Australia’s World Rally Championship star, Chris Atkinson, started the year in sensational fashion, steering his Subaru to fourth place at the season opener in Monte Carlo, in the process beating 2006 Rally Australia winner, Mikko Hirvonen, in a down-to-the-wire fight to the finish.

But since then, says RallySport Magazine's Peter Whitten, the Queenslander’s season has gone down hill and he’s never really been on the pace – certainly not with any consistency.

In the likeable Aussie’s defence, since he joined the Subaru World Rally Team at the start of the 2005 season, the car that the once successful Japanese team has given him to drive has been, to be blunt, a dud. Even his team-mate, 2003 World Champion Petter Solberg, didn’t win a rally last year, and to be honest, he never really looked like he would.

Subaru World Rally Team’s Steve Farrell, as late as last week, was quoted in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper as saying: “I think Chris is pretty exceptional and our poor results are certainly not his fault.”

He continued: “I can see that he has got what it takes. He is not here for any reason other than the fact we think he is a potential world champion.”

Farrell was no less to the point when talking about the Impreza WRX. “We were heading down the mineshaft well and truly by the time he joined the team.”

But despite Subaru’s praise of Atkinson and their public vote of confidence in his ability and long term chances of success, there’s several reasons for thinking that Atkinson’s WRC career is spiralling out of control.

First came his accident at the Rally of Portugal when he literally drove off the road while flat out in sixth gear. This was no pacenoting error on the part of his co-driver, Glenn Macneall, although Macneall’s immediate resignation as co-driver appeared to many as though it had been.

Macneall jumped, he was not pushed, leaving the young Atkinson with the difficult decision of choosing a new co-driver part way through a season which, to any driver, must be unsettling.

Then, after just one rally with new man Stephane Prevot, Subaru announced that they have signed former Citroen driver Xavier Pons to drive for the team from Rally Finland onwards, and for the 2008 WRC season.

Subaru have stated that it will be good for the team to have Pons on board, but it strikes as going against the grain for a team which is struggling so badly, as Subaru are, to sign a new driver and to all of a sudden commit to running an extra car in a championship that is already far too expensive and far-flung.

So has Atkinson been given an ultimatum – to shape up or ship out? Many think that’s the case, and that unless Atko doesn’t come up with the goods between now and the end of the season, his WRC career is shot.

Others think he’s looking further afield, and at new horizons. And it’s this scenario that seems to be closer to the truth – at least in the eyes of this writer.

With Suzuki entering the WRC full time in 2008 with a brand new World Rally Car – the SX4 – it has been widely rumoured that Atkinson will head the attack. And recent developments have done nothing to hose down those rumours.

Atkinson started his ‘big time’ rally career driving a Super 1600 Suzuki Ignis for the Monster Tajima-led team and it would surprise few if he defected back to the team which gave him his start. A good relationship with the team boss (Tajima), a successful record with the team (the Asia Pacific Super 1600 title) and a breath of fresh air could be just what the doctor ordered.

The question beckons though, is this the right move? There are two trains of thought here. Firstly, if Subaru have given Atkinson his marching orders from the end of 2007, then it’s definitely the right move. However, if it is a choice that the Australian and his backers have made themselves, then it remains to be seen.

Subaru, once the pacesetter in the WRC and the winner of many championships, have been down for far too long and eventually their fortunes must turn around. But whether Atkinson can see that happening in the near future is something that we can only summise over.

On the flip-side, if he does join Suzuki, is he, in the formative years of his rallying career, the right man to be developing a brand new car for a manufacturer that has never built an FIA-spec four-wheel drive rally car in the past? That’s another question that is almost impossible to answer, as he has been given slim testing opportunities in his time at Subaru.

A lot will depend on which other driver Suzuki pick to drive their new car. If it’s a seasoned campaigner the job will be a lot easier. If it’s not, then it could be another tough season for the out of luck Aussie.

Whatever the future holds for Chris Atkinson, and wherever he ends up in 2008, it shapes up to be the most important year in his already difficult WRC career. His rallying career appears to be well and truly at the crossroads – we just hope that whatever decision he makes, he chooses wisely.

Photos: Subaru, Suzuki

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