After a mid-season break, the FIA Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) action returns this weekend, when the fifth and penultimate race of the championship — Rally Hokkaido — is held here.

It has been a campaign dominated by the Proton Motorsports Team, led by Chris Atkinson (co-driver Stephane Prevot) and Alister McRae (Bill Hayes), with three wins from the first four rounds. Further success this weekend would likely put the manufacturers' and drivers' titles beyond the reach of its rival MRF.

But the Malaysian outfit is not taking anything for granted and will be totally focused on achieving its ‘championship' goal, something it has been building to all season. Atkinson has set the pace this season and deservedly tops the points table, with 109 points, heading into the weekend.

Atkinson has won the three events he has finished and McRae has finished every event with three podiums. The title is certainly not decided yet though, as 39 points are available for each of the final two rounds, giving Indian Gaurav Gill (63) and Indonesian Rifat Sungkar (47) the opportunity to still make an attempt.

Meanwhile, MRF has had its share of problems this season, struggling to cope with the speed and reliability of its Proton competitors.

Gill has downplayed his chances of winning the title, but is looking for a strong finish to the season. “The stages here are quite similar to last year and have become a lot faster. We did well last year, so I don't see why we shouldn't be on top again. “We are still working on the car and its components. It is one of the most challenging circuits, so we need to be smart and aggressive at the same time. Obviously the Protons are much faster and if we are matching their times, it is more than satisfactory for me,” he said after Friday's shakedown. “The only way we can win the championship is if Proton makes a mistake or has a mechanical failure.”

Rally Hokkaido's fast and flowing gravel stages are a real treat for the rally drivers from across the globe. Weather-wise, it could be a gamble though. The rally region is famous for featuring some of the highest summer temperatures — rising towards 40 degrees on occasions — and in winter it can go almost to freezing point.

The first stage (1.20 km), the Super Special Stage, a pre-cursor to the main event, was held late in the day on Friday.

Atkinson of Proton was fastest with a time of 54.1 sec. Team MRF's Gill followed closely behind in 54.3 while Rifat Sungkar was third. The rally proper begins on Saturday with Special Stage two.

The results: Super Special Stage (SS 1): 1. Chris Atkinson (Proton, 54.1 sec), 2. Gaurav Gill (Team MRF, 54.3), 3. Rifat Sungkar (Mitsubishi, 54.5).

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