by Rob Wilkins.

Subaru's Chris Atkinson is one of the FIA World Rally Championship's upcoming young stars. The Aussie had his first full season in the WRC in 2005 and now heads into his second year with the SWRT. Here Crash.net Radio caught up with Chris prior to next weekend's Rally Catalunya, to get his thoughts on his season to date, the new Impreza and loads more...

Q:
Chris, this is your second full-season in the FIA WRC, how are you finding things thus far?

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Chris Atkinson
Obviously it started out really well for us in Monte Carlo - a lot better than we expected down there and we got away with some points as well. Both Sweden and Mexico weren't as good, but we still got some points out of Mexico and ok, the pace was there to easily finish on the podium, but we had problems in both of those events. In Sweden I made a mistake and then we caught a rock on the line in Mexico, which caused us some troubles. So not ideal, but still not too bad.

Q:
There have been a few changes in the WRC over the winter, some manufacturers' have quit, what do you make of the new Manufacturer 2 category? Has it plugged the gap?

CA:
Definitely, the competition is pretty much the same as last year. A lot of these so called private teams have very good cars and drivers. So the competition is as fierce as last year, I think. You have just got to look at the entry for Monte Carlo or coming up in Spain - where there are well over 20 WRC cars, so it is not like there is a thin pack there.

Q:
We've had three events to date, you have scored 5 points, your best result a sixth place finish in Monte Carlo - were you surprised to finish in the points on your debut at the Principality?

CA:
We sort of knew that if we got through the rally we could be in with a chance of points. We made a good tyre call on the first day and managed to be second at the end of it, which was far better than we expected. We knew we would drop back a bit on day two, but after that start, we were in a good position to score points. Our consistency and our times, especially on the first and last day were really encouraging.

Q:
Did you find the events in Sweden and Mexico easier the second time round, having done them in '05?

CA:
Sweden is still a hard one to get you're head around. It was only my second snow rally. OK the pace was alright, but we have still got a bit to learn on that.

Coming to Mexico we were aiming for a top four or five finish and we easily had the pace to do that. So I guess it made it a lot easier [having done it before]. Where as last year we could do good times occasionally, this year we could do them all the time. And while we weren't on the pace of the leading three, we were right behind them and could do it consistently. We were just unlucky with a rock. But we still got back to seventh after the SupeRally to get a couple more points for the season.

Q:
I guess in light of that you are a fan of the SupeRally then?

CA:
That's the way it is. You have to work with the rules you've got. If it wasn't like that then I wouldn't have got points. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn't - that's rallying at the moment. I am definitely not complaining but it is just the way the rules are.

Q:
Generally speaking how are you finding the new Impreza?

CA:
So far it is good. We are obviously still making improvements and there is a lot to learn, especially with the mechanical diffs. We are heading in the right direction though, that's for sure. We have got some more testing before the next gravel rally in Argentina so I think we will have the car even better before then. Petter [Solberg - my team-mate] was leading in Mexico, so Subaru is heading in right direction. Now it is just time to get some really good results for the team which we know we can do. We have been in rallies last year when we were one-two, so it's not that we can't do it, but we have just got to make sure the results come through.

Q:
Have you noticed much difference now that active differentials are no longer allowed on the cars?

CA:
It's obviously a bit of a change and it is more trying to make it work like an active car. I think the more testing we do the closer we get. The cars are easily as fast as last year. Some of the privateer teams do have active cars, yet it is still the same guys that are winning, the same guys are still winning in passive cars, so it is not a big difference. There is some fine tuning to make it work and obviously you never have the exact variation you have with an active car, but I think you can get it pretty close.

Q:
There were some changes at the SWRT prior to the Rally Mexico, with former team figurehead David Lapworth standing down, are you going to miss his advice?

CA:
He is still around the team. I actually saw him yesterday and I will still continue to talk to him as well. He is a hugely experienced guy and I am sure we will miss that experience. But I have got his number and can call him anytime. I am sure I will be doing that and trying to use some of his useful experience.

Q:
Two asphalt events coming up shortly, in Spain and Corsica. What are your targets?

