The International Rally of Whangarei will plunge PROTON drivers Chris Atkison and Alister McRae into the middle of a Kiwi winter, but they don’t mind in the slightest. The North Island roads which make up the fourth round of the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship are, quite simply, some of the best on the planet.
The heavily cambered stages allow the drivers to slingshot their cars through the corners, carrying more speed than ever before. And, this being the sports-mad nation of New Zealand, the town of Whangarei really… goes to town when the rally arrives.
PROTON Motorsports scored a second place on this event last year and is desperate to place one of the two factory Satria Neo S2000s on the top step of the podium at the end of 16 gravel stages. While the road surface is smooth and generally kinder to the cars than in some other countries, two runs through the 40-kilometre Bull stage – and more than 300 competitive kilometres across the two days – ensure this event will be anything-but easy.
New Zealand is a fearsome place to come for any sporting contest – just ask any of the 19 teams heading to the Land of the Long White Cloud to face the legendary All Blacks in September’s Rugby World Cup. And in a town which will host some of that Rugby World Cup action, the battle for the International Rally of Whangarei will be just as fierce next week.
With two wins from three starts this season, Atkinson is ready for the battle ahead. The Australian could have arrived with a 100 per cent record, after dominating the early stages of APRC round two in his Queensland, Australia backyard. Atkinson’s team-mate McRae is also well-acquainted with winning, having taken success on the closing round of the 2010 series in China.
Both PROTON Motorsports drivers are in with very good chance of taking this year’s coveted APRC title and no quarter will be given when they get started in New Zealand. The Satria Neo S2000 has demonstrated devastating pace throughout the first half of this year’s APRC, courtesy of upgrades to the car from the Malaysian manufacturer, but the weather remains a factor which could upset a formbook favouring PROTON. Typically, temperatures range between five and 15 degrees in the Northland area of New Zealand at this time of the year, but rain can arrive in a moment, varying the conditions greatly from crew to crew.
Chris Atkinson said: “We arrive at this event on a high, having won last time out in New Caledonia and leading the championship. But, once this next event gets going, nothing else matters. The roads in New Zealand definitely favour the Super 2000 car. Cars like our PROTON are really at home in the fast and flowing corners, like the ones on the North Island roads. One of the areas where the PROTON works really well is in the weight transfer over the top … read on of the road; because the cars is quite light, you can move it about more than with a heavier Group N car. Plus, if you do get on the wrong side of the camber, it’s a little bit easier to get back than a Group N car. I love the roads in New Zealand, they’re fantastic; they really reward attacking driving. The other good thing is that there’s nothing between you and a good time: the roads are so smooth, it’s pretty unusual to have a rough section on this event. The competition from the local drivers is always really tough on this event and this year will be no exception.”
Alister McRae said: “These are classic stages. Names like Waipu Gorge and Batley are well known around the world for their tough nature, but also for the rewards they offer a driver who can get them right. I can’t wait to get started. The car’s feeling better and better this year and we’ve definitely got some more speed from it. That speed has come from the suspension and engine work the team has been doing since the start of the year. The new suspension has made the car more driveable, while giving better traction and feeling for the road. The engine has also improved driveability, with more power from lower down. Getting these things sorted has allowed us to spend more time fine-tuning things like the differential set-up and other things like that, which also make the car quicker. I would say the car has the pace to win everywhere this year and we’re now getting the kind of consistency which can make that happen. We’re going to be quicker in New Zealand this year than we were last year, because the car’s had another 12 months’ of development. Chris [Atkinson] and I will certainly be starting the event looking at nothing less than a win – as we do with every event.”
Datuk Abdul Razak Dawood (Head of PROTON Motorsports) said: “After winning in New Caledonia, we are naturally upbeat about our chances in New Zealand, but we remain mindful that the competition and conditions will be very tough. There are 76 teams confirmed for this rally, and our fellow APRC competitors as well as some of the local wildcards have the ability to win as well. However, we are quietly confident with the progress in our development of the Satria Neo S2000 as well as the excellent driving form shown by Chris Atkinson and Alister McRae. We finished second last year and we hope for better results this year.”
Chris Mellors (team principal) said: “We have made a number of changes to the car from the start of the year and all of them are taking us in the right direction. You only have to look at the times the car is doing in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) against the cream of the Super 2000 factory cars to see how close we’re getting. We’re down to fine-tuning with the Satria now; it’s very exciting to see where the car is now and where it’s going to be in the very near future. We have a huge amount of potential. What can I say about the drivers? We have a world-class pair in Alister [McRae] and Chris [Atkinson]. They’re both exceptionally quick and capable of winning the International Rally of Whangarei. We come here having finished first and third on two of the three APRC rounds so far this year, it’s be nice to go one better and … read on take our first one-two in Whangarei. Like every year on this rally there’s going to be some tough local competition out there this year, but we’re going out there to give the – rugby – ball a kick.”
Round: 4/6, FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship
Based: Whangarei, New Zealand Stages:
16 Liaison distance: 398.76km Competitive distance: 301.90km Total distance: 700.66km
Shakedown: Pohe Island (Friday July 15, 1000-1200)
Pre-event press conference: Media centre, Whangarei (Friday July 15, 1430)
Post-event press conference: Media Centre, Whangarei (Sunday July 17, 1600)
Time difference: New Zealand is GMT+12 hrs
Event timetable: Friday July 15 Ceremonial start – Cameron Street, Whangarei 1700
Saturday July 16 SS1 Brooks 1 (13.60km) 0853 SS2 Bull 1 (40.63km) 0926 SS3 Cassidy 1 (23.75km) 1024 SS4 Whangarei Super Special (1.50km) 1127 Service – Whangarei 1137 SS5 Brooks 2 (13.60km) 0853 SS6 Bull 2 (40.63km) 0926 SS7 Cassidy 2 (23.75km) 1024 SS8 Whangarei Super Special 2 (1.50km) 1127
Sunday July 17 SS9 Waipu Caves 1 (21.47km) 0748 SS10 Waipu Gorge 1 (10.99km) 0831 SS11 Batley 1 (20.06km) 0854 SS12 Wairere 1 (18.95km) 0932 Service – Whangarei 1040 SS13 Waipu Caves 2 (21.47km) 1203 SS14 Waipu Gorge 2 (10.99km) 1246 SS15 Batley 2 (20.06km) 1309 SS16 Wairere 2 (18.95km) 1347 Finish – Whangarei 1455
The 2011 FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship Malaysian Rally (April 1-3) International Rally of Queensland (May 13-15) Rally de Nouvelle Caledonie (June 17-19) International Rally of Whangarei (July 16-17) Rally Hokkaido (September 30-October), China Rally Longyou (November 4-6).