It's been a tough few years for Chris Atkinson. In 2008 he was making serious waves in the World Rally Championship, regularly matching or beating world champion teammate Petter Solberg in a Subaru team finally showing signs of resurgence after a catastrophic 2006 and 2007.
But then came the Global Financial Crisis. Subaru pulled out of the WRC weeks prior to the start of the 2009 season, leaving Atkinson high and dry. Unable to secure a top seat, the Aussie turned his attention to the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. A year with Proton in 2010 was marred by car failures, but second in 2011 and a title win in 2012 in a Skoda Fabia S2000, as well as sporadic appearances in the WRC, have showed Atkinson has lost little of his speed.
Now a member of Hyundai's World Rally squad, the 34-year-old Gold Coast resident is set to make his second WRC appearance at this year's Rally Australia, which will take place around Coffs Harbour from September 11-14. We sat down with Atkinson for a lengthy chat about his past, his future, and all things rallying.
In 2008 you were finally reaching the top echelon of your sport when the carpet was suddenly pulled out from under you. How did you deal with Subaru pulling out of the WRC at such short notice?
“It's a strange one, because it happened right before Christmas – we were almost ready to go. We'd heard rumours about what was going on; there were a few rumours floating around that maybe [Subaru would] take it in house, but when they told us the news – we got called down to Nice airport because Petter and I were living in Monaco – it was obviously quite a shock.
"I'm not sure it sunk in for quite a while what an impact it actually had on my career, but I took it at the time trying to be positive; there were obviously a lot worse things going on for a lot more people so it wasn't the end of the world.
"I tried to move on as much as I could with the career, but at that time you had two manufacturers pull out, there were no seats available and I still stuck with the ambition for a while of being in the WRC until I had to readjust and bring my target back down just to get racing again.”
How close were you to getting back to a seat in 2009?
“It was a similar situation to Petter, you had to find the sponsorship or the money to do it. We did [Rally Ireland], we got a a big sponsor on board and we were talking to a few companies.
"It was going to be hard because the manufacturers didn't have the money at the time and so you've pretty much got to try and fund a privateer year to keep it going and hope for a new manufacturer or a seat the following year.
"But when it happens in December you're not going to get a seat for the next year so you try and make the most of it. But trying to find a sponsor at the start of the GFC wasn't easy either.”
You've done a few WRC events since, how hard are those one-off drives, balancing showing your speed with getting a good result?
“You can kid yourself a little bit and say 'yeh I can hop in a different car and go flat out and I'll be fine' but it doesn't always work that way. In F1, in anything, you see people switch cars and they struggle, let alone in rallying, which is one of the most sensitive sports in terms of confidence and feeling with the car. If that's not there you can't get that last bit.
"I found that there was a point there where I didn't really race for a year and then I turned up in a World Rally Car and I was still able to do times 0.2 or 0.3sec a kilometre off the pace, but it's that last little bit that's hard to get back.
"When you go from doing a lot of rallies before in the WRC, 2005-06-07-08, flat out testing, 16 races a year, you're in the groove, you start to know the stages well, the car, and even if the car's not perfect you learn to deal with it. Then you have a year out and a big gap throws a spanner in the works; you've still got some ability, but it's the detail stuff."
Is that partially down to the flat-out nature of the WRC now? Surely 10 or 20 years ago, with longer, more varied rallies, there was more of an opportunity to make an impact?
“Yeh for sure. I think the new cars.. You could get away [with] more in the old World Rally Cars because you had the horsepower and the torque there; the new World Rally Cars are more restricted so if you do have a lift and a bit of a hesitation you lose a lot more time.”
Do you feel that you're a better driver than you've ever been?
“I think that I'm more consistent and the fact that I've hopped between a lot of different cars and can still hop in and do a top five in a World Championship round is not bad, but like I said that last bit – I'd actually say I was faster in '07 than in '08 in terms of absolute pace – that speed stage-in, stage-out is slightly off because you're not in the car, you're not racing constantly. I'm sure it'll come back but you probably need a full season – it won't take the whole season but a full season to have a big attack the next year and really be at front-running pace.”
How have the cars changed over your time in the WRC? You started in very high-tech cars with active diffs, paddle gearshift etc. and now the cars are a bit more simple.
“You've lost in some areas, which is a shame as I quite liked the technology side of it. The active diffs were really cool, it's a shame they went away from them, but there's some clever stuff going on.”
Did it make the cars easier to drive or was it just a different challenge?
“It's just different. You had to think about it a lot, you had to adjust the car mid-stage, you could have up to six options on the diffs, so you could control the front diff, the active slip, the centre diff, the rear diff, you could choose which ones you had – you were constantly adjusting the car.”
Active Slip? Like traction control?
“Yeh whenever you get past a certain amount of slip it will come in. But you want it fairly free to carry speed through the changes of direction etc. but if you get big wheelspin in a slow corner and want to catch that wheel, you could control the percentage that you wanted that slip, how aggressive you wanted to catch it so it was quite cool.
