Optimist, pessimist or red mist?

| Photographer Credit: McKlein Images

December, long after the traditional silly season, and until this week there was little to be cheerful about for our top motor sport athletes.

Hayden Paddon’s options were in limbo pending the decision of Mr Loeb; Brendon Hartley’s tortured time in the chair at Toro Rosso was at an end. Only the continued steely-eyed form of Scott Dixon really gave us much hope for 2019.

Fast forward a week and there are glimmers of hope for one, despair for another.

Brendon Hartley is back in the Porsche family and working to be part of their debut in the FIA Formula E Championship, which is supposed to kick off in 2019. The Porsche skunk-works will no doubt have been labouring mightily since the team withdrew from LMP1 – nobody wants to trip over when entering a whole new championship, with so much to learn and so many new challenges on and off track.

Honda showed immense faith in Brendon’s ability in and out of the car, recognising his uncanny analytical ability and his knack of communicating what he had noted to his engineer and technicians. It was Honda, not the team, that issued a media release expressing their warm appreciation of his input throughout the year. That would hopefully have taken some of the sting out of being canned from the Viper Pit without even a tribute email.

 

Musical chairs the Korean way

Over in WRC land Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen will contest the full WRC season next year for Hyundai. Sebastian Loeb and Dani Sordo will share a third car, in Sordo contesting the eight events Loeb is missing.

Sebastian Loeb’s signing to Hyundai is of course old news this week – but its implications for Hayden Paddon’s future were noted by many. Buoyed by a late season leap in form, Hayden had been seeking a whole season. Instead, and somewhat insultingly, the team offered him a rally. One.

Today a crestfallen and mufti-clad Hayden posted a video thanking his followers and fans and personal sponsors and announcing he’s out of WRC – for the foreseeable future. Loyalty and talent count for little at that level it seems.

There is no question about it: to stay in the game, Hayden had to stay with a factory team and to stay fast he had to have a full season.

There really are no competitive private teams doing the whole championship these days, and the days when a privateer could contemplate going it alone are so long gone most of us don’t remember how that might work.

Remember the flamboyant and exciting Petter Solberg? World champion for Subaru in the heyday of the Impreza WRX. He tried to run as a privateer ‘assisted’ Subaru team when he exited the Prodrive camp. Fast, passionate and presentable, he managed to stay with the big teams for longer than most expected but eventually he had to concede that project couldn’t continue. Solberg’s switched to WRX and having a ball – running his own team.

Back to Hayden, his options were Hyundai or a Fiesta WRC drive with Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport. The latter was a less likely prospect even though Hayden has driven for the team before. Beyond its star pairing M-Sport is very much driven by pay-drive and is reeling from the cost of having Seb Ogier in the team up to the end of this year. World Championship trophies are all very nice, but they can’t be banked!

So it turns out 2018 was the peak for Kiwis at the top. We are out of F1 for at least a couple of seasons, and we’re out of the WRC for the same kind of period.

So whether we are glass half full or glass half empty people, it seems the weekend before Christmas is an appropriate time to top up and toast our marquee year and the driving talent that took us to the premier championships. Hayden, Brendon, whatever is next, we salute you.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker has been working in automotive PR and communications for more than two decades. For much longer than that he has been a motorsport journalist, photographer and competitor, witness to most of the most exciting and significant motorsport trends and events of the mid-late 20th Century. His earliest memories of motorsport were trips to races at Ohakea in the early 1960s, and later of annual summer pilgrimages to watch Shellsport racers and Mini 7s at Bay Park and winter sorties into forests around Kawerau and Rotorua to see the likes of Russell Brookes, Ari Vatanen and Mike Marshall ply their trade in group 4 Escorts. Together with Murray Taylor and TV producer/director Dave Hedge he has been responsible for helping to build New Zealand’s unique Toyota Racing Series into a globally recognized event brand under category managers Barrie and Louise Thomlinson. Now working for a variety of automotive and mainstream commercial clients, Mark has a unique perspective on recent motor racing history and the future career paths of our best and brightest young racers.

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