Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were on blistering form throughout the final leg. The pair seized second overall from Team MRF Tyres rival Mads Østberg earlier in the day, all the while whittling down the deficit to Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo driver Heikkilä.
Pirelli-equipped Paddon, the reigning Asia Pacific Rally Champion, trailed long-time leader Heikkilä by just 2.8sec heading into the final speed test of the three-day event in northern Portugal. But when the Finn stopped to change a front left puncture less than 5km from the finish line, glory fell into Paddon’s lap.
As well as notching up his maiden ERC victory, the i20 N Rally2 star becomes the first driver in history to win an ERC rally at the wheel of a Hyundai.
"I’m sorry for Heikkilä,” said the humble Kiwi. “We wanted to try and overcome those 2.8sec fair and square. But we’re happy - very happy.”
Heikkilä plummeted to eighth as a result of his time loss, allowing Citroën C3 Rally2 man Østerg to inherit second overall - just 10.7sec adrift of the top spot. Estonia’s Georg Linnamäe - also in Hyundai machinery - 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, but I am happy with the tyres.
“Crying won’t help - it is what it is. I just want to say thanks to my team, they worked very well,” he added.
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.
Out of contention for victory following a damaged tyre on Saturday, Craig Breen overcame a power steering 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 in 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 in the Power Stage, the latter of whom limped to the finish with front-right wheel damage after hitting an embankment.
Jon Armstrong took 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 4 - 6 May. Organisers have prepared a 13-stage route over a competitive distance of 190.06 kilometres.