"[You could have] probably 20 different parameters but the main one would be basically the amount of pre-load on the diffs. I think they're heading back to the paddle-shifts now. The first time I went back to changing gears again I actually wore a hole in my hand because it was in a Super 2000 car and you had to change gears so much; my hands had gotten soft from the paddle-shift over the years (laughs).”
There's potentially a big shift in the WRC regulations coming in 2017; as both a driver and a fan, what direction would you like to see the WRC go in?
“I read the article the other day that said the cars are looking all quite similar and I don't disagree with that. You look back at the '90s and even early-2000s you had things from the big Subaru to the little Peugeot and they were fighting each other and it was quite interesting; one car would suit a certain stage and another car would suit different conditions and it really opened up the championship a little bit.
"All the cars at the moment are, technology-wise, quite similar and the big challenge is in terms of controlling it and not letting someone have a huge advantage. I'm for a bit of difference and also a bit of difference in the rallies; some endurance events, some shorter sprint events to mix it up and make it a bit more interesting.
"It doesn't have to be like Formula 1, it doesn't have to be circuit racing, you can make it more exciting. You only have to look at events like the Tour de France where it moves around and follows different routes and different towns and the crowd comes along with that, rather than just going to the one spot and expecting everyone to come to you.”
Is cost part of that? That's why there was a push to centralised service in the first place.
“Yeh I think cost and logistics plays a big part in it, but the big teams have big budgets. For sure it'd be a bit harder for some of the privateer teams.”
What would your ideal rally car be?
“That's a good question (long pause). I think those early World Rally Cars, that sort of style is quite cool, they were awesome bits of kit. Not that they aren't now, they're still amazing cars to drive, they're faster than ever, the developments in suspension and diff technology is incredible, the jumps you can hit flat in sixth gear blows your mind.
"But I think we should be pushing the technology side, using things like the technology to develop massive amounts of torque. Torque is awesome in a rally car, some of the stuff you're seeing in F1 could definitely be used in rallying down the track.
"I just don't like a boring structure, I think it should be constantly evolving and challenging technology and that's going to create interest in the sport from another angle, not just the racing angle.”
You've driven most of the current generation World Rally Cars, how do they differ?
“I wouldn't say they're hugely different to drive. A lot of the feeling comes from obviously the size of the chassis and the aero packages, whether they're nervous in the high-speed stuff or not, the differentials are packaged quite similar.
"There are differences, the Ford moves around quite a lot, the Hyundai's quite reactive but also quite stable in the fast and the Citroen is somewhere in between. A lot of it comes down to the geometry and how that's set up. You see the angles and the wheel travel on the Ford which makes the car move a lot but works in some conditions and then the Hyundai with a more traditional setup and the Citroen, there are a couple of different directions.
"You could say the Ford and Volkswagen have gone one way, maybe the Volkswagen's a little bit closer, and the Citroen and Hyundai are slightly the other way in terms of the style and the Mini, which is not used really now, is somewhere along the more traditional geometry style. Then a lot of it comes down to the driver feeling after that; confidence, whether you like the car moving or not; some drivers hate that diving and rolling.”
You can see that even in the different styles of [ fellow Hyundai drivers]Thierry Neuville and Juho Hanninen.
“Yeh, Juho's with the Finnish style and Thierry, coming from a tarmac background, is obviously a bit neater, but he's still aggressive. You look at the way Ogier drives now, he's very, very aggressive, really committed before the corner.”
Do you prefer a neater style or just throw it into the corner and carry speed?
“No, I'd say I'm more on the neat, understeering style, which is actually a bit more risky on some of the high-speed stuff but can payoff for speed.”
Can anyone beat Sebastien Ogier?
“It comes back to a bit of a Loeb situation. It's the whole package, you can see he's comfortable with that car – Jari-Matti's not as comfortable. Jari-Matti was seen as the fastest guy and then all of a sudden he's hopped in what is one of the best cars at the moment and he's not able to take it to Ogier, so it does show that certain cars suit different driving styles and different drivers. Jari could make the Ford work really well; I think he's getting there with the Volkswagen but it's taking time.
"Someone will come along and beat Ogier for sure, but it's a hard job at the moment. I think Loeb was super consistent and obviously amazing on tarmac but I think he was always beatable on gravel if you had a good day and Ogier came along and did that. It's funny to have people dominate so much in rallying at the moment and maybe that comes a little bit back to the rules and maybe we need to look at that.”
What about some of the younger drivers? Many of them have the speed but the crash count is enormous, what was your approach when you first started?
“I think World Rally Cars, even though they're only one or two seconds a kay faster [than an S2000 car), it's all happening that much quicker and the tolerances come down that much more and if you're not fast, you're out. Ogier was the same, he was crashing as he was learning.
"It's very rare that you get a chance, like some people have got, that you have a year or two to drive at a slower speed and build up, quite often you get one or two chances and if you don't make the most of that opportunity and show something you're out.
"I took the approach back then that as long as I was fast – and my attitude was always I wanted to be the fastest – then I'm more likely to keep my seat. Whereas if I turn up and I'm slow, you're guaranteed to be out. Obviously it would be perfect to turn up and be fast and not crash, but it's not as easy as that.”
