In a first interview for 2014 we have a treat with World Rally Championship driver Chris Atkinson joining us. Atkinson joined Hyundai in 2014 after testing in 2013. He brings a wealth of experience to the Korean manufacturer having rallied for Subaru with success in the past along with taking a championship in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.
Atkinson originally from Bega New South Wales started with Subaru in 2004. He has taken second twice in Rally Mexico at in Argentina. He took third in Japan and Rally Monte Carlo. If you ever needed proof of Atkinson’s skill you need to look back to 2008 the troublesome Subaru Impreza – the first year and only that they ran a hatch. In that year he finished ahead of former World Champion and team leader Petter Solberg, taking 5th with 50 points, four ahead of Petter. A mere 40 stage wins are also attached to Akinson’s record.
The withdrawal of Subaru from the World Rally Championship threw spanner in the works for Atkinson and the next year only had a handful of outings. In 2009 the World Rally Championship did not include Rally Monte Carlo and instead started in Ireland. Atkinson rallied with Citroen now taking 5th in his only WRC outing for the year. He will not see the WRC again until 2012 when he would rally for Ford in Mexico, Citroen in Finland, and with the Mini team for the final five rounds of the season. That year he wrestled the now outdated Mini to four points scoring finishes in the final five rallies.
In 2013 while testing for the Hyundai World Rally team he would rally once the Citroen in Mexico taking sixth. Of course over that time that he was away from the WRC he did not rest, instead rallying in the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship for Proton and Skoda. In 2011 he finished second in the championship with three wins and a second place with Proton. He would go one better in 2012 when he joined the MRF Skoda team taking two wins and three second places.
His undoubted skill was picked up by Hyundai and they installed him as a test driver in their new venture for 2014. The Korean manufacture also employed Brian Bouffier, Theirry Neuville and Juho Hanninen, the latter two joining him for the 2014 Championship with Dani Sordo. At this stage we are unsure of what Atkinson will be rallying but he has been confirmed at Rally Mexico and Coates Hire Rally Australia that has been confirmed with the Hyundai i20.
In this interview we talk about his Hyundai adventure along with his previous rallying career and what he expects for the year.
RV. Congratulations on your drive with Hyundai. Can you take us through the process of how this drive came about and how the testing went with the team?
Chris Atkinson: Thanks, I am pretty excited to be a part of this project. I initially spoke to Michel Nandan near the end of 2012, prior to him even joining the team. We discussed my possible involvement if anything progressed, and then when the testing opportunity became available I went and had a meeting with Michel and Alain Penasse the team manager and we agreed straight away. Although there was no guarantee of a drive this season, I knew if I did a good job testing I would be in with a chance. And here we are.
RV: We are seeing a sort of resurgence in rally in Australia. You have Coates Hire behind you – they also back Rally Australia. How satisfying is it for you to have an Australian company back an Australian on the world stage?
Chris Atkinson: Yeah it is awesome to see a company such as Coates Hire backing Rally Australia and myself, and as rally grows again in Australia I hope we can deliver them a great event and having an Australian in a leading car is only going to add to the whole spectacle.
RV: What can we expect from the Hyundai team and Chris Atkinson this season?
Chris Atkinson: You have to remember this is still a development year for Hyundai Motorsport, with the aim on 2015. Although it already looks like the car has good potential, then main aim is to finish events and build experience. Of course podiums would be great, but the level of the WRC is the best it has been for many years, so it will not be easy.
RV: What does it feel like personally for you to be back in the WRC with a manufacturer team?
Chris Atkinson: It is fantastic, when you come out of a top team and take a few steps back, it is a big reality check.. So to be back in the main game with one of the biggest WRC efforts in recent years is awesome.
RV: We’ve seen you tackle a couple of one off drives with Citroen, Ford and of course the Mini Portugal team. Did you think that there could have been a future with any of those drives – particularly the Mini after achieving higher than expected results?
Chris Atkinson: Of course, I am happy with how I performed there and things were looking good for the future. I even had a contract for a full season the following year, but with decisions made far above me, this came to an end. The tough thing is making the most of one off drives, especially at WRC level. You really need a long term program to build momentum.
RV: Since your time with Subaru we have seen the end of those WRC regulations and have new set. Just how different is it to drive the new generation cars?
Chris Atkinson: It is not massively different but the biggest thing you notice is the torque, now we have boost restrictions as well as a smaller engine, so this is quite a big difference. The cars are also a bit smaller and as a result more nervous, but they have to be more reactive to deal with the issue of no centre diff, and allow the car to turn and change direction. The biggest areas of improvement is in suspension, which is making the cars a lot faster, with the grip and control in the damper.
RV: Since you were in the WRC last you have been keeping busy notably winning the 2012 APRC Championship – what have been some of the highlights away from the WRC paddock?
Chris Atkinson: That would be one of the highlights, but also getting married and having two kids since Subaru pulled out… Life has changed a bit! But its good to be back.
RV: If you win the Coates Hire Rally Australia in 2014, just how big will the party be?
Chris Atkinson: Haaaaa, that could be scary.
Chris had a single outing in the Citroen Junior team C4 WRC at Rally Ireland, taking 5th place. Unfortunately, he only had money for one event.
Chris took on the job at WRC Team Mini Portugal, run by the Motorsport Italia squad. He fared well, after replacing Armindo Araujo, he took four point scoring finishes in five rallies
Atkinson returned to Citroen for a one off in rally at Finland 2012. It wasn’t an easy run in the DS3, taking 39th after a spate of issues
Atkinson spent four years at Subaru having been picked out of relative obscurity by the team. Their faith was rewarded with 40 stage wins, podiums and beating team leader Petter Solberg in the 2008 Championship
Atkinson had a fruitful two years with Proton rallying in the Asia Pacific Championship and Intercontinental Rally Championship. He took three wins in the Satria Neo S2000 car and second in the Asia Pacific Championship
He joined the MRF backed Skoda outfit for the 2012 Asia Pacific Championship, winning the Championship with three wins and two second places.
His patience, speed and tenacity was rewarded by Hyundai and Aussie sponsors Coates Hire. He gained a testing contract with Hyundai and has been guaranteed a birth at Rally Mexico and Rally Australia in 2014
By Sam Tickell, January 2014
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