Chris Atkinson lives writes life in the fast lane, Zealand PAUL GOVER in New
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.’’
Life on the line: Colin Atkinson in World Rally Championship action, where the slightest mistake can result in a crash.