Rallying forces: Chris Atkinson, 34, rally driver
Chris Atkinson is a driver with the Hyundai Shell team in the World Rally Championship. A former stockbroker, he has been a professional driver for a decade, and in 2012 he won the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship. This week, he’s competing in the 2014 Rally Australia.
Richard Cooke A lot of people say that World Rally Car drivers are technically the best in motorsports, even better than F1 drivers. What do you think?
Chris Atkinson It’s just a different discipline. It’s hard to compare anything across the whole scheme of things. It’s what you suit, what you grow up doing. Sure, I know a lot of F1 drivers who are really into rallying and want to enjoy it as a sport, almost more than their own sport. I think that’s because of the nature of it – the training, the jumps, and everything going on – it’s quite an exciting form of driving.
RC Are rally drivers considered crazy?
CA It’s a difficult one. You take risks in all sorts of sports to be at the top, but they’re all calculated risks. No one wants to go out there and hurt themselves, so it’s a matter of judging those risks. Pushing when you have to push and being smart when you don’t. I don’t think anyone’s crazy for being a rally driver. It can come across as looking dangerous or exciting, and that just shows the level of technical ability of the cars, and also the capabilities of the drivers.
RC In most other racing, the corners have tyre walls. You guys have trees.
CA Yeah, but there is a relative speed difference as well. In rallying, sometimes a hundred kilometres an hour can feel fast, because of the nature of the road or how narrow it is. It’s all relative but, when you’re pushing it, you’re on the edge and you’re getting away with things, it’s definitely a good rush.
RC And the track is different for every single car, every single time?
CA Yeah, it’s changing massively. From the morning to the afternoon it can be different after a hundred cars have gone over it. WRC cars especially jump gravel and rip the roads to pieces. Big ruts form and corners have been cut. There are a lot of variables in rallying, and I think that’s what makes it exciting. Then it comes down a lot more to confidence in the car, and having a car that’s predictable as well as fast.
RC And your co-driver helps with that as well. What’s your relationship like with yours?
CA I think different guys want different things from their co-driver. It’s a bond, maybe a bit like a caddie in golf. Someone who can keep the driver in the right frame of mind as well as read him the notes, and do all that well. I like someone who’s just professional and thorough, and gets on with his job, and obviously someone who can read the pace-notes with impeccable timing. That’s the key. Mine is an amazingly experienced guy – he’s been a professional co-driver since 1989, a Belgian guy, Stéphane Prévot. He’s fantastic at his job.
RC A classic WRC scenario is a rally car flipped over down a hill, with the driver and co-driver inside it, both swearing. In that situation, are they swearing at each other, or are they swearing at the crash?
CA Depends whose fault it was. That’s usually where the blame goes. Sometimes it can be the co-driver’s fault if he’s misread a note, so the driver might be yelling at the co-driver. Quite often it’s the driver’s fault, and he’s probably pissed off with what he’s done. Sometimes it’s swearing because we’re just happy that we’ll probably walk away from it. There are a whole variety of reasons to be annoyed in a crash, and so many different reasons why you yell at the crash or make a mistake.
RC It’s bad if the driver makes a mistake, but worse if the co-driver does.
CA Exactly. The driver can make mistakes – it’s normally a missed apex or something. But a co-driver’s got to get the notes right all the time. If he starts misreading notes, saying the wrong number, then you’re gonna crash or you’re gonna go so slow, because you’ve got no trust in the notes. As soon as you lose the trust in the co-driver and the notes then you might as well go home, because you’ll be off the pace. With some stages that are 50 kilometres long, you’ll have a hundred pages of notes.
RC Outside of a PlayStation, rally-driving in Australia isn’t a sport many people are very familiar with. How should a newcomer appreciate it?
CA Until you see a World Rally Car up close, you can’t understand how fast they are on gravel. You can watch it on TV, and the footage is amazing, but if you’ve actually seen a World Rally Car in real life, it’s incredible. For sure, it’s a bit harder to go and watch than going to a circuit, because you’ve got to head out into the forest. But these aren’t just a road car with a cage inside. These are proper top-end technical pieces of equipment, and what they can do is pretty amazing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 13, 2014 as "Rallying forces". Subscribe here.