FIGHTING FOURTH FOR ATKINSON IN WRC FINALE
Australian Subaru driver Chris Atkinson has capped off a superb debut year in the World Rally Championship with a fighting fourth place in a drama filled finale to the 2005 Championship at Telstra Rally Australia in Western Australia today.
The result is the young Queenslander's second top five finish since joining the Subaru World Rally Team at the start of the year. Atkinson's result also equaled Ross Dunkerton's 1993 effort as highest placed local driver in the Australian leg of the World Championship.
Atkinson was the dominant driver throughout the weekend recording the fastest time on nine of the 26 stages contested, four more than any other driver, taking his number stage wins for the year to 15.
The only drivers to win more stages throughout the year are world champions Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and Atkinson's Subaru team-mate Petter Solberg.
Atkinson and West Australian co-driver Glenn Macneall led the rally by 11 seconds mid way through the opening day but were slowed by a steering problem which forced him down the order to 13th, almost two and a half minutes behind the rally leader.
"The problems on the opening day were devastating. To be leading your home event and then have something completely out of your control cost you so much time was an extreme disappointment but we were determined to fight back to finish as high as we could," said Atkinson.
As many of his more fancied rivals dropped out of the event due to various incidents during the opening two days Atkinson stood tall and clawed his way back up the order.
Entering today's final leg Atkinson had moved into sixth position and within striking distance of fifth placed Gigi Galli.
By virtue of setting the fastest time across the opening 4.42km stage of the day Atkinson quickly moved inside the top five.
He then continued this pace over the ensuing two stages by setting the second fastest time across the two tests and close the gap between himself and fourth placed Manfred Stohl to less than 30 seconds.
As if the drama of the opening two days wasn't enough with Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg all crashing out, the demise of third placed Colin McRae due to a clutch problem on his Skoda in the final service of the event set up a titanic battle for the final podium position between Atkinson and Stohl. With just over 50 competitive kilometres remaining across the final three stages there was less than 30 seconds separating the pair.
On the first stage after service Atkinson equaled the time of Toni Gardemeister as fastest before winning the penultimate 29.93km stage and closing the gap to Stohl to within 7.9 seconds with one 17.31km test remaining.
Despite setting a time nine seconds faster than his earlier pass the young Australian was unable to bridge the gap to and fell six seconds shy of his second WRC podium finish in his debut year.
"What a rally full of highs and lows. When you look at what we have achieved with so many stage wins, it is has been a good rally but you always want more," said Atkinson.
"It was the one that got away. If you take away the time we lost on the opening day it could have been a very different result but we have still got to be very happy with what we have achieved this weekend and also throughout the year.
"We now turn our focus to 2006 and using the experience we have gained during our first year in the WRC which should put us in a good position for the future."
Citroen driver Francois Duval claimed the maiden win of his career and provided his team with a victory in their final WRC event ahead of Mitsubishi's Harri Rovanpera and Stohl.