Photo: Chris Atkinson tackles Mexico’s high-altitude stages (Hyundai pic)
AUSTRALIA’S Chris Atkinson overcame a string of mechanical setbacks to record an impressive return to the FIA World Rally Championship at last weekend’s Rally Guanajuato Mexico.
In his first drive for the new Hyundai Shell World Rally Team, the experienced 34-year-old Gold Coaster finished seventh outright after a four-day race of attrition that saw several top WRC rivals crash or damage their cars.
Atkinson and Belgian teammate Thierry Neuville, who finished third, were determined to finish the rally to gain valuable experience for their German-based Korean outfit.
The Australian’s extensive Mexico record – including second in 2008, fifth in 2007, sixth in 2003, seventh in 2006 and a stage win in 2013 – and experience on the demanding roads of his home State helped win him the part in Hyundai’s gravel-surface debut.
In Mexico, his challenges began within metres of the first stage in Guanajuato City when the Hyundai’s engine cut out and had to be restarted after an electronic reset procedure.
On Friday, he dealt with a faulty turbocharger control, poor brakes and broken suspension. He also ran off the course, but without damage, on the evening super special stage.
From then, Atkinson put his head down and focused on finishing. He overcame gearshift and then brake problems after a 56km stage on Sunday to complete a solid run in one of the WRC’s toughest events.
He and Belgian co-driver Stephane Prevot also faced the challenge of being early in the running order and therefore having to “sweep” the loose gravel surface for following rivals.
“It’s not been an easy weekend, but what a way to end it for the team to celebrate a two-car finish and our debut podium,” said Atkinson, who earned six points in the drivers’ championship and the team’s praise for exceeding its expectations.
“Mexico is a tough rally and I have had to deal with a few issues during the event. We had a suspension problem on Friday, which put us down the order, and then we had to run early in the subsequent stages, which meant a lot of slippery conditions.
“We had to play things sensibly and drive cautiously to achieve our objective of finishing the event, which I am pleased we did comfortably.
“We made some improvements during the rally and I’m pretty satisfied with seventh overall and more importantly to finish.
“This experience will be really useful for the team to improve the car for the rest of the year.
“I look forward to returning to the cockpit of the Hyundai i20 WRC later in the season and thank the team for all their support this weekend. Everyone deserves the podium result today.”
Atkinson and Prevot are already confirmed to drive for Hyundai at Coates Hire Rally Australia on 11-14 September, when they will be joined in a third i20 by New Zealand crew Hayden Paddon and John Kennard.