AUSTRALIAN Chris Atkinson cruised to his first major victory on home soil and extended his lead in the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship at the Brakes Direct International Rally of Queensland on the Sunshine Coast today.
Starting with an overnight lead of almost two minutes, the 32-year-old driver for the Indian MRF team took a conservative approach in his Skoda Fabia S2000 on the final eight Special Stages, yet managed to double the margin to 3 minutes 57.9 seconds by the finish in the Mary Valley township of Imbil.
Scot Alister McRae scored a fighting second place for the Malaysian factory Proton team, hanging on with a misfiring engine to claim his first podium in the 2012 series.
New Zealand veteran Brian Green took third place in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
On the back of a win in round one in New Zealand and second in the previous round in New Caledonia, Atkinson with Belgian co-driver Stefan Prevot wrapped up the three-round Pacific Cup competition and boosted his overall championship tally to 101 points heading into the second half of the season in Malaysia, Japan and China.
His Indian teammate Guarav Gill is second on 63 points after dominating today’s competition with seven stage wins out of eight.
Despite rising to the highest ranks of the World Rally Championship during four years as a Subaru factory driver, Atkinson waited a long time for today’s victory.
Accepting his trophy from Queensland State Sports Minister Steve Dickson, he said the feeling was “awesome”.
“It’s one of the most special feelings to be an athlete and win your home event,” he said.
“It’s been a perfect weekend. The car has been faultless and everything worked well. After the last two years when we were leading here and then had problems on the final day, it’s a bit of a relief to win.
“It was pretty tough out there on the roads but I wasn’t going to do anything silly and throw away a two-minute lead, so we took it carefully.”
With the MRF drivers claiming 16 of the 19 Special Stages over 236 kilometres, a real challenge from defending champions Proton again failed to show although it was not for want of trying.
McRae won two stages and came close to matching the Skodas’ times on others, while teammate Per-Gunnar Andersson of Sweden took the opening stage yesterday.
But both were dogged by minor mechanical problems that cost too much time to recover, although Andersson was able to fight from seventh yesterday to fourth today.
Gill too saw his podium chances slip away when a simple broken electrical wire stopped his car early yesterday.
In round three of the Bosch Australian Rally Championship, Eli Evans notched his third win for the official Honda team, confidently taking today’s second heat of the two-wheel drive class after Saturday winner Jack Monkhouse retired with broken suspension.
“It was a typical Rally Queensland – drama packed,” Evans said.
“We had a bad start and were down by eight minutes after the second stage due to a flat tyre. We went to change it and the car fell off the jack twice so we lost a lot of valuable time.
“It was unfortunate for Jack Monkhouse today but Queensland is a tough event and you have to have the right machinery to get you to the end.”
Victory in the four-wheel drive class was a maiden achievement in the championship for New South Wales Mitsubishi driver Michael Boaden, while veteran Neal Bates scored his second straight round win at the wheel of a 1980-replica Toyota Celica in the Australian Classic Rally Series.
V8 Supercar driver Tim Slade made a stellar debut in the Australian Side-by-Side Rally Challenge, taking a Polaris to equal first place with Can-Am driver Michael Guest.