ATKINSON READY TO ATTACK ON HOME SOIL Since joining the Subaru World Rally Team at the start of the year Australian Chris Atkinson has been on a meteoric rise to stardom in the World Rally Championship across the globe. After enduring a steep...
ATKINSON READY TO ATTACK ON HOME SOIL
Since joining the Subaru World Rally Team at the start of the year Australian Chris Atkinson has been on a meteoric rise to stardom in the World Rally Championship across the globe.
After enduring a steep learning curve aboard a WRC specification Subaru Impreza on surfaces which have varied from the snow of Sweden to the rocky roads of Cyprus and the tarmac of Catalunya, Atkinson and West Australian co-driver Glenn Macneall head to their home event, Telstra Rally Australia in Western Australia, the final round of the 2005 WRC, this week.
Atkinson burst onto the International radar during last year's Telstra Rally Australia with a scintillating performance aboard a Group N (production) specification Subaru Impreza to finish fifth outright and win the Group N category in his first attempt at the event.
"Last year was an amazing rally, it was my first real event with Glenn as a co-driver and it was my first time competing in Rally Australia. So to win Group N was something very special on a road surface that is unique to Western Australia and unlike anything else in Australia," said Atkinson.
"It certainly capped off a good year and was probably the turning point of my career as all of the major players in the WRC saw my performance which opened the door for the next step in my career."
Following the opportunity to join the Subaru team alongside 2003 World Champion Petter Solberg and ex-Formula One driver Stephane Sarrazin 25-year-old Atkinson has been nothing short of impressive during his debut year of WRC competition.
The Gold Coaster had his first taste of the WRC specification Impreza on the icy roads of Sweden during the second week in February and after only 100km's of testing on the unfamiliar surface Atkinson showed immediate speed during the opening few stages of the event. On stage 11 he recorded the fourth fastest stage time and ran just outside the top ten for the majority of the rally.
During the opening day of the next round in Mexico Atkinson ran as high as fourth before claiming his maiden stage win of his WRC career in New Zealand one event later. After winning two stages throughout the rally Atkinson finished an impressive seventh, a massive achievement in only his third rally aboard a WRC car.
"New Zealand was the first event that we competed in which I had raced at before, albeit in a Group N car, and the experience of the event certainly showed," said Atkinson.
Neste Rally Finland is the mecca of the WRC. It is the fastest, the most spectacular and the most coveted round of the 16-round Championship. After competing in 2004 courtesy of support from Telstra Rally Australia, Network Ten and Qantas, Atkinson returned this year and his performance was nothing short of impressive.
On some of the fastest and trickiest roads in the Championship, including jumps that the cars fly over at speeds in excess of 150km/h Atkinson showed his potential by matching the times of the front runners before a incident where he clipped a rock in one of the slowest corners of the rally ended his charge.
Rally Japan is the one round of the Championship Atkinson had competed in twice before, and this experience proved vital throughout the event. On the opening day he became the first Australian to lead a round of the WRC and went on to win three stages of the event. During the rally he battled with the World Champions of the past three years, Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and his Subaru team-mate Solberg before claiming the first podium result of his career.
"Chris put a tick in all the boxes in Japan. He drove consistently, fast, under pressure and on some extremely difficult roads and I'm sure he'll benefit a lot from the experience," said Subaru World Rally Technical Director David Lapworth after Rally Japan.
Atkinson's podium result in Japan rewrote the record books in World Rallying with the young Queenslander joining West Australian Ross Dunkerton as the only two Australian's to finish on the podium in a WRC event.
Last weekend Atkinson contested the 14th event of the year in Catalunya, Spain. In only the third tarmac event of his career he recorded his fifth top ten result of the year finishing ninth. With five top ten results and a podium result throughout his debut year Atkinson has matched the performance of Solberg in his debut year who also recorded five top ten finishes in his first 14 events, his best being fourth place in the 13th rally of his WRC career.
"The year has been very much a learning one for both myself and Glenn, learning the characteristics of the car, the team and new rally's but I think we have shown we can match it with the best crews in the world," said Atkinson.
Telstra Rally Australia is only the fourth round of this year's Championship that Atkinson had competed in prior to 2005. Given his pace shown at the previous three (New Zealand, Finland and Japan) the experience from last year's event in Western Australia has provided him with extra confidence of a good result this weekend.
"I am really looking to getting back behind the wheel of the Subaru on gravel, it will be cool to be in a competitive on home soil," said Atkinson.
"I have shown this year that experience counts for so much, in New Zealand I won my first stages, Finland I was setting some good stages and of course in Japan I finished third which is very promising for this weekend.
"As a local Glenn grew up on the roads around Perth and has competed in this event many times before, his experience will count for a lot this weekend."
With the West Australian roads renowned for their marble-like surface it puts road position at a premium and gives those drivers among the first in the running order a distinct disadvantage as they are forced to sweep the roads and unveil a hard packed base for their rivals behind.
"By being further down the start order on the opening day is something I believe we will benefit greatly from and should assist us to get off to a good start," said Atkinson.
"To get a good result here is going to be tough as the big three (Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg) will be going flat out as they all have a point to prove but we will be trying to repeat our performance from Japan and hopefully be up near the front, and maybe even be on the podium at the finish."
Telstra Rally Australia begins on Thursday night with a Super Special stage around Gloucester Park in the centre of Perth. The action continues in the Western Australian state forests over the following three days. A total of 26 stages will be contested across 355.39 competitive kilometres over the three legs.