New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon is heading for the 2010 World Rally Championship as the winner of the Asia Pacific division of the Pirelli Star Driver programme, announced today at Repco Rally Australia.

Paddon was selected by a panel of judges from five candidates representing New Zealand, Australia and China who contested a shoot-out as part of the World Rally Championship event in the New South Wales Northern Rivers.

He will be one of five drivers aged 27 or younger from the Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East and Europe who will make the leap from their regional championships to the world stage next year in six rounds of the World Rally Championship.

The Pirelli-backed programme, in collaboration with the world motorsport governing body, the FIA, will provide a fully-supported drive in a Group N car, plus a full physical training and nutrition programme and media and career management training at Edinburgh University in the UK. The prize is unofficially estimated to be valued at up to a million dollars.

"It's pretty amazing to win the Pirelli Star Driver for Asia Pacific," an excited Paddon said when his win was announced during the lunchtime service break. "It's a massive jump. It's been my ultimate dream to be in the WRC and do well at it.

"But unfortunately money is a huge barrier, so the opportunity Pirelli is giving me is second to none. I'm under no illusions it's going to be tough at WRC level, but we have to make the most of the experience. I'm looking forward to developing myself as a driver."

John Kennard, co-driving for Paddon in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9, said the young New Zealander had a strong future in the WRC.

"He's an impressive young man. He had a three-year plan to win the New Zealand Rally Championship and he did it last year. He's also leading the championship again with one round to go."

Pirelli's Motorsport manager Paul Hembery said the Pirelli Star Driver scheme aimed to stimulate driver development outside rally's traditional regions.

"We have seen from this year's first intake of Pirelli Star Drivers that it's been a great success. It takes away the financial barriers and allows talent to be recognised," he said. "It will not only help the Pirelli Star Drivers in the WRC, but competition for future prizes will itself stimulate interest in rallying in many countries."

Drivers in the Repco Rally Australia shoot-out were Paddon, Chaodong Liu from China and, from Australia, Eli Evans, Nathan Quinn and Glen Raymond.

After contesting nine Special stages on Thursday night and yesterday morning, the drivers participated in a media conference at which their performance was judged by an expert panel.

The judges also assessed their performances in the pre-event shakedown, on the competitive stages and in personal interviews.