Team MRF drivers Chris Atkinson and Gaurav Gill will be hoping to continue their brilliant start to the 2012 Asia Pacific Rally Championship at this weekend’s Rally of New Caledonia.
At the first round in New Zealand last month, Atkinson drove his Skoda Fabia S2000 to a convincing victory, while his new team-mate, Gill, finished an impressive third on his first outing in a left-hand drive car.
With the championship lead in both the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ standings, Team MRF will start the event as favourites.
“We had an awesome start to the season in New Zealand and the team and the car worked perfectly,” Atkinson said.
“Straight out of the box the Skoda was great, but we also learnt a lot about the car over the two days of the event and that will stand us in good stead in New Caledonia.”
Atkinson and co-driver, Stephane Prevot, won the event in 2011 while driving for Proton, but this year they’ll be up against their former team, with drivers Alister McRae (Scotland), and Per Gunnar Andersson (Sweden).
“We had a good rally in New Caledonia last year, but it’s one of those rallies that is really susceptible to the weather conditions, so it’s going to be really tricky if it’s wet.
“We’ll run the car on the safe side with the set-up, because you need to have a car that’s easy to change depending on the conditions. But I was really happy with the car in New Zealand, so I can’t see us making too many changes.”
With wet weather a better than even possibility in this event, Team MRF will have the choice of the new MRF wet weather tyre for this rally, but regardless of the conditions, Atkinson remains confident.
“The tyres were great in New Zealand. To win there – in any event – you have to have good tyres, and the MRFs worked really well on the Skoda.”
Race Torque Managing Director, Lane Heenan, said that an uprated Reiger suspension package for the Skodas would be fitted to the car for this rally, with different valving and slightly longer suspension travel.
“We’ll get the car a bit more dialled in at each event,” Heenan said.
“The cars went straight from New Zealand to New Caledonia, and in fact we won’t see them back in our Perth workshop until December, so it’s a challenging season.”
Despite holding the Drivers’ title lead, Atkinson will continue to attack from the front.
“I still need to approach every rally with the aim of winning it, because if PG (Andersson) or Gaurav (Gill) win in New Calendonia, then we’ll lose the championship lead.
“We need to lead from the front and continue to score as many championship points as possible.
“This is a rally I enjoy. Some of the stages are really good fun, while others are quite tricky. If it’s wet then it’s a real lottery and hard to drive – but we won last year so it can’t be too bad!
“The plan is to continue to learn the intricacies of the Skoda, and keep the momentum going,” he said.
Heenan believes that Gill’s drive to third place in the Rally of Whangarei was probably the drive of the event, given that he had never driven a left-hand drive car in competition before.
“He did 60km of testing before the rally, but other than that everything was brand new,” he said.
“The S2000 is a really sensitive car, and he was almost over-doing things on the first day, because the car is just so responsive to every input you give it.
“As a result he had a couple of silly spins, but on the second day he was a lot happier with the car and I expect to see him improve even more in New Caledonia.”
The 2012 Rally of New Caledonia begins with four stages on Friday afternoon, followed by a further nine on Saturday, and another six stages on Sunday, giving competitors a total stage distance of 253km.
Photos: Euan Camera and APSMtv
**APRC points after Round 1
Chris Atkinson / Stephane** Prevot (Team MRF), 37 points
PG Andersson / Emil Axelsson (Proton), 30 points
Gaurav Gill / Glenn Macneall (Team MRF), 21 points
Alister McRae / Bill Hayes (Proton), 16 points
Brian Green / Fluer Pedersen (Mitsubishi), 12 points
Team MRF, 58 points
Proton Motorsports, 46 points
Proton R3 Cusco, 20 points
Skoda, 37 points
Proton, 30 points
Mitsubishi, 12 points
Round: 2/6, FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship
Based: Noumea, New Caledonia
Liaison distance: 391.61km
Competitive distance: 252.82km
Total distance: 644.43km
Shakedown: Friday April 27, 0700-1030
Pre-event press conference: Friday April 27, 1030
Post-event press conference: Media centre, Hippodrome (Sunday April 29, 1630)
Time difference: New Caledonia is UTC +11