In the Hot Seat with Karl Atkinson
Rallying is by no means a solo effort. Whether it is an international team operation or the car is ran by friends and family out of the back of the van, there are numerous people who are called upon to make sure that the event goes as smoothly as possible. And quite often, the most important and often overlooked member of that team is the co-driver who sits alongside the hero for the ride.
For three years, Karl Atkinson has been the right-hand man to Sam Moffett and played a significant part in the clean sweep in 2017 for the Monaghan driver, having been in the hot seat for the entirety of the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship and four rounds of the National Rally Championship. However he said that a lot of what he did in 2017 was for the enjoyment of the sport.
“Like every year the Tarmac Championship was the main goal. With having to get time off work and switching shifts it is hard for me so I always go for the Tarmac Championship and see what happens from the rest of it. A lot of it is for fun. I really wanted to do the Monaghan Stages with him, and I really enjoyed doing a National event where you had a one day recce and one day rally. We came to every rally with the same attitude and it just snowballed and gathered pace so we went with it.”
It was the winning mentality and attitude that set Sam Moffett apart from the rest in 2017 THE STATS but Atkinson said that the competitiveness didn’t take away from the enjoyment that he had of doing the rallies and being in the car.
“It is always serious during the event, but it is a different way of enjoying it. You might not enjoy it during the rally because you are concentrating and thinking the whole time, but afterwards you are satisfied with what you have done. You do enjoy being on the stage but nothing will beat the feeling after. There is always the same mind set with us, from the first stage of recce you put your head down and concentrate; you know what is at stake and we go from the word go.”
With the ITRC wrapped up, sitting in on four of Sam’s six National wins meant that Atkinson was in with a chance of adding another trophy to his own collection. With a few days off work saved up he decided to give it a go and sat with his brother-in-law Stephen Wright in the Galway Summer Stages and the Fastnet Stages in Skibbereen.
“I had no plans to do anything but the Tarmac, but things gathered pace so I got greedy and thought I wouldn’t mind this as well. Sam couldn’t go to Galway so I did it with Stephen; we had good craic and only for him I wouldn’t have been in a position to go to the final round with a chance to win it. I had to go to Skibbereen and just had to finish last but unfortunately on the fifth stage there was bang from the car. Stephen was able to hold the car when it shot sideways but we got out and saw a pool of oil and knew we were out. I had a good year; I won the Tarmac which was a dream come true and had no accidents so I am happy with what I have.”
Being married in the Wright family, Atkinson is lucky that being an accomplished co-driver herself and being part of a strong rallying family, his wife Suzanne is more accepting than others would be at going to a rally at every weekend off. And that she is a welcome part of the team when she is around.
“There’s no competitiveness she says she’s the best and that’s it. She hasn’t been in a car for over a year now but is very good and you just have to look at in-car to see she is good on notes, helps me on the background. It is a major help that she understands the sport. She goes to rallies with Stephen and me, and when things get stressful she is there; she brings me down to earth and reminds me it is a hobby.”
While Atkinson could now be considered one of the most experienced co-drivers in the country, he had a humble beginning sitting with his cousin in a Honda Civic in local forestry events as they switched from spectator to competitor. From there he sat with the likes of Fergal Allen in a BMW M3 and Stephen Baxter in a Fiesta; where he got his first taste of seriously tackling a championship. But it was a chance phone call while on holiday in France that he got an opportunity that started a chain reaction of gaining seats and international experience.
“There were a few phone calls back and forward, and I got a flight home to pack my rally stuff and another flight to America. I did the New England Forest Rally with Chris Duplessis and didn’t know at the time but he had the first R2 Fiesta in America and Ford Racing and Ken Block were behind him. The rallies over there are good but some are very straight and fast. Sometimes you’d do a stage one way, wait for the last car to come through and then do it backwards; the catering crew would give you coffee and all while you wait, but it was good fun with good people. It has been a while since I’ve been there so the organising may have stepped up but you’d have to be on your toes regarding getting your time cards back and the like.
“Chris told me he was thinking of doing Wales Rally GB if I’d be interested and of course I was! He got a deal to do the WRC Academy the following year and I did Portugal and Greece with him but he couldn’t continue for the rest of the campaign.”
Following his exit from the WRC Academy, Atkinson continued to do events in America and Canada and gained experience on European rallies by doing gravel notes for Craig Breen when he was at Peugeot. This helped him understand what went on in the background of the rallies, and he became friends with Breen.
“Craig asked me if I would co-ordinate Rally Finland for him, so I went out and did all the paperwork for that event. He was doing Germany with Tom Gahan running his and Sam Moffett’s WRC Fiestas and I was asked to co-ordinate for both of the cars. A couple of weeks later Sam rang and said that James Fulton can’t do a forestry rally if I’d do it, so I did; and I got another call from him at the start of next year and we said we’d just see how it goes.”
Having the chance to work on world championship events with Duplessis and behind the scenes with Breen gave Atkinson the knowledge that has helped him develop into the co-driver he is today.
“I got my eyes open there. I had help from people like Craig and Gareth Roberts but the amount of paperwork on large events in unbelievable, the easiest part is being in the car doing the rally. In regards the rules, I know the rule book and it has helped a few times this year, but I would recommend it, it will bring on your career an awful lot.”
There is a lot of work to be done before an event, and especially on overseas events and Atkinson went above and beyond to ensure he never left anything to chance and that as much preparation was done before the event as possible.
