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Australia's World Rally Championship star, Chris Atkinson, was recently interviewed by Subaru to find out his thoughts on the 2007 season to date, and where he sees the team progressing in the second half of the year.

With the Impreza World Rally Car getting faster at every event, Atko hopes to be challenging for podium places before the season ends.

How has this year been for you, according to your expectations?

CA: Okay, we had fairly high expectations at the start and were hoping to be on the podium quite regularly. Unfortunately things haven’t gone as smoothly as we’d hoped, but we’re hoping to turn it around in the second half of the year. The car’s getting better all the time, the team is working extremely hard, and as long as the development keeps improving then there’s every chance we’ll be back on target. But overall I’m pretty happy with how I’m driving and I think personally I’ve done quite a good job.

You’ve been enjoying a strong run lately. How is team morale?

CA: It’s good for all the guys. I think everyone in the team wants to see fastest times and they want to see us on the podium. You see that in the enthusiasm of the people in the team, especially when you come back and you’re leading the rally, like we were in Greece, and when we had good results in Monte Carlo AND Mexico. It’s been encouraging, but we need to do that more often and start fighting for one place higher. We’ve had a few fourths, now we need to get into the top three, and then seconds and wins.

What do you want to achieve in the latter half of the season?

CA: I always have high expectations, perhaps higher than are sometimes realistic, but with fourth places in Finland and New Zealand in the latter half of this year, we are definitely pushing harder than ever for a podium.

How does having a champion team-mate affect intra-team competition?

CA: It’s a good benchmark for me really, that’s the way I look at it. You’re competing against everyone out there, that’s for sure, and I guess the person you can most easily compare yourself to is the person in the same car as you. The fact that Petter has been the fastest driver in the world and won a lot of rallies means if I’m doing times near his, or beating him, then I’m doing something right.

As the only Australian driver, do you feel expectations are too high?

CA: I think the biggest problem was that we were fast straight away in the championship, yet haven’t continued as we’d liked to have done. But I think there are some other reasons, like the fact that Petter was winning in 2003 and 2004 then when I joined the team the winning sort of slowed down, so for me that’s a bit frustrating. If everything was going well at Subaru, like it has in the past, then we could have been fighting for even higher positions earlier on in our career. But I feel no more pressure than I put on myself really. I just want to do the best job I can each weekend.

What is this year’s Subaru Impreza WRC like to drive?

CA: The instant response of the rally car is incredible. Most people would think that of a normal Impreza turbo, like - ‘wow - the acceleration!’. But in a rally car it’s a completely different world. It’s pretty cool. Then, when you take that and put it on a narrow gravel road it’s insane. That, and the way it handles the rough and the bumps, and the speed you can take jumps and go over rocks at. Whenever we give passenger rides they are just blown away. It’s a lot of fun to drive a World Rally Car but in performance terms you’re on a knife edge. It’s not easy, and it takes a hell of a lot of concentration to try and balance on that edge.

How do you mentally prepare yourself before and during each stage?

CA: I take each stage at a time. It’s not easy because we start a new stage, a new race if you like, about ten times a day, whereas a racing driver would do one or two. So the biggest challenge is to re-focus each time and try and relax. Especially on the long road sections between stages I listen to music to help me relax. I actually have my mp3 player in my rally car and I listen to it between the stages. I usually listen to stuff that’s positive and upbeat like alternative, punk rock, things like that. Stefan Prevot likes listening to heavy rock, but our tastes are generally pretty similar, so that’s quite cool. We click in the headsets and cruise along and get in the right frame of mind. I find it works quite well. It’s not about pumping up too much, it’s sort of relaxing your brain, so you think clearly. If things haven’t gone so well on a stage I try to use the same process each time to get back in the right frame of mind. That sort of routine helps me keep a clear head. During a stage there’s nothing to focus on but driving. The biggest thing I learned early on is if you think about something else you crash. That’s it. If your mind wanders just a bit you have to tell yourself straight away ‘no – listen to the notes’. Or crash.

What have you found to be most challenging when driving this year’s car?

CA: The car hasn’t been quite as consistent as it could be. With a consistent car you learn it in minute detail, but as we’re doing so much development work just now, we don’t have that luxury. It’s getting better all the time, but we’re not there quite yet.

Which is your favourite rally and why?

CA: Probably Rally Australia - and not just because it’s my home event. It’s more like, when you see it on a game or something, it’s so cool. I remember playing rally video games and Australia was always the most exciting event. And when you drive it for real it’s just like that. It’s massive, you’re tearing between the trees and over the jumps and it’s got everything - not like a normal rally. You really know you are in Australia when you see those trees and that surface, and that’s exciting to me as a driver. It’s good for your senses. It’s like ‘wow - this is amazing!’

The WRC is moving to Pirelli tyres for 2008, what are your thoughts on the change? Is it a positive one?

CA: Everybody will be competing on the same tyre and that’s not a bad thing. Of course a lot depends on how the system is managed, but the fewer choices drivers have then the more it comes down to pure driving skill. At the moment quite often rallies are won on tyre choices. The only difficulty is going to be the ban on anti-deflation devices, so we’re going to have to adapt our driving styles to minimize the risk of punctures.

What part do video games play in learning the stages?

CA: I think the biggest part they play is actually learning how to drive on pacenotes. I remember playing games maybe, I don’t know, ten years ago or more, and you’ve got to listen to those notes - and it’s the same in the WRC. If you don’t listen to the notes, you crash. Okay, it’s a little bit more forgiving in the game, but it’s the same result – you lose time, and you don’t want that. So, you learn that, and also in the game you can cut corners in places and take little short cuts - you learn to use the road to your advantage. When I was 10-years-old I wasn’t driving around in a real car, but I could go and drive a virtual one in a game so that was cool. In terms of the stages, they’re hard to replicate exactly, so that doesn’t work as well as it does on, say, a Formul a One circuit. But rallying is not about that, it’s about surprises, jumps, and water-splashes and things that you can make in a game which are pretty realistic.

Photo courtesy of Chris Atkinson

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