Motorsport in general, but more specifically rallying, often leads to some of the most spectacular impulse decisions. To varying extents I’m sure we’ve all been there before, and it struck me again on the Monday after the recent Classic Adelaide Rally/Adelaide Motorsport Festival weekend. Yes, the post rally blues.
Friend and occasional AGR contributor Luke Jaksa and myself had been working pretty hard during Classic Adelaide for some freelance clients, and over a celebratory beer we were ruing that we never really got to have all that much fun. And then the flippant impulse comment comes – ‘why don’t we just go to Targa High Country in two weeks’ time?’ Luke flips out his phone. ‘We’ll fly into Melbourne Friday night and be back in Adelaide again for Monday morning…. and look here, we can rent a Renault Sport Megane 265 Cup for less than two hundred bucks’.
And that’s how we came to enjoy a particularly spectacular sunset from 30,000ft, all while studying the Targa High Country event maps and trying to make a best guess as to where we might get some decent photos. Luke had never been to the Mount Buller area before and it had been three years since I did my last flying visit to Targa High Country, so it really was a case of the blind leading the blind. We quickly accepted the fact that we were likely to miss the best locations anyway, so we might as well just relax and enjoy the weekend.
We arrived into Melbourne airport and to my total surprise, there actually was a Renault Sport Megane 265 Cup waiting for us at the Hertz terminal. It all seemed a little too good to be true – who in their right mind would rent one of the world’s best hot hatches to two lads going into the twisty roads chasing a car rally, for less than two hundred bucks? I’m certainly not complaining, thankyou to whoever at Hertz is responsible for this decision.
The only option missing from this particular example was the pair of sexy Recaro front seats, but all the important bits were there. The 360nm, 265hp turbocharged 2.0 four, the six-speed manual gearbox, Brembo brakes, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres, RS Mode to quicken throttle response and stiffen suspension tuning and Renault’s RS Monitor in-dash data logger were all fitted as described.
The first of the French car idiosyncrasies hit before we even started to drive. The Renault doesn’t have a key fob, rather it has a flat plastic card. ‘Oh great, you can pop it into your wallet and just leave it there’. Nope. It’s too big to fit into a wallet slot, in fact it’s too big to even fit into the pocket of a pair of slim fit jeans.
Utterly pointless, but at least the boot seemed big enough so we filled it with our bags and joined the highway into Melbourne. Targa High Country is based out of Mt Buller, just under three hours’ drive north of the city, but it was a tad too late to do the full trip by the time we landed so we decided to crash on Luke’s sisters living room floor in Richmond before heading into the mountains.
Well, our plan was to sneak in and crash. Even though it was past 11pm that was idea was quickly shot to pieces as soon as we walked through the door, when Luke’s sister and her husband enthusiastically greeted us. ‘Welcome to Melbourne! The barrel aged Negroni’s are ready to pour and the sugar gliders have just woken up!’ Dom, who I suspect already had a few Negroni’s under his belt and is easily excited at the best of times, checked if we’d take him for a quick spin in the Renault before our drinks were poured. I’m easily excitable too, so I was more than happy to oblige and demonstrate the benefits of a performance car to a non-gearhead. It was raining pretty heavily by this point, so Dom got a good introduction to the role of wheelspin and torque steer in increasing perceived commitment levels.
We had plans of finding some sort of famously hipster Melbourne cafe for breakfast but we were far too early, and sadly a highway Micky D’s was all that was available to restore caffeine levels. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Even though we could only just see the sun attempting to make its way through the lingering rain clouds, the Hume was full of interesting machinery heading away from the suburbs for some weekend fun. Luke looked on the map and noticed that Winton Raceway wasn’t all that far out of our way, so we made the detour.
I had done a track day at Winton during the Fiat Nationals earlier in the year, but Luke hadn’t been before and he was keen to check it out. It’s always fun to randomly turn up at a racetrack and see what’s running, most of the time you’ll end up watching something really cool you normally would have never seen… or you’ll just waste your time.
As luck would have it, our time was far from wasted. Scruitineering was underway for a round of the Veloce Alfa Romeo race series. My Dad has a track prepared Alfa which is what we both drove last time I was at Winton and Luke owns three of the damned things, one of which he hopes to build up for exactly this.
Serendipitous was the only word to describe our chance finding, and even though the first stage of Targa High Country was getting underway we were both starting to consider just staying at the track for the day.
As cool as the Alfa’s were they were still a while away from hitting the track. We were also more than aware that there would be some equally awesome cars to see in the rally separated from us only by brilliant driving roads, and that we had one of the best hot-hatches ever made at our disposal to get there. We snapped some final frames and hit the road.
