well.”
In the battle for the Barum Czech Rally Zlín victory, Jan Kopecký scored a record-extending 11th win on his home round of the ERC in his Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 run on Michelin tyres. With Jan Hloušek co-driving the Agrotec Škoda Rally Team entry, Kopecký preserved his overnight lead, which stood at 14.9sec, to triumph ahead of Miklós Csomós by 14.3sec.
After home hero Erik Cais – out of contention for victory following his damaged tyre on Saturday’s SS6 – had gone fastest on the first two stages on Sunday morning, Kopecký was quickest through Halenkovice, SS10, to return to Otrokovice for the midday service halt leading by 11.1s.
The multiple Czech champion had struggled for confidence with a car that was “sliding too much” on SS8 and SS9, but set-up changes got him back on track for SS10. And he was quickest again on SS11 to grow his lead to 14.7sec. He reached the Power Stage leading Csomós by 13.6sec, set the fourth fastest time on the deciding test to become the sixth winner of the 2023 ERC season.
“We are at the finish,” said Kopecký. “It was a difficult rally and I am very tired – but I am very happy. I was quite consistent during the rally, I didn’t do any huge mistakes although I had some luck. We were controlling our pace, if it was needed we started to push a bit more and it was enough. This morning I was a little too optimistic with the set-up of the car and it was too stiff. I made some changes, we won Semetin and this was important. I knew the gap was okay for the final stage but I knew I could not make any mistake.”
Second place for Csomós in his Pirelli-equipped Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo was the Hungarian’s first podium in the ERC and came following a strong performance together with co-driver Viktor Bán, who reported having to slow his driver down after a brief off-road moment on SS8.
Adam Březík slipped from fourth overnight to sixth after SS8 when he hit a haybale in a chicane 6.5km into the test and had to reverse. He made amends on the first Pindula visit, SS9, by climbing from sixth to fourth with an impressive charge, which the young Czech admitted had included two trips “in the ditch with the back of the car”.
Having been demoted to fifth by Filip Mareš on SS11, Březík followed legendary team boss Roman Kresta’s orders to go “flat out” and won SS12 to shoot up to third place after Simon Wagner dropped time running into a ditch.
But Wagner fought back in the rally-ending Power Stage, outpacing rival Březík by 3.9sec to reclaim the final podium spot and end the rally 2.9sec ahead. The Austrian, who also pilots a Škoda, trailed Csomós by over half a minute.
Just four-tenths of a second further back and making it three Czechs inside the top five was Pirelli-equipped Filip Mareš. He gained a position in the morning following Paddon’s exit and pulled clear of Dominik Stříteský over the closing stages, finishing the rally 8.5sec of his rival’s Hankook-shod Fabia.
Having started the day down in 12th, Erik Cais fought back to claim seventh overall on his home rally. The 24-year-old had been in contention for a podium before he suffered a damaged tyre on Saturday.
Outgoing ERC champion Efrén Llarena was the highest-finishing Team MRF Tyres runner in eighth while Mathieu Franceschi and Simone Tempestini completed the all-Fabia top 10.
Igor Widłak won the FIA ERC3 category in a Pirelli-equipped Ford Fiesta Rally3 as Timo Schulz bagged an FIA ER4 and FIA Junior ERC double in his Hankook-shod Opel Corsa Rally4.
Rally Hungary hosts the ERC season finale from 6 - 8 October. The Tarmac event, which is based in the city of Nyíregyháza in the north-easterly Zemplén region, returns to the championship this year having formed part of the calendar on three previous occasions.
*Subject to confirmation of the results by the FIA.