AUSTRALIAN driver Chris Atkinson dominated the first day of the Brakes Direct International Rally of Queensland while all his key rivals suffered mechanical setbacks on the tricky roads of the Sunshine Coast today.
The Gold Coast-based international, looking to win his home event, led round three of the FIA Pacific Rally Championship by almost two minutes after winning seven of the nine first-day Special Stages over 118 kilometres.
More than 100 vehicles started the 44th annual event this morning, but while the stars of world rally driving dominated the roads, much of the spectators’ attention was focused on the rally debut of Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke.
Clarke completed two stages at BP Ultimate Pomona and Imbil, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution in “demonstration” mode and managed to avoid trouble despite a “sticky wicket” offered by rain-dampened roads.
He said he loved the experience.
“I’ve had a fantastic day at the International Rally of Queensland with BP.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but not that tough. I’ve learnt a lot and just managed to stay out of trouble. I’ll be a lot better driver for the experience.”
Compared to the tentative drive by Australia’s number one batsman, Atkinson was in devastating form on familiar ground.
Driving a Skoda Fabia S2000 for the Indian MRF team, he’ll face a further 10 stages across tonight at Caloundra Aerodrome and tomorrow back in the forests, but barring misfortunes already has the trophy in sight.
“We had no major problems, but it was a tricky day with a lot of changes in (tyre) grip level with damp roads in some places and dry in others,” said Atkinson, whois leading the championship after a win in New Zealand and second in New Caledonia.
“I’m sure it would have been a bit more of a challenge if some of the other guys hadn’t had problems
He was handed an advantage as early as the second stage when defending champion Alister McRae was slowed by a rear suspension joint failure and, later, an engine misfire in his Malaysian factory Proton S2000.
Atkinson’s teammate Guarav Gill, of India, was forced to retire his Skoda for the day after a broken wire stopped the engine, but will continue in leg two tomorrow.
And Proton’s Swedish star, two-time Junior World Rally Champion Per-Gunnar Andersson, battled an engine valve rocker failure and then a loose hose connection that sprayed the windscreen with fuel.
He repaired the fuel hose at the roadside, losing 12 minutes, but will carry on with the engine problem hoping at least still to score championship points, if not a rally win. He is in ninth place and more than 15 minutes off the lead.
“We had a good day, no problems at all,” Andersson quipped.
“This is my first time in this rally and I loved the roads, especially the Pomona (BP Ultimate) stage. It was fast and flowing.”
McRae was in a similar ironic mood describing his car’s problems on the heels of troubled runs in the first two championship rounds in New Zealand and New Caledonia, but nevertheless he is in a comfortable second place ahead of New Zealand Mitsubishi driver Brian Green.
In heat one of the in the Bosch two-wheel drive Australian Rally Championship, South Australian privateer Jack Monkhouse recorded a convincing win in a Nissan Silvia by more than seven minutes.
Official Honda team driver Eli Evans clawed his way back from a puncture to take second from Alan Roe, in another Nissan.
“I’m pretty confident heading into tomorrow. It is still very slippery off-line so it will be all about picking where to put your foot into it to keep the stage times up,” Monkhouse said.
Three Mitsubishi Lancer Evos took the podium in the Bosch four-wheel drive Australian Rally Championship heat, with Wauchope’s Michael Boaden claiming the victory over series points leader Tom Wilde from Perth and local Stephen Shepheard.
Four-time Australian Rally Champion Neal Bates showed he has retained his form in his new venture into the Australian Classic Rally Series this season.
Driving a 1980 World Championship-replica Toyota Celica, Bates and co-driver Coral Taylor won all nine stages to finish the day with an advantage of more than nine minutes over Richard Anderson, in an Alfa Romeo.
The Brakes Direct International Rally of Queensland continues with two 1.91 kilometre stages on the closed runways of the Caloundra Aerodrome tonight.
The rally is round three of six in the Asia Pacific Championship, which will continue in Malaysia, Japan and China in the coming months.
(Editor: Results are at http://d.rallylive.com.au)
PHOTOGRAPHS: Ross Hyde