Chris Atkin­son lives writes life in the fast lane, Zealand PAUL GOVER in New

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Special Report -

WHEN Chris Atkin­son goes to work, he puts his life on the line. As he straps him­self into his Subaru Im­preza he is pre­par­ing to race the clock on some of the tough­est and most danger­ous roads in the world. With zero mar­gin for er­ror.

‘‘What we do in ral­ly­ing is like turn­ing up to a race­track and try­ing to do pole po­si­tion on your very first lap,’’ Atkin­son says.

‘‘If you freeze, you’re go­ing to crash. It takes only one sec­ond for things to get away if you lose con­cen­tra­tion.’’

The 28- year- old Queens­lan­der proved it on the first day of the Rally of New Zealand when bat­tling for a podium place in the lat­est round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship. He got things very slightly wrong on a tight left-han­der and rolled.

It was only a tiny mis­take, but it cost him any chance of a good re­sult in the clos­est thing he has to a home event in the world se­ries.

‘‘I know what I did. I know what I did wrong,’’ Atkin­son says. ‘‘It was noth­ing. To­day was like hav­ing a bump in the car park.

‘‘In the back of my mind I knew I was tak­ing no risks, so I kept go­ing. I felt I could have won that stage.’’

Sharp, in­tel­li­gent and ar­tic­u­late, in many ways Atkin­son is like Mark Web­ber. Ex­cept Web­ber is a For­mula One high­wire artist and Atkin­son a for­est-racing lion-tamer.

His job is to drive as fast as he can on some of the most danger­ous roads in the world. His weapon of choice is a hand-built $500,000 Subaru Im­preza packed with tech­nol­ogy so ad­vanced it is banned from For­mula One.

Atkin­son is still on the way up af­ter three years in the WRC and, in a sport where driv­ers do their best work in their mid-30s, is still con­sid­ered a po­ten­tial world cham­pion.

‘‘He’s get­ting bet­ter all the time. I’m ex­pect­ing big things from him,’’ says Subaru team boss David Richards, a for­mer world cham­pion co-driver. Richards has groomed a lot of rally tal­ent, in­clud­ing the late Colin McRae, and he has run Mark Win­ter­bot­tom and Steven Richards in his Ford Per­for­mance Racing team in V8 Su­per­cars.

But no one ex­pects more from Atkin­son than the man him­self.

He had to buy his way into the WRC, spending about $2 mil­lion, de­spite a ca­reer that in­cluded three ma­jor ti­tles and run­ner-up in the Aus­tralian se­ries be­fore his mon­ey­backed grad­u­a­tion to the 2005 world ti­tle.

He was 12th in his first year in the big time, and im­proved to 10th, then sev­enth. He is run­ning fifth in this year’s world se­ries and earns an es­ti­mated $1 mil­lion, though he has to pay his Bel­gian co-driver Stephane Prevot and is also re­pay­ing his Aussie back­ers — and his fa­ther, John — for their early in­vest­ment.

‘‘It’s been a good sea­son,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve had five podi­ums. A lot of

podi­ums was the tar­get for this year, and then a rally win . . .’’

But there has been no real sign of a win. Atkin­son has been quick, usu­ally out­pac­ing his team­mate, for­mer world cham­pion Pet­ter Sol­berg, but has been let down badly by the car. At first it was a pre­vi­ous-model Im­preza, but Subaru has just up­graded and is bat­tling to make the new WRX com­pet­i­tive with the pace-set­ter Citroen C4 and Ford Fo­cus, both of which have dom­i­nated this year.

‘‘I guess it is a lit­tle bit away, but the podi­ums have been won on merit,’’ Atkin­son says. ‘‘We prob­a­bly set our ex­pec­ta­tion here in New Zealand a lit­tle high. I heard a ru­mour we were meant to win.’’

As it was, four-time world cham­pion Se­bas­tian Loeb did it again in his Citroen. But only af­ter he sur­vived a first-day mishap that was much like Atkin­son’s — ex­cept it hap­pened at 140km/h, not 40km/h, and he did not roll.

But Loeb has the best car in the cham­pi­onship, and Atkin­son ad­mits he has to push harder to get sim­i­lar speed from his Subaru.

‘‘You can push at this level for a cou­ple of stages, but . . .’’ he shrugs, ‘‘you do take risks. It’s about how many you’re pre­pared to take. We de­cided to push as hard as we could from the start in New Zealand.’’

But what is a risk? Is it the sort of scary mo­ment most or­di­nary driv­ers don’t sur­vive, or some sort of crazy X-Games jump into the un­known?

‘‘Risk isn’t about cut­ting a sin­gle cor­ner,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s more about go­ing into ev­ery cor­ner faster than you think you can get away with, then see­ing what hap­pens.

‘‘When you’re re­ally go­ing for it, you keep push­ing.

‘‘We’ve found a level where I can be comfortable in the top five. But even driv­ing at a no-risk level you can have an ac­ci­dent. Things can catch you out. It’s nice to take big­ger risks and get away with it.’’

Away from the forests, Atkin­son has a good life. Home base is Monaco, where he re­cently met Bono at a party, though he still likes to get back to the fam­ily on the Gold Coast.

He spends most of the year on the road, as do all motorsport pro­fes­sion­als, and has made friends with a group in Monaco that in­cludes World Su­per­bike cham­pion Troy Bayliss and Tour de France cy­clist Stu­art O’Grady.

‘‘It’s good fun to hang out with those guys,’’ Atkin­son says. ‘‘It hurts a bit when we go cycling, but it’s worth it. You have to try to prove some­thing.’’

It’s typ­i­cal of Atkin­son that he has his in­ter­com tuned to rock mu­sic be­tween spe­cial stages. Grin­spoon is of­ten play­ing.

‘‘I don’t want any­thing slow’’ he says.

He also dumped two co-driv­ers, his brother Ben and fel­low Aussie Glenn MacNeal, to try to find the right com­bi­na­tion for the WRC big-time. Now he has Prevot, a Bel­gian vet­eran, and the pair have clicked.

Atkin­son knows he can be a WRC win­ner and he is get­ting im­pa­tient. But he al­ways gives 110 per cent.

‘‘It’s prob­a­bly not the smartest thing to do, but it’s fun. There is noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing than go­ing fastest on a stage, against the best guys in the world,’’ he says.

‘‘The only rea­son I turn up is be­cause I think I can be fast. No mat­ter what, no mat­ter where.’’

So, is Chris Atkin­son crazy? Or just crazily fast?

‘‘It’s all rel­a­tive. When I’m in the rally car I don’t feel like I’m driv­ing at all crazily,’’ he says.

‘‘In other things in my life I’m ac­tu­ally prob­a­bly quite safe. I don’t like to take risks.’’

that’s

Life on the line: Colin Atkin­son in World Rally Cham­pi­onship action, where the slight­est mis­take can re­sult in a crash.

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