by Rob Wilkins

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL WITH CHRIS ATKINSON: CLICK HERE

Subaru's Chris Atkinson got his 2008 season off to a fabulous start on the Rallye Monte Carlo when he brought his Impreza WRC car home in third place after an exciting battle with Stobart Ford's Francois Duval. Crash.net Radio caught up with the Aussie recently to chat about that and the next round in the championship, the Swedish Rally, which takes place this weekend...

Crash.net:
Chris, congratulations on that podium result in Monte Carlo - how much of a boost was it?

Chris Atkinson:
It was quite cool. Obviously it is great for the team and all the guys that have been working really hard - it is nice for them as well. It is brilliant to get on the podium -there weren't so many last year for the team and it is good to start the season with a rostrum.

Crash.net:
Did you enjoy the battle with Francois Duval and did that fight make the result even sweeter?

CA:
It was a bit stressful. He was always there and on a couple of stages he was taking quite a bit of time out of me. I was always worried and it was never guaranteed. It went right down to the wire. It was difficult - but I guess at the end it was sweeter because of the effort and the challenge to hold him off like that.

Crash.net:
It was of course your second podium finish in the WRC, after you also took a rostrum result in Japan in 2005. Did you think you would have to wait so long to get back in the top three?

CA:
I had hoped it would be a lot quicker than what it has been. It's not perfect. There have been a few opportunities that have maybe passed by at times. But the main thing now is that we are back there and hopefully there are no more gaps like that again.

Crash.net:
Do you think the result at the Principality was an indication of some of the progress made by Subaru over the off season or was it a bit deceiving?

CA:
I think it is a good result. We had a good result on the Monte last year as well and we were fourth. I guess now Marcus [Gronholm] has retired that creates an opportunity to move up like we did. Mikko [Hirvonen] has stepped up too though and he is driving quite well. It is a good sign. It is a stronger entry list than last year. You have got people like Duval and [Gigi] Galli in Fords and they are driving quite well. There is a lot of competition for that final spot on the podium.

Crash.net:
Sweden is next up, how much are you looking forward to it?

CA:
It should be great. As long as the conditions are good it is an awesome event to compete on for the drivers. It is really, really sweet. It is massive fun and if everything is working well it is hard to have much more fun in a car.

Crash.net:
Obviously coming from Australia I can't imagine you have that much experience on snow. How different is it driving on snow compared to gravel and tarmac?

CA:
It is obviously a bit more aggressive and you have to be a bit more committed to the corners. On the other surfaces it pays off to be neat, whereas on snow it doesn't hurt to bang on the tyres and spin them quite forcefully to try and bite down into the ice. You can drive really on it and use the snowbanks and push hard. For a driver it opens up more exploration in terms of driving technique.

Crash.net:
Is the Swedish Rally an event you like?

CA:
Yeah, it is probably one of my favourites on the calendar. When the snow is good it is amazing.

Crash.net:
You took your best finish in Sweden last year when you were eighth, where are you aiming to finish this time out?

CA:
We actually made a mistake in '07. I was in fifth and with two stages to go I was in a big fight and made an error and dropped back. Definitely top five is a possibility going on last year then and that is what we are aiming for again. If we can just get some more good points, that will be the main thing. Third in Monte Carlo was great, but we can't expect that all the time. The aim will be the same as Monte Carlo - to go there targeting a top five and try to set top five times consistently and then see where we are after that.

Crash.net:
How much of a difference will the new tyre rules make in Sweden?

CA:
I don't think it will be such a big difference. Obviously there is always the risk of punctures now, especially if the roads don't have much snow on them and the gravel is coming through and it is rough. But if the conditions are good it should be fine. It is the same for everyone and I don't think there is that much difference between the new snow tyres and the old ones. It should be pretty similar to before.

Crash.net:
How did you get on with the new Pirelli tyres on the Monte?

CA:
It was really good. We were impressed with what they have developed and OK they don't work in all conditions but you can't expect that. The Pirellis worked in a fair variety of conditions and the tyres were quite progressive. I think it was better than we expected and that is perfect.

Crash.net:
Was it a real concern running without run-flat mousse?

CA:
Definitely and you have to adapt your driving style. It is not easy and you have to really think about punctures.

Crash.net:
Have you heard how development is going with the new Impreza?

CA:
I have not heard so much. We are just focusing on what we are doing. I know they have tested and I know Markko [Martin] has spent some time in the car but that is about where it stops. For me that is not the main worry at the moment. We need to let those guys get on and do their job. We have got a good group of people there and a good test driver. I will worry about the rallies.

Crash.net:
Did you have a chance to speak to Markko about the new car?

CA:
Very briefly at the end of the rally I had a chat to him. At the moment though there is not much he can say because it was more just an endurance test - making sure everything was working and so on. It is early days and as such you cannot talk about performance. There was no real need for him to comment.

Crash.net:
Was the performance of your rivals as expected on the Monte?

CA:
Yeah, I think we expected guys like Duval to be up there. I thought Gigi might be in contention for a podium but he is in a new car and learning how to adapt to that, which I am sure he will. As expected too, Citroen on those sorts of tarmac roads were very impressive.

Crash.net:
Were you surprised by Suzuki's form with the SX4 WRC?

CA:
They did well. Per-Gunnar [Andersson] was doing some really good stage times. I was impressed by that. He is a good driver and having driven in the same team as him I know that. He did a really top job and the times were better than nearly everyone expected. That is great. Let's hope now they keep developing and improving their pace.

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL WITH CHRIS ATKINSON: CLICK HERE