Team MRF's Chris Atkinson found himself at the top of the time sheet at the end of the first leg of the opening round of the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) in Whangarei on Saturday.
The Australian holds a 59.8 second lead over Proton's Per-Gunnar Andersson, the former two-time Junior World Rally champion. A little over a minute behind Anderson is Atkinson's teammate and defending Indian National Rally champion Gaurav Gill. Gill holds a 33.7 second lead over Alister McRae, the defending APRC champion.
Both Atkinson and Andersson, however, had their share of problems before the two took the overall lead of the Brother International Rally of Whangarei. As the second and third car to lead the 24 car field on to the fast and dusty gravel stages, the two drivers encountered plenty of loose gravel that they ended up 'sweeping' for the slower Group N cars that initially took the lead of the rally.
"We're going to have to be the first car out on the stages on leg 2 as well," Atkinson told HT. "So we're really praying for rain so that the advantage the cars behind us will have is gone."
Andersson suffered a slow puncture on the second of the day's eight stages and had to drive the final 15 kilometers of the stage very slowly to avoid the tyre coming off the rim. The Swede was still hopeful of making up the gap to Atkinson's Skoda Fabia. "Nothing is impossible," said Andersson. "We just push as hard as we can and hope for the best."
Third place up for grabs
The fight for the final podium position will see Gill try to protect his 33.7 second lead from McRae over the final eight stages of the rally. "I'm still getting used to this car," said Gill. "I haven't as yet gotten used to how late I can brake and how much speed I can carry into a corner so I'm working on getting enough confidence to push the car."
Just like his Proton teammate, McRae also suffered a slow puncture but had other mechanical issues to contend with as well. "We were already struggling with the loose gravel as we were the first car on the road," said McRae. "But on top of that our rear roll bar broke on the second stage."
McRae did, however, see the bright side of starting the second leg fourth. "Well at least the guys ahead of us will be clearing the road for us," said McRae. "The last thing I want is rain, because I want those guys ahead of me to run into a bit of trouble!"
Top three after leg 1
1. Chris Atkinson Team MRF 1hr. 36:28.0sec.
2. Per-Gunnar Andersson Proton 1hr. 37:27.8sec.
3. Gaurav Gill Team MRF 1hr. 38:37.2sec.
The writer's trip has been sponsored by MRF.