Friday | 20 Aug 2021

From stockbroker to Australia’s WRC finest – the career of Chris Atkinson

Just two drivers from Australia, a country which has hosted the FIA World Rally Championship on 25 occasions, have graced the podium.

Ross Dunkerton achieved it across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand in 1992 before, a generation later, Chris Atkinson made his mark on the world stage. He became his country’s most successful campaigner at world level with half a dozen top three finishes.

Trained as a stockbroker, the jump to the stages of the WRC wasn’t an obvious one for the New South Wales born driver - especially after starting his motorsport career as a co-driver.

Visiting a rally school in Australia, Chris and brother Ben swapped seats and discovered the former was the faster. Chris took the wheel and began a storming ascent to the pinnacle of the sport.

Spotted by Suzuki in 2003, the Japanese manufacturer lifted Atkinson from the Australian Championship and took him to the Asia Pacific series.

Video: Driver special: Chris Atkinson

It was at the wheel of one of the Ignis Super 1600s that he took 12th place at the 2004 Rally Japan. That result and a stunning fifth overall in a Group N Subaru Impreza at the WRC-qualifying Rally Australia put Atkinson on the radar of the Subaru World Rally Team.

It still came as something of a surprise when he was signed alongside Petter Solberg to drive a factory Impreza WRC in 2005. ‘Atko’ revelled in it. He skipped the highly specialised Rallye Monte-Carlo opener and dived straight into Sweden, where he demonstrated great speed on his maiden snow event.

Turning to gravel, his first dirt stage in a World Rally Car was the 23km Ibarrilla test in México. He was third fastest.

Ten rallies and six months later – and still in his rookie season – Atkinson was leading Rally Japan. Trading times with Solberg through the early part of the Obihiro-based event, Subaru’s Japanese contingent was delighted with the Aussie charger. By the end, he’d slipped back to third, but his first WRC podium was in the bag.

A first full campaign in 2006 delivered plenty of top-10 finishes and there was more speed built through 2007, but 2008 was when Chris came into his own.

Atkinson drove for the works Subaru team for four seasons

Starting the season on the podium in Monte Carlo, he was very much in the fight for the title through the first half of the year. A three-rally run through Mexico, Argentina and Jordan, in which he finished second in León and Villa Carlos Paz before bagging third in Amman, was his strongest run in the series.

Through 2008, Atkinson outscored Solberg on seven rallies and finished ahead of the Norwegian in the championship standings.

With his career having headed north from the launchpad, he was brought back down to earth with a bump when Subaru ended its WRC participation ahead of the 2009 season.

Atkinson returned to the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, initially with Proton, and lifted the title with Škoda in 2012. Towards the end of that year, he replaced Armindo Araujo in a factory-specification Mini John Cooper Works WRC, but couldn’t manage the same results he’d turned in four years earlier.

Subaru's Atkinson proved a popular figure with fans in Japan

A brace of 2014 outings with Hyundai Motorsport netted a seventh and 10th in Mexico and Australia, but signalled the end of Atkinson’s time in the WRC.

He returned to Prodrive to tackle the Chinese Championship aboard a Volkswagen Golf built by the squad which ran his works Subarus. Through 2014, ’15 and ’16, Atkinson was the man to beat in China – he enjoyed a 100% winning record in 2016, his final season in the car.

Latterly, Atkinson has switched to rallycross, starring in the American Rallycross series with Subaru Motorsport USA. With less time competing in Europe, he departed his Monaco home and returned to Australia.

Still active in the sport, he is currently between competitive programmes.

• Images: Prodrive

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