Out amongst the tussock-stubbled mountains of central Otago, one man is turning rally driving electric.
Hayden Paddon’s workshop is in the small residential subdivision behind Highland Motorsports Park in Cromwell – a neighbourhood dedicated to petrolheads. Open garage doors reveal kitted-out personal workshops and almost every driveway hosts some very fast set of wheels.
The Kiwi rally driver has just come off Rally Serras de Fafe victory, winning a round of the FIA European Rally Championship and becoming the first Hyundai driver to do so.
The Asia Pacific Rally Champion took the lead from Finland’s Mikko Heikkilä in the last 5km, after the other driver stopped to change a tyre.
And it’s here back here in Cromwell – just a stone’s throw from New Zealand’s most inland point – that Paddon prepared for Europe and now runs a fully-stocked workshop backing onto the racetrack.
“It’s a bit of a motorsport heaven if you like,” Paddon said. “You’ve got the best racetrack in the country on your back step, here.”
It’s a bit like keen surfers living right by the beach. But while most of the houses and cars likely belong to hobbyists who can sign up to boost around on the track, Paddon’s workshop is a place of business where his team of roughly a dozen have many irons in the fire.
It’s a bit like a mad scientist’s laboratory, if that mad scientist happened to be a rally car driver.
Paddon’s workshop has become the headquarters for a charity programme, but also the site of a number of technological developments that may not only change the face of motorsport, but even aid the transition of everyday motorists into battery technology.
Recharging rally’s batteries
The piece de resistance is the Hyundai Kona EV – an already race-winning fully battery-powered electric rally car.
After returning from the previous phase of his career rallying in Europe, Paddon decided to set up shop in Cromwell and focus on a new goal – putting together a New Zealand world championship motorsport team.
But up against European teams with comparatively stacked wallets and staff, he needed a point of difference, as well as a way to keep progress towards that goal well-funded.
“We’re lucky we’ve got a lot of good partners behind us at the moment, but long long term for us to embark on what we want to around the world we need a lot more investment, and that will have to come from the business side of what we do,” he said.
The business side funds the sport, and Paddon is in the business of tech.
“That’s why we’ve got the EV car and we do some stuff in tech space, but the long term has got to be about tech development within motorsport,” he said. “Then every dollar from the business goes into the sport side and we continue building out sports programmes to get better and better.”
He sees this as a real fork in the road for motorsport, which can either adapt to changing technologies or get left behind by funders and manufacturers.
“As much as we love combustion cars and they’re always going to exist and there will always be a place for them in motorsport, the top level of any form of motorsport at a professional level needs to be aligned with the industry,” he said.
“Otherwise, the funding’s simply not there to make it possible. It’s equivalent to the manufacturers selling cars and racing horses. Racing a horse ain’t gonna help you sell a car.”
It’s not the first appearance of electric cars in motorsport. Hyundai revealed two high-performance electric ‘rolling labs’ last year – the RN22e and N Vision 74 – which are set to be used to test tech that could be put to use in future models.
The cars represent motorsport success redefined in broader terms than just winning races or earning titles – they exist to develop independent knowledge and collect data that can be shared with the company to enable Hyundai to build better cars.
Plus, having Paddon rallying through the rugged terrain of Central Otago behind the wheel of one of their electric creations stands to be great press.
It’s perhaps the most gruelling form of motorsport – long days out in the wilderness, taking rollercoaster-like ups and downs at high speed.
Paddon said motorsport itself has always been a way for manufacturers to stress-test their products and show consumers just what they can do, and in this case it’s no different.
“We’re trying to showcase that first of all, the tech is cool: EVs are not dull, boring cars,” he said.
“Then also, the rally environment is very demanding, you’re out in the country all day. You can’t just go plug into a three-pin plug wherever you want, so you’re trying to prove that the technology can work in a demanding environment to help change people’s perception.”
He said this should help to curb the fears of would-be EV drivers worried about range – if he can make it through the mountains, you’re likely to make it home from the supermarket.