Having jumped off the Hume at Winton, we studied Google Maps to find the twistiest road which resulted in us heading South East toward Tatong. The little Megane was perfect for this type of driving on these narrow, unknown roads. Having never driven them before it would have been silly to properly commit, but the ever-present torque from the turbocharged engine allowed abrupt squirts between the bends and the Brembo’s meant we could pull up on a dime in the event we discovered a corner to be tighter than we thought.
Although to be fair the Brembo’s were mostly used for emergency stops when we’d spot some old cars in a paddock out the corner of our eye. No matter how late you’re running there’s always time for 33 old Holden’s lined up.
It was somewhat of a disappointment when we discovered the most sinuous stretch over and across a rather large mountain to be gravel. It was an invigorating and smooth series of tight and flowing switchbacks broken only by short straights, but thoughts of an errant rock puncturing one of those Pilot Sport Cup’s played on my mind so we both took it pretty slow. We had no full size spare, and a sliced sidewall would have put an end to our weekend before we even saw a single rally car.
Eventually our little gravel road spat us out as planned, and we drove for just a few hundred meters before we encountered the road closed sign for the third stage of Saturday morning, Tolmie. Our Google Mapsing had worked.
Targa High Country is fiendishly difficult to spectate for those who are not intimately acquainted with the land. Many of the stages run their entire length through national parks and hence have no road closures, and often a single long stretch of road to a township is broken up into two or three stages, and then run in reverse direction the other way. Unless you get in before the road is closed and hole up for the day, or know exactly where to trek through the forest, it’s hard to see anything other than a start or finish point.
Spectating at Targa High Country forces you to slow down and relax; it was a welcome change after the stress of Classic Adelaide. The way the road closures work and the general lay of the land means it’s almost impossible to see more than two or three stages in a day, so you never get sucked into rushing all over the countryside. We’d stopped at a cafe in Benalla on our way up and bought some baguette’s and Pellegrino to have for lunch, so at midday we hiked a few km into another stage about an hour before the cars were due. We found some soft grass alongside a corner that looked interesting, and I even managed to fall asleep in the sun after I’d finished lunch. It was bliss, and almost annoying when the first Porsche came speeding through and disturbed the peace.
I’m always at odds when attending an event with this mindset. On the one hand it’s nice to relax, but on the other hand the photographer in me wants to keep pushing and exploring until we’ve found the very best corner we possibly can. But without knowing the roads and with no time to recce the stages it was all but impossible, so we gave in to lady luck.
In a lot of ways it makes it a more challenging and therefore more rewarding style of photography. Had I been able to drive this stage before and not after the cars ran through it, we definitely would not have picked this corner. But when you’ve got no idea where you are, you’ve got no option but to get creative and somehow make it work.
Speaking of luck masquerading as creativity, how’s this for a never to be repeated shot? This Torana kicked up a leaf as it went past and somehow the autofocus on my camera picked the leaf in mid-air just long enough to grab one frame. The shots either side of it have the car in focus, and there’s no way you could ever do that again if you wanted to.
We had to meet up with a few people so we skipped the afternoon Mansfield town stage and pointed the Renault toward Rally HQ at the top of Mt Buller. The High Country was really turning it on for us with fields of brilliant greens offset against a rich blue sky, the horizon divided by that famous mountain range.
Driving the Mt Buller summit road nearly justified the trip on its own, and the Renault was in its element. The road was used as Saturday’s opening stage and was still fresh with a clear racing line. We had to discipline ourselves not to take it, and at least keep within shouting distance of the speed limit.
My feelings on the Renault were mixed, and I really struggled to develop a solid opinion. Yes, there is no question that this is probably the best hot hatch you can buy today. And yes, it’s a barrel of laughs to hustle quickly through the twisties and it is a truly competent sports car that I suspect would keep almost anything honest when driven properly. And I love its typical French eccentricities, even when they actually detract from the driving experience. The speedo and tacho are oddly reclined back into the dash and the angle is all wrong. The clutch pedal actually depresses deeper than the left footrest so much that your foot can easily sit on both the rest and the clutch pedal simultaneously, and you don’t realise this until you crunch the gears a few times and discover a few more inches of pedal travel still to go. The RS data logger system has some great info, but it and the infotainment system are fiendishly difficult to use, and the large ignition card is plain madness. But it all kind of adds character, once you discover and adapt to its quirks. I even think it looks good, and I love all the little RS details. It feels low-volume, track ready special, almost like a mini Porsche GT3 RS if you will.
But what I could never truly love is that powertrain. Sure, it makes some fun pops and crackles and associated turbocharged drama, but it’s essentially soulless and there’s no joy or gain to be derived from holding a gear that little bit longer. It’s not a particularly nice or rewarding gearshift, it feels quite remote, and I don’t think the engine makes a nice sound, either. I do temper this with an appreciation of what it does, it performs remarkably well and the shove in the back from all that torque is certainly grin inducing. But I just can’t help but wonder how much of a giggle the Megane Cup would be if that brilliant chassis were paired with something high-revving and free-spinning. The whole point of a hot hatch isn’t to be the quickest, it’s to make you giggle inside as you drive the balls out of it across a tight road. And I don’t think the Megane Cup 265 really has that effect on me.
