Atkinson turned down the chance to be Loeb’s team-mate
Wednesday 1st September, 2021 - 4:05pm
Chris Atkinson could have joined forces with the greatest driver in World Rally Championship history, the Australian ace has revealed.
Atkinson enjoyed a lengthy career on rally’s biggest stage, including four full seasons in succession with the Subaru World Rally Team.
The last of those saw him jag five podiums in a 2008 season in which he finished fifth overall, as Sebastien Loeb clinched the fifth of his nine consecutive titles.
Loeb’s Citroen squad subsequently offered Atkinson the opportunity to replace Dani Sordo, only for him to opt to stick with Subaru.
“Citroen approached me at the end of ’08 about leaving Subaru and I guess my loyalty kept me there,” the now 41-year-old said on the latest episode of the Rusty’s Garage podcast.
“Basically it was just to be Sebastien’s team-mate there, on a multi-year deal,” he added.
“It was great to be in that position where at the end of ’08 I had two offers going forward.
“I think I had a year left on my Subaru contract, or even two, because I had just signed at the start of that year, so you could have got out of it but also we felt like we were turning a corner, we had a new car coming, things like that, so yeah.”
As it turned out, Subaru would withdraw from WRC in mid-December of 2008, leaving Atkinson with nowhere to go for the following year.
A full-time drive never eventuated again.
Nonetheless, his willingness to throw caution to the wind in the cockpit of a rally car served him well.
“You’re not going to be competitive unless you are right on the edge in every corner and you are still trying to manage the risks,” Atkinson reflected of his WRC days.
“It’s such a challenge and the consequences are so instantaneous – one small mistake, one small thing off-line, one wrong pace note and you’re done, out of a three-day race.
“I remember I was pretty safe in third one year in Finland, I was just sort of conserving my spot and I was third behind Sebastien and Marcus [Gronholm], and I’m watching the lines [they took] and it was ridiculous.
“Like every stage they are just in ditches, bouncing off bushes and banks, and just absolutely on the limit and battling each other for the win – and getting away with it.
“That’s how good these guys were, they were able to do that and not make a mistake.
“But I think in a rally car you really have to back yourself. You have to have utter belief, because you can’t go that fast without taking massive risks, and then you have to rely on your underlying skill to get away with it.
“So I would always take an approach, early on in the rally if I hadn’t had a moment in the first kilometre, I wasn’t going fast enough basically.”
The risk versus reward balancing act did occasionally bite, with a particularly frightening incident at the season-ending 2008 Rally GB in Wales a notable example.
“It was at night, it was icy and rainy and it was pretty much a flat corner, a left-right,” Atkinson recalled.
“I still have no idea what happened, Stephane [Prevot, co-driver] remembers it, I got knocked out and don’t remember, but basically flat in sixth gear, 200-something down a hill in the mud and rain and the car just hit a small bump and went straight right into this wall.
“There’s some crazy time it spent in the air – quite a few seconds flying through the air – and then it landed straight on my head. So it broke the cage and the cage hit my helmet.
“I’ve still got my helmet – the FIA took the helmet and designed new regulations for helmets around my helmet. They sent it back five years later actually.
“So 10 years ago there was a big step in helmet design and that was based on my helmet from that accident.
“And yeah, I think we rolled seven or eight times but no one really knows. Stefan said the impact was just insane, basically like 40G on my head, and then just barrel-rolled.
“I don’t remember it, I woke up in hospital. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t remember it.”
Atkinson’s final WRC appearance came at the 2014 Rally Australia at Coffs Harbour, where he finished 10th for Hyundai.