Who have your toughest competitors been?
“All those guys that have won world championships were always massively competitive and the biggest thing was they were consistently there stage after stage. If you weren't on it for a stage you were left behind. During that time it really taught you to just be committed constantly; if I was third on the road, you can see the lines and see what's going on.
"One year in Finland we were a comfortable third so not going crazy but still pushing and Gronholm and Loeb were pushing for a win and they were fighting a few seconds apart. You see their lines going into bushes and off the road but fast, not wasting time, but just using every millimetre and more. You get to the end of the stage and think 'I had a fair crack' and they were just going mental. And no-one, unless you were in that car, had an idea of how fast those guys were actually going.”
Are there Australian guys you've competed against that could've made it on the world level?
“I always had the theory that when I went to the world championship, although I was winning in Australia, I was probably still a second a kay away from the fast guys in the WRC. I think speed-wise Simon Evans was fast; the biggest thing is whether people can adapt to a World Rally Car.
"You can have the fastest Group N guy in the world, he hops in a World Rally Car and he's nowhere, he's barely any faster. I think it's the ability to absorb information. It's a small step, say a second a kay over a Super 2000 car or two-three seconds a kay over a Group N car, but everything's just happening that much quicker and you have to react that much quicker. Your mental decision making has to be that much more decisive. Everything just multiplies and you really have to drive the cars, you have to be on top of them.
"I think when I drove the front-wheel drive Suzuki Ignis S1600 in 2003, that taught me a lot about getting the most out of a car, where a Group N car doesn't really teach you that. It was quite difficult but quite an important thing for me, when I switched between the S1600 and the Group N car in 2004, I'd have to adapt my driving style each time, because I'd over-drive the Group N car and you'd have to bring it back a bit, then you'd under-drive the Suzuki and have to pick it up again. It taught me quite a bit and I took both of those skills into a World Rally Car and went up still another level.”
Can you still be Australia's first World Rally Champion?
“I wouldn't say it's impossible, but you need the support and the opportunity.”
Is it frustrating to have the talent and not have the support from your home country?
“Rallying is not a massive sport here, but to be honest it's the same in a lot of countries. There are a lot of guys with a lot of talent that never made it in Europe as well so I'm not going to use the Australian thing as an excuse.
"I'm quite proud that I was one of the few Australians to get over to Europe and get some good results in rallying; of course I wanted to win the World Championship and win rallies and there's still that chance. I'm 34, I'm as fit as ever, if I want there's still probably another six, seven, eight years in it and really, when I first started in the World Championship, that was eight years ago so I've got that time again if the opportunity is there.
"Without the opportunity it's impossible, and like I said you probably need a good year to build that solid foundation of speed everywhere an then the following year you can be in contention and fighting. But for me to come in in the first year, similar to what happened with Meeke this year, he had some rallies, showed some good speed but still to turn up at Monte Carlo again, Sweden again and be on the money with those boys.”
Perhaps most people don't realise how good the guys at the front are, to push that hard with that precision for a whole rally.
“And they've been doing it... I don't know how long Ogier has been doing the World Championship now, say six or seven years, someone like Latvala, 10 years nearly, to build the foundation. And you do learn the roads a bit.
"As much you rely on the pacenotes, you do learn to know where you can push a little bit harder and where you can take the risk or a cut and that adds up over a rally. Since 2008, since I was full time there, you lose some of that. If you go to a rally for the first time and expect to be on the pace with the front boys, the only way you're going to do that is with massive risk. And I've done it before, you can do it, but it doesn't matter who you are, you see even when Loeb came back in France, he took some time out and he had to take risks to try and keep up.
"It's a cruel sport in terms of that. In circuit racing, I'm not going to say it's easier, but if you've got some experience you can probably turn up and still be pretty close. In rallying that confidence in the car and on the pacenotes is critical.”
What are your goals ahead of Rally Australia? What's a realistic target?
“I think the top five is probably realistic. It's not going to be easy but we should have a good road position if it doesn't rain on the first day and if we can make the most of that then it could work out ok. To say a podium is a bit unrealistic but obviously I'm going to try as hard as possible from the start.
"The first year I did Rally Australia in Perth in a World Rally Car I was leading the event, so it's not to say it's not possible; I was probably a bit younger and a bit crazier then, I was flat-out from the start. But although I haven't done the stages before, you get a good feeling for Australian roads.”
Have you had much time in the car this year in terms of testing?
“No, the idea for testing was for the new car which is still being developed. At the moment the testing has basically been pre-event so I haven't done a lot this year. Keen to get involved more in the new car for next year.”
That's the big question: what are your prospects next year?
“At the moment I don't know. Obviously I'd love to continue with Hyundai and get more events. Realistically to be up there and fighting and obviously I'd love to be back for Rally Australia next year and have a good crack at that. It's always the second year that you're more likely to be at the front and the car, by then, [will have had] a good two years of development and we should we able to fight or wins.”