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Atkinson eyes top result in Japan

 

Subaru rally driver, Chris Atkinson, heads to Japan this weekend for the eleventh round of the 16-round World Rally Championship, looking for a top five result at his team's home event.

Atkinson finished third in Japan last year, the first time an Australian has been on the podium of a WRC event since Ross Dunkerton's achievement in 1992.

While he would dearly love to repeat that podium result, the Queenslander will adopt an approach of maintaining pace with the elite in the field across the opening two days so he is ready to strike on the final day when the results are determined.

The Gold Coast driver will once again partner Petter Solberg in the Subaru World Rally Team assault on Rally Japan, driving an Impreza WRC2006.

Atkinson has an excellent record in Japan. The Australian first contested Rally Japan in 2003 when it formed part of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship and in 2004 won the Super 1600 class. His podium last year gives him added reason to be excited about the weekend ahead.

"Rally Japan is Subaru's home event so it's a big rally for the team," Atkinson said.

"We did well there last year, and I enjoy the narrow, fast, tricky roads, but it could be difficult to get that result again."

"We've made some steps forward with the car. Now it's all about getting to the stage where we're consistently on the pace. We shouldn't underestimate the task we've got in front of us but, all the same, we'll be doing our best to get a good result for the Subaru supporters."

Subaru World Rally Team sporting director, Luis Moya, is certainly aware of the challenge ahead after a tough year on tour for his team.

"Our record in Japan so far has been good; we've either won or led by a large margin," Moya said. "This year, however, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve. We were encouraged by the step forward in performance in Finland, particularly by Chris' times on Sunday, but it will be a tough event."

"Petter has a good chance of a podium, which would be very satisfying for the army of Subaru fans we expect to be there, while Chris's pace in Finland shows he's capable of achieving a similar finish to his 2005 result."

Solberg won the inaugural WRC event in 2004, but his 2005 rally came to a premature end when, with a 22 second lead, he hit a rock on the penultimate stage of the rally.

Solberg and Atkinson will be joined at the rally by Japan's Toshi Arai, also driving an Impreza WRC2006.

Rally Japan, the championship's only Asian round, is based in the city of Obihiro on Hokkaido, the most northerly of Japan's islands

The event usually attracts hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the country. Last year more than 200,000 people attended the three days of competition, while the ceremonial start alone drew 52,000 spectators.

Rally Japan is a highly technical event with narrow, loose gravel stages which run through dense woodland on the edge of the vast Tokachi plain that stretches inland from the Pacific Ocean. Each Leg will be a grueling test for crews with up to 10 stages per day, ranging from short, twisty 3km sprints to fast, flowing roads more than 34km long. With stages separated by long liaison sections, drivers can be on the road for over 12 hours a day.

Changeable weather is as much a feature of Rally Japan as the long days. Although Obihiro is protected by two mountain ranges, it lies in the path of Pacific weather systems which bring high winds and torrential rain to the island. This year's rally takes place at the height of the typhoon season and it's highly likely that heavy showers will fall each day, leaving the soft ground saturated with water. With some stages used four times, the roads will become heavily rutted as more cars drive through.

This year, the route features 27 stages, one more than in 2005. Changes for this year include a new Superspecial on the edge of the service park that will be used five times during the rally and once as the shakedown stage, while the mammoth 50km Kunneywa-Niueo stage has been broken into three shorter stages.

After a ceremonial start in central Obihiro on Thursday night, the first competitive stage of the rally begins at 0803hrs on Friday 1 September. The podium finish is scheduled for 1500hrs at the Kita Aikoku service park six kilometres south of Obihiro.

Ian Chesterman


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