Australia is back in the World Rally Championship this week. The big question is whether Australian rallying's favourite Australian can make it back as well.
Ever since Subaru pulled out of the sport at the end of the 2008 season, Queenslander Chris Atkinson has been benched at the sport's highest level. Apart from one self-funded Citroen C4 WRC drive in Ireland, 2009 - where he levelled a telegraph pole, finished fifth and scooped the Abu Dhabi Spirit of the Rally Award - he hasn't competed in the WRC since those troubled days in the Subaru blue.
Having invested plenty of his own family's cash to get to where he was in the sport, Atkinson was unable to follow Petter Solberg's lead and fund a private car in the absence of another manufacturer offering full-time employment.
Instead, he switched his attention to the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship with Proton. It's fair to say man and machine struggled to see eye-to-eye last season, but Atkinson has dominated the 2011 series in a Satria Neo S2000 built by British firm MEM. This time around, man and machine have been the class of the field, winning three of the four APRC rounds run so far.
Delighted to be winning rallies - and eternally grateful for the opportunity with Proton - Atkinson remains desperate, however, to get back to the WRC.
"Proton is great," he says. "The team is fantastic and I'm really enjoying working with them. Collectively, we have done a really good job in bringing the car on to the point where we are winning rallies regularly in the APRC. Don't get me wrong, I want to get back to the WRC and I'm determined to do that, but at the same time competing in the APRC and having a shot at taking the title is awesome.
"There are some opportunities coming in the WRC, the sport is really coming back on line and it would be fantastic to see a manufacturer like Proton going down the WRC route - especially for me as one of their drivers!"
Having experience of all formulas of rally cars has given Atkinson the tools to develop the Satria Neo S2000.
"I feel in some ways that I am continuing the job I was doing in that final season with Subaru," he says. "In that last year in the Impreza, I got more and more involved with the testing and development. I was given a bigger role in the team and that's when the results really started to improve. We definitely made a difference at Subaru."
In another era at Subaru, Atkinson would have been winning world rallies on a regular basis. Unfortunately for him, he was with the team at its lowest ebb. Ravaged by internal strife, the latter-day Impreza WRCs were a shadow the growling flat fours which had provided Britain with two world champions and the Japanese with three titles for itself.
Atkinson during his final WRC outing to date © LAT
All Atkinson could do was measure himself against his team-mate Solberg. And time and again, the Aussie came out on top. As Solberg found himself mired in team politics, while trying to engineer and drive the car at the same time, the emotional Norwegian struggled to match the kind of form which had carried him through a titanic scrap to the 2003 title.
Atkinson found the ability to rise above the troubles surrounding him. He swerved the difficult questions and focused on the driving. He outscored Solberg by five podiums to one and finished ahead of him in the title race in 2008.
"That was a good season," said Atkinson. "People talk quite a bit about [me] beating Petter in the 2008 championship, but we were beating him quite a bit in 2007 as well. We probably set more fastest times in 2007 [than in 2008], but in '08 I changed my driving style.
"I became more consistent and saw that if you wanted to pull in the podium results, you had to be clever in the way you drove the car and dealt with everything - we did that in the last year with Subaru."
Atkinson's time away from the WRC has definitely matured him. He's become a father - and he's realised exactly what he had from his day job. The adage of not missing something until it's gone is bang on in this case.
"Definitely, I was privileged to have been in that position," he says, "and having been there, I know just how determined I am to get back. I will be back in the world championship. I'm a more mature and grounded person now. I'm a better driver than when I left the championship. Manufacturers coming to the sport right now are looking for drivers who can be quick, consistent and have the ability to develop cars - that's me.
"The car I'm driving right now is, essentially, the base of a World Rally Car, so I have plenty of experience of driving with the transmission and the suspension - and with a WRC engine, the levels of torque would actually make a World Rally Car easier to drive."
With Rally Australia back, there was a fleeting hope (and a lasting dream for Rally Oz marketing types) that "Atko" might head home from his Monaco base for a shot at the regulars in a World Rally Car. But in the end, the dollars didn't stack up and possible deals with Ford and Mini fell by the wayside.
Which is why, as his colleagues tread the tracks just south of his native Queensland, he remains in Europe, pedalling his bike harder than ever into the heart of the French Alps.
Atkinson showed his skill at Subaru © LAT
"It's massively frustrating not to be there," says Atkinson. "We came close to some deals, but I wasn't going to do it if we couldn't do it properly. It's tough, though, sitting here on the other side of the world knowing the kind of value we could have given to a deal down there. It could have been massive."
If Atkinson does make his full-time return to the sport, what are the chances of his home event being around for him to win it? To finish the job he started in Perth, 2006, when he led for two stages?
Much depends on this week. The last Rally Oz outing, in 2009, wasn't the best. The event travelled through the centre of an environmental hotspot and was made to feel deeply unwelcome - the complete opposite to the 17 years in Perth, Western Australia, where the rally had provided the benchmark for WRC organisers.
But, when the tourism authorities in WA withdrew funding for the rally, the end of an era was upon us and the event switched coasts in search of a new home. Three years later, Kingscliff was found not to be the answer - and those same questions will be asked of Coffs Harbour this week.
It's rumoured that Australia is only on the calendar because Rally New Zealand couldn't fill a September slot which had Auckland already booked out to oval-ball fanatics watching the Rugby World Cup. The fear was of RWC casting WRC into the shade.
The first signs from Coffs Harbour are good. What's usually a reasonably sleepy city of around 80,000 people halfway between Sydney and Brisbane has woken to the World Rally Championship. Coffs has embraced the event in a way Kingscliff didn't dare to (for fear of offending the greens) and a bigger city like Perth never quite managed to because of the geography of the place.
It's possibly too early to talk of Australia's bright future in the world championship, but for Atkinson, it seems a new dawn could be on the horizon.
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