It’s a transitional stage for all motor enthusiasts, with EV technology becoming more prevalent by the year.
In rolling out the Kona, Paddon has made some compromises to make that transition a little less jarring for the fans.
Chief among these is the ongoing development of a proprietary noise-making system on the car so that it can mirror the mating calls of its combustive cousins.
A mechanical system will create sounds Paddon said are “not too dissimilar” to the explosions and vibrations of rapid airflow rocketing through pipes. It’s a mechanical system rather than a set of speakers, giving it that extra frisson of authenticity.
“I can see the EV is going to take a bit of transition and a bit of convincing people,” Paddon said. “But ultimately the survival of the sport relies on this tech so we’re trying to make that adaptation a little bit easier by introducing things that make it a little bit more comfortable for people.”
And if you’re looking for technological progress in the world of motorsport, it’s important to stop yourself from reinventing the wheel.
With a century of refinements on the combustion engine vehicle, stumbling across some big improvement is no mean feat.
Paddon said that’s the beauty of electric – it’s something of a blank page for him and his team to roll up their sleeves and get to work on.
“We’ve got the one EV rally car, but the amount of ingenuity and creating new ideas from nothing is huge,” he said. “With the combustion car we couldn’t do that – after development over the best part of a hundred years the car is pretty well refined. You spend so much money to find these small benefits. With the EV, we’re reinventing how you do normal stuff and it’s working.”
That involves a lot of trial and error, with the team trialling the vehicle out on the track as well as up in the mountains they can see from their backyard.
“It’s not as simple as taking a combustion car, taking the motor out and putting the battery in it,” Paddon said.
It seems that behind the desire to get this new tech out on the course is a desire to make some kind of indelible mark – not just on motorsport, but on the wider world.
That’s definitely part of Paddon’s motivation to give back to local communities through a community initiative he’s been working on over the past year.
Through Paddon’s Project, Paddon and team take nominations for people who have been doing it tough in communities they visit for rally events.
Then Paddon shows up (as a surprise, if that can be arranged) and hands them thousands in cash and vouchers, merchandise and a ride in his vehicle.
Over the past year he gave away more than $20,000 to six individuals or families.
“The motorsport community is quite small, so I wanted to do something that was outside of it,” Paddon said.
He said the idea came to him during the early days of the pandemic as he saw the immense stress daily life had started to dish out to ordinary New Zealanders.
It’s not been an easy thing for Paddon to suddenly pick up. He said he’s not the most sociable person in the world, so showing up impromptu at a stranger’s door isn’t always a comfortable situation for him.
But more than that, he’s coming up against some very real situations that he can’t actually fix, such as people suffering from terminal illness.
“My philosophy in business and sport is if there’s a challenge you find a way to fix it,” he said. “But in some of these cases, there’s just no way to fix it. That’s the part I can’t get my head around.”
The charity work seems to have been both gratifying and confronting for Paddon. He said while every recipient has been hugely appreciative of the bit of help, he’s also come away wishing he could do more.
“It’s mixed emotions. You want to do good but the problem is once you hear their story and see their situation, you leave wanting to do more,” he said.
“You’re sort of in this in-between – its a really weird feeling. I know we’re still helping and everyone is appreciative, but some of the people do have a life sentence. They know they haven’t got long. When you go into those situations, how can you make that better?”
In both tech development and his community work, Paddon is striking while the iron’s hot. He said he set up Paddon’s Project hoping to do some good while he’s still got the profile to leverage – Hyundai, Mitre 10 Trade, and Repco are all on board helping furnish the prize packs.
But the window is closing for electrifying motorsport as well.
Paddon said rally needs to get with this new technology within the next five years or risk being left behind.
At the same time, it’s a balancing act.
“The concern is that if motorsport goes EV and it’s not accepted,” he said. “If they come in too fast and the motorsport community doesn’t like that, the fans go away – but also if you leave it too late, you lose the manufacturers.”
From his home base in Cromwell, it seems Hayden Paddon might be the man to chart that particular crossroads.
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