In December Chris Atkinson was announced as one of four drivers for the Hyundai Shell World Rally Team in 2014, giving him the opportunity to be back behind the wheel of a factory-backed World Rally Championship (WRC) car for the first time since 2008.
Born in Bega in New South Wales, 34-year-old Atkinson – or ‘Atko’ to his fans – made his WRC debut in 2004 before scoring six podiums and a stack of stage wins with the Subaru World Rally Team until the Japanese manufacturer’s 2008 exit from the sport.
Last weekend’s 2014 WRC Rally Australia - in Coffs Harbour for the third year in a row - also marked Chris’ return to the event for the first time in eight years and his first-ever time tackling Coffs’ 20 dry and dusty gravel stages.
After finishing the weekend in 10th position behind his two competing Hyundai teammates, Belgian Thierry Neuville (sixth) and Kiwi Hayden Paddon (fifth), we sat down with Atko for a chat about the rally, the year thus far and the future.
CarAdvice: So the rally’s done, the weekend is over. How are you feeling now?
Atko: Yeah not too bad. It was obviously a frustrating weekend in terms of where I want to be speed wise but also is some ways a little bit realistic as well, in that I don’t think we could’ve got a much better result at the end of the day without taking massive risks. And then there would’ve been a much worse result.
Of course we want to be fast but to be on the pace of these guys when your not doing it full time is completely unrealistic. Even I think, a couple of years ago when [nine-time WRC champion Sebastien] Loeb stopped, he took three or four months out and came back and wasn’t on the pace, you know, let alone I’ve been doing it part-time for five years…
CA: Plus you’ve had limited time in the car during testing even before tackling your two rounds this year (Chris finished seventh in Mexico in March), correct?
A: Yeah but okay, there’s all the excuses in the world, you’ve got to get out there and do a job. But, not that I’m going slow, but it’s one thing to be a bit off the front running pace but if you’re off the pace and then you crash then there’s a double whammy.
CA: Given your time away, does it feel nice being back in the WRC community again?
A: Yeah, it’s always good. I fit in here pretty well. I’ve been around it long enough, you know, I started in the WRC [with a factory team] in 2005, so a few years have gone by.
Unless you’re in it full time it’s more you come back just to try and enjoy the events. And it gets to a stage in your career where it’s not as much about when, you know, you’re 24, 25, trying to prove yourself.
CA: And how do you think Hyundai's first year back is going?
A: It’s going pretty well. There were a few small minor technical problems with the cars but really all three ran strongly all weekend.
For sure there’s more pace to come and we know areas where we need to improve but, like I said, for its first year – remember the Volkswagen [Polo R WRC] hadn’t even raced at this stage in its development where we’ve nearly got a season under our belt including podiums and wins – it’s encouraging and I’m sure in the future the cars are only going to get quicker.
CA: With only three more rounds to go (France, Spain and Great Britain), how are you feeling about the car and where it’s at at the moment? Does it seem to suit different surfaces? Are some better than others?
A: Yeah, it looks like it’s a good tarmac car, which is a good sign because that means it’s a fast car. On a few of the gravel rallies we haven’t quite had the same pace but it’s not like its miles away either.
And for sure the front running guys are on another level at the moment, their speed is pretty impressive and the whole package, but that’s what we’re working towards. We never expected to be there straight away and that’s part of this learning year.
CA: With a new car due mid-way through next year, what areas are likely to have the greatest improvements over the current car?
A: To point out anything specific is probably difficult. It’s all the details. Like, we saw Thierry doing times where he’s on front running pace at some stage and then not quite working on some stages, other stages working well. So then it’s just getting those details right. Upping everything just a little bit and closing that gap.
CA: How long do you think it will be before we see Hyundai genuinely challenging consistently for a title?
A: I think the stage that this car is in there’s some more development to come but it’ll be the new car that’s really going to go to the next level.
I think it can be quite competitive in its current form but the idea is to bring the new car out at some stage next year and that should be a major step and if it’s already on the podium and you make a major step then you’re going to be on front running pace.
CA: Now, with only Citroen, Hyundai and Volkswagen competing in WRC (as factory teams), would you like to see any other manufacturers join in or return to the sport? As a former Subaru driver, does part of you want to see it back in the championship?
A: Yeah, I think heritage wise there’s a couple of manufacturers that should be in there. There’s Toyota, they’re sniffing around. Subaru as well I think lost some of its edge.
I think rally brings a real attitude to a brand. It’s quite different to most other motorsport and you see a couple of pretty big manufacturers here putting a fair bit of effort in, so there’s obviously some benefit in competing and the more manufacturers you have, the better it is for the sport.
CA: How do you see the 2015 season playing out for both yourself and the team?
A: It’s hard to say. Obviously we’ve still got a bit of a gap to close to the front guys but I think there’ll be some more steps in the current car, so if the guys can be competitive early on in the year in the old car, then the new car comes out at some stage, then I’m [still] not sure they’ll be quite there.
Obviously [Volkswagen drivers Sebastien] Ogier and [Jari-Matti] Latvala are on a fair level at the moment, so it’s not easy, it’s a world championship. But hopefully it can be really competitive.
CA: And personally, how are you feeling with your fitness levels and not being able to compete at every round?
A: Yeah in the car I’m fine. I prepare as well as I ever have. I did everything I could but as much as you can do that then nothing beats racing week in week out and just having that feeling in that car.
Rallying’s so much about just your bond with the car and how you trust it and knowing exactly what it’s going to do and to turn up for one weekend a year and try and find that bond is difficult.
The pace that we drove at, it’s not slow, it’s not arsing about, but it’s not um … it’s WRC. You’d probably win any other championship in the world with the pace that I drove at but this is world championship rallying and you’re not going to win if you’re not on the money.
CA: And at this stage are you confident about your 2015 with Hyundai?
A: Yeah, my focus was this event and then see where it stands. Obviously I’m not quite on the pace of the lead guys and to do that I need to be doing more events but I’m really happy with the situation that I’ve got. I enjoy working with all the guys and enjoy working with the guys at Hyundai Australia as well – that’s been good fun.
For sure I want to keep the relationship going and I want to be doing things that are fun at the moment, whether that’s WRC, whether that’s Australian Championship (ARC), whether that’s Rally Cross, I don’t know, but I look at our options.
CA: Are you hoping to get more seat time in the car in 2015, though?
A: Yeah, I think it’s difficult. Again, it’d be great if someone offers me just Rally Australia next year, I’m not going to say no to it, but it’d be nice to have more rounds and a bigger build up to this. Whether that’s going to happen or not, I don’t know.
CA: At 34 now, you’re also not the youngest guy in the WRC paddock. Do you feel like you can still hold it with these younger guys (Neuville is 26, Paddon 27)? Are we going to see you next year at Rally Australia in a WRC car?
A: I’m sure the speed’s still there but it takes some time to come back. And I’m not as hungry, for sure, as I was when I was 24, 25 but if my career stopped now I’m really happy with what I’ve achieved and what I’ve done. For sure I would have liked to win a world championship but not everyone gets to do that and not many people get to do what I’ve done.
So, I want to do things that are fun. I want to be racing at the front. I don’t want to turn up just to be making up the numbers. So we’ll just see where it goes.
I’m a competitive person, you put me in a car, I want to be fast and if I’m not fast I want to figure out why I’m not fast.
CA: Thanks Chris, we all definitely want to see you back in 2015 and hopefully in the WRC paddock as well.
A: Let’s hope so.
Images by David Zalstein.