Atkinson moves from Proton to Skoda for FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship

On the eve of his return to the World Rally Championship, Australia’s top international rally driver Chris Atkinson has made a shock team switch for this year’s FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship and will drive an Indian-run Skoda on his home event in Queensland in May.

The MRF team, based in Chennai, India, has signed Atkinson to drive a Skoda Fabia S2000 against the arch-rival Malaysian Proton factory squad, for which the 32-year-old competed over the past two seasons.

He will compete with Belgian co-driver Stefan Prevot in round three of the Asia Pacific Championship at the International Rally of Queensland, based at Caloundra, north of Brisbane, on 25-27 May.

It will be the only Australian appearance this season for the former Subaru World Rally Team star and promises that the Asia Pacific region’s two best teams will stage a fierce battle with their four world-class drivers and cars.

Atkinson will have no time to contemplate Queensland or the other Asia Pacific rounds as he prepares for this weekend’s Rally Mexico round and his first drive in the World Rally Championship since early 2009. He will be driving a Ford Fiesta RS WRC for the Monster World Rally Team of American friend Ken Block.

Proton won the 2011 FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship, but despite Atkinson taking three of the six rounds the driver’s title went to his teammate Alister McRae.

With Junior World Rally Champion Per-Gunnar Andersson of Sweden taking over his Proton seat this season, Atkinson’s plans were a well-kept secret until yesterday’s surprise announcement by MRF.

The International Rally of Queensland, on forest roads Atkinson has known well since he started his rally driving career in an old Toyota Corolla in 2000, will be a crucial event in his quest to win the 2012 Asia Pacific series for MRF.

The team won the championship in 2003, 2005 and 2010, but last year its production-based Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions struggled for pace against the purpose-built Proton Satria S2000s of Atkinson and McRae

MRF has responded by purchasing two Skoda Fabias of the same S2000 specification from Belgium for Atkinson and Indian Rally Champion Guarav Gill. The Skoda is a proven model, having won the Super 2000 World Rally Championship and Europe’s Intercontinental Rally Challenge last year.

Praising Atkinson as a “formidable driver” MRF team principal Tony Rodricks said: “Atkinson, with an aggressive attitude and (as) a highly-rated professional with vast experience in the diverse terrain of the APRC, is the right choice for MRF’s quest for the title, as he has also been driving the Proton S2000 for the past two years.”

Chris Atkinson is Australia’s most successful international rally driver.

After a rapid rise through the domestic ranks, he won the Asia Pacific Super 1600 class championship for Suzuki in 2003 and 2004. With Subaru from 2004 to 2008, he contested 67 World Championship rallies, won 40 special stages, finished on the podium six times and scored best results of second-outright in Mexico and Argentina.

Although he currently lives in Monaco to be close to the European rally scene, the Gold Coaster retains strong links to home, including long-standing membership of the Brisbane Sporting Car Club, which organises the International Rally of Queensland.

THE International Rally of Queensland is benefiting Significant Regional Event Scheme (SRES) funding under the Events Queensland Regional Development Program (EQRDP).

The EQRDP is an investment program designed to extend the flow of economic and social benefits of events to regional Queensland. The SRES celebrates and supports those events that have a particularly strong track record of growth and economic success for their region.

A state-wide initiative, the program is committed to enhancing existing events in regional Queensland, as well as assisting in the establishment of new events.

Since the EQRDP began in 2001, more than $18.3 million has been invested in 856 regional events, an indicator of the important role these events play in their communities and wider Queensland.

The International Rally of Queensland also is supported by the Sunshine Coast Regional Council.
– Credit: Rally of Queensland Media.