Australian Chris Atkinson has made a solid start to Rally Japan, round 11 of the FIA World Rally Championship, to finish the opening leg in sixth position today.

With the Japanese round of the championship being the rally which Atkinson has the most experienced at, his expectations of securing a solid haul of championship points were high entering the event.

In the corresponding round last year Atkinson and co-driver Glenn Macneall re-wrote the record books in Australian rallying to become the first Australian-born crew in 13 years to stand on the podium in a World Rally Championship event. The previous, and only Australian driver, to finish inside the top three was Ross Dunkerton at Rally New Zealand in 1992.

The young Australian battled inside the top five for the majority of today’s opening leg by setting times inside the top ten on all of the ten stages contested across 124.64 competitive kilometres. Atkinson’s day included three fourth fastest times and he set the third fastest time in his second pass through the 9.05 kilometre Pawse Kamuy stage, a mere 4.3 seconds behind rally leader Marcus Gronholm.

“Today was an interesting day with conditions varying throughout the day and a lot of rain in the region over the past few days had made the roads pretty tricky,” said Atkinson.

“The time across the Pawse Kamuy stage actually surprised me a little bit but it was good to be able to maintain our spot inside the top five.”

The only blemish on Atkinson’s day was when he was forced to endure a 50 second penalty for leaving the service area five minutes late when the team endured problems re-fitting a suspension component. At the time he was in fourth position and the penalty dropped him to fifth.

Dani Sordo snuck past Atkinson into fifth spot during the two super special stages contested late in the day.

“Entering this rally our aim was to be inside the top five and for the majority of today we were on track for to achieve this goal. Unfortunately we dropped back to sixth late in the day but hopefully we can fight back tomorrow and climb up a couple of positions,” said Atkinson.

Gronholm is aiming for back-to-back round victories and holds a 10 second lead over Sebastien Loeb with Mikko Hirvonen just over a minute behind the leader.
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