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World rally stars Alister McRae and Chris Atkinson are again among the competitors in July’s International Rally of Whangarei.
 
McRae, from Scotland, and Atkinson, from Australia, are setting the pace in the 2011 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) which features the Whangarei event as the fourth of this season’s six APRC rounds. The pair drives for the Malaysian Proton Motorsports team in the distinctive yellow Proton Satria Neo Super 2000, 2-litre, naturally aspirated four-wheel-drive cars.
 
Last year McRae was fourth in Whangarei while Atkinson was unable to finish the high profile two-day event due to mechanical issues.
 
This year, when the rally runs from 15 to 17 July, the Proton duo look set to challenge the dominance of top Kiwi pairing Hayden Paddon and John Kennard who have won the Whangarei event three times.
 
Atkinson won the opening APRC event in Malaysia in April to take the series lead, with McRae finishing the team’s home event in third. Both ran very strongly during the opening stages of May’s Rally of Queensland, but Akinson’s car was out with alternator issues. McRae took the rally lead at the end of day one, but also had electrical issues and finished as well as he could in fourth.
 
The pair head to round three of the Asia Pacific series in New Caledonia this weekend, 17 to 19 June, with McRae second in the drivers’ standings.
 
After the Pacific island event, the pair then switches their attention to their mid-winter arrival in New Zealand. They’re hoping for a continuation of their field-leading stage times to put them out front after 301.12km of competitive stages on roads around the Kaipara and Whangarei districts in July.
 
Atkinson says: “The roads in New Zealand definitely favour the Super 2000 car. Cars like our Proton are really at home in the fast and flowing corners, just like the ones on the stages in Whangarei.
 
“One of the areas where the car works well is in the weight transfer over the top of the crown and camber of the road. Because these cars are quite light, you can move them about more than with a heavier Group N car. Plus, if you do get on the wrong side of the camber, they’re a little bit easier to get back than a Group N car. I love the roads over there; they’re fantastic and they really reward attacking driving. The other good thing is that there’s nothing between you and a good time, the roads are so smooth, it’s pretty unusual to have a problem in a rough section.”
 
McRae pinpoints an area where development of their car, since it first appeared here last year, has resulted in a better turn of performance:
 
“The extra speed in the car has come from the suspension and engine work the team has been doing since the start of the year. The new suspension has made the car more driveable, while giving better traction and feeling for the road,” says McRae. “The engine has also improved driveability, with more power from lower down. Getting these things sorted has allowed us to spend more time fine-tuning things like the differential set-up and other things like that, which also make the car quicker.
 
“The car is improving all the time, so Chris and I will certainly be starting the event looking at nothing less than a win – as we do with every event.”
 
The Satria Neos distinctive exhaust note and higher revving engine, given the absence of a turbo charger, produces 278 bhp (222 kW) at 7600 rpm from the Super 2000 category car. That power is transferred to the wheels by a six-speed sequential transmission. In comparison, rivals driving Mitsubishi and Subaru Group N cars have turbo-charged engines coupled to a more standard style gearbox, fastened to the heavier Group N production car chassis.
 
Team principal Chris Mellors, from MEM World Rally Team which runs the Protons, has another take on the team’s prospects in Whangarei – he says it’s the car’s occupants who play the most crucial role in their chance of success in New Zealand.
 
“We have made a number of changes to the car from the start of the year and all of them are taking the car in the right direction,” says Mellors. “You only have to look at the times the car is doing in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) against the cream of the Super 2000 factory cars to see how close we’re getting. We’re down to fine-tuning with the Satria now; it’s very exciting to see where the car is now and where it’s going to. We have a huge amount of potential.
 
“What can I say about the drivers?” adds Mellors. “We have a world-class pair in Alister [McRae] and Chris [Atkinson]. They’re both exceptionally quick and capable of winning the International Rally of Whangarei.”
 
Atkinson and McRae are up against APRC rivals from China, Japan, Great Britain, India and Indonesia – in fact, it’s the best field of Asia Pacific competitors ever seen at the Whangarei event. They’re also taking on the Kiwis who are competing for points in the Brian Green Property Group New Zealand Rally Championship and outright honours. New Zealanders – Hayden Paddon and Chris West – have taken the overall rally victory in Whangarei since the event was first contested in 2007.
 
The International Rally of Whangarei commences with pre-event testing and promotional activities on Friday 15 July, with the event based at Whangarei’s Quayside Town Basin. The rally action on Saturday and Sunday takes competitors as far south as Maungaturoto and into central Whangarei for the super special stage at Pohe Island. The event wraps up with the ceremonial finish at the town basin on Sunday afternoon.
 
News, the rally itinerary, official rally map and spectator information are available from the event website www.rallywhangarei.co.nz.
 
2011 FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship
Malaysian Rally (April 1-3)
International Rally of Queensland (May 13-15)
Rally de Nouvelle Caledonie (June 17-19)
Rally of Whangarei (July 16-17)
Rally Hokkaido (September 30-October 2)
China Rally Longyou (November 4-6)

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