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Australian Chris Atkinson has a lead of nearly one minute over Swedish driver Per-Gunnar Andersson in the 2012 Brother International Rally of Whangarei after a day of lead changes and troubles for top contenders. New Zealander Emma Gilmour holds third place overall, just 0.3 seconds behind Andersson, showing the Kiwis are mixing with some top international drivers at the season opening rally.

Atkinson, driving a Skoda Fabia S2000 for Team MRF in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship category of the two-day rally, was seldom out of the top three all day as 47 competitors tackled 159.96 kilometres of special stages taking them from the Whangarei event base south to Maungaturoto and back to Whangarei for the overnight break.

Andersson, in his first start in this event, set the quickest time on stage one ‘Parahi’ to take the early lead, but in stage two the Proton driver suffered a puncture to drop back to ninth overall. Meantime Kiwi drivers Richard Mason, Emma Gilmour, Chris West and Kingsley Thompson – all contenders in the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship powered by Brother – took advantage of running on stages which had been swept clear of gravel by the 11-strong APRC field seeded in front of them. Top seed Alister McRae, Andersson’s team-mate in a matching yellow Proton Satria Neo S2000, bore the brunt of the road-sweeping duties.

“We were clearing the road and struggling a bit,” said McRae at the lunchtime service break. “We can’t carry the speed through the corners as it’s getting too sideways.”

West took the overall lead in his Mitsubishi after stage two, with Gilmour and her Subaru joining West at the top of the leader-board after stage three before Atkinson’s superior power in the S2000 Skoda saw the Australian move into second place. Thompson anEmma Gilmour is the top Kiwi after day one [Photo: Geoff Ridder]d Mason made up the top five after the morning’s four stages, but then Mason, a three-time national champion, was out with rear differential problems.

By stage six, West’s day was done – drive-train issues foiled the former national rally champion’s bid for victory in this all-important opening round of the New Zealand Rally Championship – but he expects to restart on Sunday, as does Mason.

West’s demise gave Atkinson the advantage he was looking for – one he held at the same point in this event last year when he went on to become the first international driver to win the Whangarei rally. Andersson continued to push on and eventually pipped Gilmour for second place by day’s end by just 0.3 seconds.

When reviewing the day, Atkinson said: “We are coming to grips with the car and learning about that all the time as well, so we’re improving as we go. Obviously the road position this morning hurt us but P-G is going quick so we have to watch out for him as he will be fast tomorrow. If you look at Emma in second place, she is doing a great job. Tomorrow’s stages should be good for the car but we will be first on the road so I wouldn’t mind a bit of rain tonight to dampen it down and get rid some of that loose gravel on top. Obviously the guys behind will have an advantage on the first pass.”

Gilmour added her comments: “It’s been a really solid day. Anthony and I had a good first day together. It was a shame to see Westy go out as he was going very fast. The car is handling so well now – it’s got a really good setup, it’s me getting confidence in that.”

Breaking the field out into its key categories, Atkinson, Andersson and Atkinson’s Team MRF Skoda team-mate Indian Gaurav Gill lead the APRC contenders. Gilmour, Thompson and Christchurch’s Matt Jansen in his Subaru STI are the top NZRC contenders. Of note is another Christchurch driver Josh Marston who holds tenth position overnight. A Rally New Zealand Rising Stars 2WD junior scholarship recipient Marston is in a two-wheel-drive Ford Fiesta and is showing some fine pace among the faster turbo-charged and four-wheel-drive competitors.

The Brother International Rally of Whangarei continues with eight further stages on Sunday. The event is the opening round of the 2012 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) and Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship (NZRC), powered by Brother. The event has attracted nearly 50 drivers from India, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Sweden, United Kingdom, and New Caledonia as well as all over New Zealand. More detail and latest event news is available on the website www.rallywhangarei.co.nz.
ENDS/

Results after day one, Brother International Rally of Whangarei
Classification, driver/co-driver, driver’s country or hometown, car (championship), gap to previous
1, Chris Atkinson/Stephene Prevot, Australia, Skoda Fabia S2000 (APRC)
2, Per-Gunnar Andersson/Emil Axelsson, Sweden, Proton Satria Fabia S2000 (APRC), +59.8
3, Emma Gilmour/Anthony McLoughlin, Dunedin, Subaru STI (NZRC), +1:00.1
4, Kingsley Thompson/John Allen, Kerikeri, Mitsubishi Lancer EVO (NZRC) 10, +1:18.0
5, Gaurav Gill/Glenn Macneall, India, Skoda Fabia S2000 (APRC), +2:09.2
6, Alister McRae/Bill Hayes, Great Britain, Proton Satria Neo (APRC), +2:42.9
7, Matt Jansen/Jason Farmer, Christchurch, Subaru STI (NZRC), +3:04.7
8, Sloan Cox/Tarryn Cox, Rotorua, Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 10 (NZRC), +4:52.3
9, Brian Green/Fleur Pedersen, Palmerston North, Mitsubishi Lancer EVO 10 (NZRC), +8:40.4
10, Josh Marston/Patrick Malley, Christchurch, Ford Fiesta (NZRC), +10:41.4
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