“For World rounds you get the road book weeks in advance so I used to travel the road sections on Google Earth which sounds like a complete anorak thing but it makes recce so much easier. I remember Rally Portugal in 2012 that I had the road section examined and we came into a village that had a few possible turns and I knew which one to take. You could see a few cars missing the turn so it meant a little bit of homework makes it easier. It means recce goes smoother and you avoid drama, because drama causes stress and tension during the event.”
With international experience behind him, Atkinson has been almost exclusively rallying in Ireland since partnering up with Sam Moffett, and with help from Gahan Motorsport, the co-ordinating of events has become a lot easier.
“It is difficult getting in with new drivers, but sitting with Sam was a different kettle of fish. He is very black and white with what you are to do, so we just put our head down. Tom Gahan does a lot of work behind the scenes, and his wife Rosie does the organising and gets it all done. When you concentrate on Irish events it is easier, almost child’s play compared to going abroad but there is still work involved.”
Atkinson has sat in a variety of seats, from a front-wheel drive Civic, to R2 category Fiestas; to Group N, WRC and R5 cars. He said that difference in work is all done in the recce before the event starts, and that being able to adapt is a matter of experience.
“On the first pass, Sam called out what he sees, and then on the second I call it back to him to make sure it is correct. I have to picture in my head what speed we will coming to a sequence of corners and decide if I will have to call them all together.
The big difference in the R5 cars is the cornering speed; so if I hesitate, and call a note too early or too late we will be in trouble. Stepping out of a R2 car it can take time to get your head around because you’d be used to pausing in between notes, so it is important to picture the speed and that comes with experience. Co-driving is all about experience. You have to know how the driver likes the corners called and their quirks. With Sam I know what changes he will make to the recce notes before he says them.”
As for when he is in the car during the event, he keeps his eyes on the notes and feels the pace through the seat. “In an R5 you don’t have time to lift your head, I’m feeling the movement through the seat. If we are not on it you can feel that there isn’t a rhythm, but when we are on it you can feel it. In the Cork 20 this year, Sam had a goo on him to go and we were working well; and when it clicks like that you have a smile and there isn’t a better feeling. You can feel when you gain or lose a tenth of a second. It was the same sitting with Jon Armstrong in the R2 Fiesta; with his commitment you just know when you are on it and I always have a smile on my face when a car is driven well.”
The feeling inside a well driven car is so good, that Atkinson has no ambition to get behind the wheel himself and have a go in the wrong seat because he fears he wouldn’t get the same thing out of the sport.
“You need a big wallet, and with the budget I’d bring I wouldn’t get the same enjoyment from it. The feeling of sitting with Sam couldn’t be replicated. I get satisfaction when the rhythm is good and there is no better feeling.”
Often the driver speaks about being committed on a stage, or taking risks and having scary moments, but there is rarely thought put to the companion in the car, who is putting all their faith in the driver to keep the car on the road.
“Trust is a big factor, you have to trust that the driver will listen and brake; and when you get that into your head you can relax. My cousin who I sat with at the start watched the in-car from the last stage in Cork and was surprised I just sat there as the car was bouncing around, but I just knew Sam could handle it. It is hard to get your head around to forget about what is going on and just get the notes out for the driver.”
One strong example of the confidence Atkinson has in Sam is the now famous scare they had on the final day of the Donegal International where the car balanced on two wheels before being brought under control. He vividly remembers what it was like in the split second that froze in time.
“I remember calling the note and we clipped something. I saw him flick the steering into the corner and then flick back. I knew something wasn’t right, so I just put my head down and got into a ball. In the corner of my eye I see his feet dancing and I could almost hear him think about giving it some opposite lock. I remember thinking that we should be over by now, but couldn’t believe he got that back. It was a couple of seconds but felt like a lifetime; I felt him thinking we could get it back and it was very good to see. I had to trust that he wouldn’t give up, that he would fight to get it back.”
When you watch that moment of in-car you spot something that Atkinson fails to mention. You can hear him congratulate Sam on rescuing the car but immediately spitting out the next sequence of notes and making sure that Sam refocuses on the road and the notes.
As is well known in Motorsport, it can be dangerous for spectators and competitors and while Atkinson has not had any serious accidents in the sport he is well aware of the risks every time he puts on his rally suit and straps himself into the car. “I know there are dangers. I knew Thomas Maguire, I was in Sicily when Gareth passed away, and I was a couple of cars behind Timmy Cathcart. There was a time when I was questioning if I would get back into a car and I had to sit down to weigh up the pros and cons. But I’ve always grown up watching rallying and I know that if I do my job and Sam does his, we are in control.”
Being a co-driver can be thankless jobs at times, as the driver gets the credit for successes in a way that almost makes the role of second-in command rendered less important, something even in the media that we can be guilty off. But to Atkinson, that is just another part of his job.
“I’m delighted, I’m happy to do my thing and let Sam do all the talking. My job is to be seen and not heard outside of the car, and heard and not seen on the inside. As a co-driver you know it is all about the driver and if you are in the sport for the fame you may as well walk away. He appreciates the work I do and people give me passing comments which is satisfaction enough.”
With your head down calling the notes, being in the co-driver seat means that you miss the famous or well-known locations and rely solely on what feedback you get through the seat. Atkinson says that this exemplifies how great a good stage feels from the passenger seat.
“I don’t have a favourite stage, when you go through a stage and have the feeling that we are on the pace, that’s enjoyable. The stages in the Cork 20 were really good, committed and enjoyable stages. I wouldn’t see much out the window you just feel it; the likes of the famous stages Knockalla and Moll’s Gap are great but I don’t see it. It does give me some enjoyment when I realise I’m on the stage, but it doesn’t have same feeling. When I know Sam is committed and listening to the notes I know I’m important in the car.”
Karl spoke to Aaron McElroy.