CA:
It goes back to the ideas we had in Monte Carlo. I think we have to come back a bit and reassess that. It would be nice to finish in the points, similar to what we did in Monte Carlo, but it is still a learning thing for us. We have only done a few tarmac rallies now. The pace is getting better and hopefully we can keep improving that pace and the consistency as well, then the results will get better. They are still big learning events for us and the experienced tarmac guys are going to go a lot faster. So we will just try and build up.

Q:
You did Rally Ireland last weekend and finished fourth overall, first of the Group N runners. That was also on asphalt - will that experience help you prior to Spain and Corsica?

CA:
Yeah it was a really, really good event for us to do, a lot of mixed conditions - rain, mud, gravel on the road, as well as tricky tarmac conditions. So everything for us to learn was there and they are the sort of things I lack on tarmac, that sort of experience, it was perfect for me. To win the Group N and be up there with the WRC cars shows the pace was not too bad either. We were consistent over the weekend as well and made no mistakes and got a good result. Hopefully we can do the same on the other tarmac rallies.

Q:
Does Ireland deserve a place on the WRC schedule?

CA:
Definitely, I think they have got the right attitude and everything you need to put a WRC event on. Obviously it is not my decision whether it goes that way or not, but they are one of the leading contenders. And I think the event they put on at the weekend was really good. It was a good fun event, challenging roads and a lot of difficult and challenging conditions, which I think, you are after in a WRC event - you want the uniqueness Ireland brings. So yeah, they did a very good job. There are always things to learn and improve upon, but the foundations are there.

Q:
With so many candidate events vying for a place on the WRC calendar, I think there are eight in total, how do you see them being accommodated on an already full schedule?

CA:
It is going to be interesting and it is great to have that - it is almost like a second division of the WRC there. It is encouraging for the sport to see some many events wanting to come in. It is only going to raise the quality of the other events as well and push people on to bigger and better things. We saw some fantastic events last year and I think these candidate events are pushing the bar higher. I have been to two now, I raced in Ireland and went to Rally Norway as well, and it was quite impressive to see the efforts they are going to, to get in the WRC. I'm sure the other events will be quite a high standard as well. It will be difficult to decide which events are in or out in the next few years.

Q:
What are your targets for the remainder of the year?

CA:
Obviously we want to keep scoring some points and keep moving forward. We have set ourselves targets for certain events - to aim for the top 4 and top 5 and on other events to aim for experience still. Hopefully we can achieve those targets and maybe get some more podiums. We had one last year and I think this year we could have already had another one, but for sure we are aiming for it. We will be pushing very hard on a few events this year.

Q:
Where do you want to finish in the drivers' championship?

CA:
Obviously you have got your top three - Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg - who are always right up there, realistically we want to be in next few behind them. We want to help Subaru towards the manufacturers' title as well. We got the most points out of Mexico as a team, so definitely I think, if we can keep achieving that, it is not out of reach. We need to keep pushing to score points and to get some good results.

Q:
Next year the WRC will switch to running over the winter. As such the 2007 championship itself will be a mini-affair, made up of 8 or so events, before the 2007-2008 championship kicks off around June. What is your reaction to that plan?

CA:
I think it is a good move. It shows that the championship is not afraid to change things to improve it and it is not really an issue. You have got to make tough decisions sometimes. The fact 2007 will be a half year won't take anything away from the sport and it may lead to bigger and better things in the future. I am not one against change at all and I reckon it will be good step. The championship is so spread out at the moment that it needs to be consolidated a little bit and that's what they are trying to do. I think it is all positive.

Q:
Do you not think though, that the 2007 titles will be devalued as they will only be decided over 8 events, rather than the 16 we have had in recent years?

CA:
Not really because if you look a few years back, it was only 7 or 8 events and then you still had a world champion. So there is no reason why the best driver over those eight events shouldn't have been the world champion over a full year. I am sure everyone will be going flat out. It is a world championship and anyone who is anyone wants to win it. The competition will be as high, if not even more fierce because it is so compact and aggressive.

Q:
Thanks Chris. Good luck in Spain and beyond.