The PROTON R3 Rally Team has arrived in Japan for the second round of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship.
After stunning the opposition with a string of fastest times and the rally lead on last month’s opening round in Malaysia, PROTON drivers Alister McRae and Chris Atkinson have vowed to come back even harder on this week’s second event in the of the seven-round series.
McRae, co-driven by Australian Bill Hayes, led the event with a brilliant drive in some of the hottest conditions he has ever had to cope with. McRae’s supreme fitness endured this stern test and, just as he his lead was beginning to look comfortable, his Satria Neo S2000 suffered a minor engine fault.
Atkinson ended his debut event for the PROTON R3 Rally Team fourth in the championship standings after an extremely promising start. After the tight, twisty and technical stages in Malaysia, both men are ready to let the MEM-built PROTON fly on the sweeping gravel roads of Japan’s northernmost island.
PROTON is no stranger to success at the highest level of global motorsport, having won the 2002 FIA Production Car World Rally Championship.
Rally Hokkaido is one of the most popular rounds of the APRC. It’s not hard to see why. The local population of Makubetsu and Obihiro, the areas of Japan’s Tokachi region where the rally runs, turn out in force to celebrate and support the rally’s arrival, turning this event into a noisy and colourful carnival of motorsport. Such is the popularity of the sport in this region, a 50,000-strong crowd for the ceremonial start is a regular occurrence.
Tokachi is known for extreme temperatures, with an annual temperature range of 60 degrees Celsius. The record low winter temperature for the area is -38.2 degrees, while the opposite end of the scale is a July high of 37.8 degrees. The average for this time of the year is around 18 degrees with rain possible.
The stages on the event run to the north-west of Makubetsu, except the exceptionally popular Obihiro spectator stage next to the Kita Aikoku service park. This 1.20-kilometer test opens proceedings one hour after the ceremonial start on Friday evening and then runs a further three times during the rally.
After such a strong start in Malaysia, all eyes will be on former British Rally Champion McRae in Japan, but the Scotsman, who now lives in Western Australia, admits his fellow PROTON driver Chris Atkinson is likely to be right up there setting the pace with him on Rally Hokkaido.
Atkinson, co-driven by Belgian Stephane Prevot, has a strong record in Japan. On his first trip to the World Rally Championship qualifier which also ran across these roads, he won his class by an astonishing 10 minutes in 2004. Twelve months on from that result and Atkinson was celebrating his first ever WRC podium, taking third place for the official Subaru team. Atkinson then collected two fourth positions in the next three editions of the event.
McRae and Atkinson will test the Satria Neo S2000 in Japan on Wednesday afternoon, before conducting a two-day recce of the route on Thursday and Friday morning.
Alister McRae said:
“I have never competed in Japan before, so I’ve only got a rough idea of what to expect. I’ve watched some footage from Rally Japan and a lot of the in-car, so this gives you a good flavour of the stages to come. They look quite fast in places, but really narrow as well. They don’t seem to flow too much. I would say the key to this event is going to be getting an accurate set of notes from the recce. The big thing for us in Japan is that this event really should suit the car more than Malaysia did
Chris Atkinson said:
“I’ve got fond memories of Japan; it’s the place where I scored my first podium, taking third place on my first visit there in the Impreza WRC in 2005. The stages are good. They’re fast and smooth in places, but they are quite technical. There’s a lot of the road running under the trees which can make it hard to see the precise line you want to take through the corner. You do need very accurate pace notes on this event. The last rally in Malaysia was my first real time in the car and, as such, I was still getting used to my new surroundings. In Japan this week, I’ll be more used to the car and I’ll be looking to push harder and see what we can do. The PROTON felt fantastic last time out
Chris Mellors (team principal) said:
“We’re looking forward to a good weekend in Japan. We’ve done some more work with the car since the opening round in Malaysia and we’ve made some more good steps. Alister’s pace in Malaysia was fantastic and we’re looking forward to more of the same this week. Chris is getting quicker and quicker in the car all the time. It’s easy to forget Malaysia was literally his first real mileage in the PROTON. I’d expect him to be right up there at the sharp end in Japan, given that he has such a strong record on this event. Every kilometer Chris does in the car is levelling his learning curve. I think we have the makings of a good result in Hokkaido, but at the same time we have to remember there’s going to be some strong competition there, not only from the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, but also from the local drivers who know this event well.”
Source: Team Release