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PHOTO:  Chris Atkinson (left) and Hayden Paddon help launch Coates Hire Rally Australia beside Sydney Harbour (Photo by Vettas Media)

TWO “hometown hero” drivers for the Hyundai Shell World Rally team at Coates Hire Rally Australia, Chris Atkinson of Australia and Hayden Paddon of New Zealand, were on a Special Stage of a different kind to help launch the September event in Sydney today.

With just 64 days to go until the FIA World Rally Championship 10th round starts on the New South Wales Coffs Coast, Atkinson and Paddon shared their expectations for the event and their experiences of driving the factory Hyundai i20 World Rally Car.

The Down Under stars are among fewer than 20 drivers at the elite level of the World Rally Championship, sometimes described as “Formula 1 on gravel”.

Atkinson, in his 10th season of WRC competition, is looking forward to his first Rally Australia since 2006, when he drove for Subaru.

Paddon, the 2011 Production World Rally Champion, will be making his fourth run in Rally Australia and expects a large contingent of his countrymen to be supporting him from the sidelines.

“I’m really happy to be back in a car for Rally Australia this year,” Atkinson said at the launch beside Sydney Harbour.

“In 2005-2006 (in Western Australia) we were leading the rally. The first year I had a mechanical failure, the second year I crashed while leading.

“But Coffs Coast this year will not really be a home rally because I’ve never competed there. It will be the same for everyone and we’ll be relying on the quality of our (course) notes if we want to do well, although I can say I do know what the Australian roads are like generally.

“Rally Australia is a great event. The whole atmosphere will be amazing and that will motivate me.

“It will be a full-on sprint, flat-out from start to finish. The spectators are going to love it.”

Atkinson predicted the Aussie-Kiwi rivalry would spill off the track into the crowds spectating on the Special Stages around the rally base at Coffs Harbour, 530 kms north of Sydney.

“It’s great that Hyundai has got two people from this part of the world – Hayden and me – in this WRC event. We’ll have a great battle and there will be plenty of rivalry out there between the Aussie and Kiwi spectators too,” he said.

Atkinson, who finished seventh in his competition debut for Hyundai in Mexico earlier this year, will go to Europe in August to test the latest development of the Hyundai i20 car before it’s brought to Australia for him, Paddon and Belgian Thierry Neuville.

Paddon contested the Italian and Polish rounds and will tune his skills from 31 July in the legendary Rally Finland, one of the fastest rounds on the WRC calendar.

Now based in Frankfurt, Germany, near the Hyundai team’s headquarters, Paddon said Coates Hire Rally Australia would be like a home event because of the number of New Zealand supporters.

“We’ll be bringing over more than 100 people on our own and I know many more are coming with other groups. And there are plenty of rally-mad Kiwis living here already who I hope to see on the Coffs Coast,” he said.

“It’s going to be amazing. To be here (in Australia) will be as close as I can get to home.

“I’m looking forward to the Nambucca stage on Rally Australia. It is very like a New Zealand road, really fast. From a driver’s perspective it’s a really nice stage.”

Atkinson and Paddon said the Hyundai i20 WRC had achieved plenty in its first year in the championship, including two podiums and numerous stage victories.

“The i20 is coming on very well. The team is working hard all the time at its headquarters in Germany to improve it and development is also going on at the factory in Korea,” Atkinson said.

“It will be great to see how it goes on those smooth, fast roads around the Coffs Coast.”

One of the biggest sports attractions in regional New South Wales, Coate Hire Rally Australia draws thousands of spectators, competitors and supporters.

Tens of millions more around the world follow on dedicated daily television highlights that provide an unsurpassable showcase for Coffs Coast tourism.

New attractions and innovations plus simplified ticket choices will ensure this year’s event is an unforgettable spectating experience featuring up to 100 rally cars and driving stars including world champion Sebastien Ogier (France), plus Thierry Neuville (Belgium), Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland), Mads Ostberg (Norway), Kris Meeke (Great Britain), Mikko Hirvonen (Finland) and Polish ex-Formula 1 ace Robert Kubica.

Event Manager David Catchpole said there were more reasons than ever to buy a ticket to Coates Hire Rally Australia this year.

“We’ll have the new Hyundai Super Special Stage and ARMOR ALL Shootout over two nights, a more compact choice of daytime spectator points with significantly upgraded facilities for a more comfortable and enjoyable experience and a free-entry Hi-Tec Oils Service Park that will pump with action and entertainment day and night,” Mr Catchpole said.

“Add to that the opportunity to experience the World Rally Championship in the beautiful and vibrant holiday setting of the NSW Coffs Coast.”

In addition to the WRC field, Rally Australia will host rounds of the East Coast Bullbars Australian Rally Championship and the Australian Classic Rally Challenge, plus the Pedders Suspension Coffs Coast 400 off-road race.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.