AUSTRALIAN Chris Atkinson cruised to his first major victory on home soil and extended his lead in the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship at the Brakes Direct International Rally of Queensland on the Sunshine Coast today.
Starting with an overnight lead of almost two minutes, the 32-year-old driver for the Indian MRF team took a conservative approach in his Skoda Fabia S2000 on the final eight Special Stages, yet managed to double the margin to 3 minutes 57.9 seconds by the finish in the Mary Valley township of Imbil.
Scot Alister McRae scored a fighting second place for the Malaysian factory Proton team, hanging on with a misfiring engine to claim his first podium in the 2012 series.
New Zealand veteran Brian Green took third place in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
On the back of a win in round one in New Zealand and second in the previous round in New Caledonia, Atkinson with Belgian co-driver Stefan Prevot wrapped up the three-round Pacific Cup competition and boosted his overall championship tally to 101 points heading into the second half of the season in Malaysia, Japan and China.
His Indian teammate Guarav Gill is second on 63 points after dominating today’s competition with seven stage wins out of eight.
Despite rising to the highest ranks of the World Rally Championship during four years as a Subaru factory driver, Atkinson waited a long time for today’s victory.
Accepting his trophy from Queensland State Sports Minister Steve Dickson, he said the feeling was “awesome”.
“It’s one of the most special feelings to be an athlete and win your home event,” he said.
“It’s been a perfect weekend. The car has been faultless and everything worked well. After the last two years when we were leading here and then had problems on the final day, it’s a bit of a relief to win.
“It was pretty tough out there on the roads but I wasn’t going to do anything silly and throw away a two-minute lead, so we took it carefully.”
With the MRF drivers claiming 16 of the 19 Special Stages over 236 kilometres, a real challenge from defending champions Proton again failed to show although it was not for want of trying.
McRae won two stages and came close to matching the Skodas’ times on others, while teammate Per-Gunnar Andersson of Sweden took the opening stage yesterday.
But both were dogged by minor mechanical problems that cost too much time to recover, although Andersson was able to fight from seventh yesterday to fourth today.
Gill too saw his podium chances slip away when a simple broken electrical wire stopped his car early yesterday.
New Zealander Michael Young scored his second FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship Junior Cup category win of the season, enjoying a tight tussle with young Japanese driver Akira Bamba throughout the two-day event.
Young and co-driver Tasmanian Daniel Willson went into the Queensland event leading the Junior Cup class following their class win in Whangarei early in April to give them an eleven point lead over Kenneth Koh, from Malaysia. However Koh was out of the Queensland rally with mechanical issues on stage five, leaving Young battling with Bamba. The Japanese driver managed to finish day one with a ten second margin over Young after Young’s two-wheel-drive Proton Satria Neo suffered some damage.
“It was a big battle with Akira all day Saturday and we’d had the Junior Cup lead virtually all day until the last couple of stages,” says Young. “We went out this morning (Sunday) determined to take the lead back and that’s what we did. We won the first 15.35 km stage by 20 seconds, giving us the lead and then we kept the lead all day to make this our second win from two events.”
Bamba won the two-wheel class (Young is not entered in this catergory) while coming home second was Sanjay Takle from India, now leading the championship fight for APRC two-wheel drive honours.
The next event in the 2012 APRC is the Malaysian Rally 13-15 July.