In the late afternoon we dipped back down the hill and into Mansfield for the TargaFest street party, and dined on crab pasta and beer on the pavement outside a local cafe as the sun set over the assembled rally cars.
The sound of Matt Close’s 991 GT3 fitted with an Akrapovic exhaust on launch control off the start line is single handedly the most impressive automotive sound I heard in 2015. It’s almost a life altering experience, both in volume and quality.
A close runner-up and the car that surprised me the most at Targa High Country was this Jaguar XJ-12. When used for club competition people rarely touch that expensive and complicated V12 engine, but the shriek emanating from this humble XJ was most unexpected. It’s a damn quick rally car, too.
One of the best things about Targa events is how remote servicing is permitted. Friends and crews with similar cars will often combine resources into a single van, creating these awesome scenes dotted about the countryside that have a real 90’s WRC vibe to them.
The rally is based at the summit of Mt Buller, and most of the crews stay in the ski chalets that form the village. This creates a Targa High Country tradition, where after the Mansfield TargaFest all of the rally cars have to drive up the entire Mt Buller road in the pitch black of night to return to the accommodation.
… before parking so we could get out and just listen to the hundreds of cars change up and down through the gears as they rounded the various hairpins. It was freezing cold at that altitude and there was almost zero wind, so the noises just carried for miles through the huge valleys. I really wish they could find a way to run back up Mt Buller in the dark as a competitive stage!
Unsurprisingly there was little we could do. TCR is an extremely well-run operation, and their level of preparation blew me away. Absolutely nothing is left to chance, and the depth of organisation for the car and crew before, during and after the event shows their commitment to the sport of rallying. For example, the guys here are not just blindly checking Dave Settle’s Evo 9, they are following a special checklist developed just for this car before the event. And how’s this for planning – not only is every move of the two service vehicles mapped so that they are always in the best strategic locations throughout the event, but the distances traveled and their loaded fuel consumption is calculated and re-fueling locations planned to remove the chance that they might run out.
It was getting pretty late and it was so cold near the summit that my fingers were struggling to operate the camera buttons. But a full wash of the Evo was the last item on the checklist, and after a long day none of the crew hesitated to jump in and help out.
Once back at the chalet we set up our sleeping bags and had a quick look around at all the ski memorabilia on display. There were some really cool vintage ski posters hanging, but it was this little display about skiing dogs that fascinated me the most. It didn’t hold my attention for long though, after twenty hours on the go with less than five hours sleep I was out as soon as my head touched pillow.
As it turned out we had quite a majestic view out over the valley from the balcony. But unfortunately there was little time to take in the view. We wanted to take a quick look at the cars, find some breakfast and then get out of Mt Buller before the only road out would be closed for the first stage of the day.
One thing that makes Targa High Country unique is its lack of defined service park. Instead, the rally takes over the entire Mt Buller township and turns the whole little village into a giant service park with cars stashed and mini workshops set up in every conceivable nook and cranny.
We found our Megane’s competition soul-sister parked on its own, so I just couldn’t resist parking the two alongside each other for a quick shot. Ours had an updated front end design but other than that they were broadly the same.
We had to leave the High Country area in the early afternoon in order be back in Melbourne in time for our flight home that evening, which meant no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t find a way to fit another stage in. There are almost no road closures to go to, and most stages are used twice which meant we didn’t have time to drive in and park up. Instead we decided to visit the Targa lunch stop the long way, and find the best driving roads we could. We had to pass through Bonny Doon, and you know what that means? ‘We’re goin’ ta Bonny Doon… we’re goin’ ta Bonny Doon…’
We drove in convoy with the rally cars along many of the transport stages and it was becoming pretty apparent that most of the locals love having the event in their region. This guy had wrapped his BA Falcon in full Craig Lowndes Triple Eight livery and had parked it out the front to watch the rally cars with his kids.
The midday sun was scorching and we were pretty tired, so we drove to the start of the special stage just outside of Eildon and went for a look at the start line. We didn’t even bother taking many photos off the line other than of Tristan and Sam, instead we just sat and took it all in. It’s been years since I’ve actually just sat at a rally as a spectator and I found it quite relaxing.
As soon as the road opened again we jumped in the Renault to drive the stage and found all of the awesome photo spots we didn’t know about. I instantly felt extremely frustrated; for example, this was the backdrop to one particularly tight hairpin. Oh the possibilities!
At this point we were the closest to Melbourne that the rally would get, and from here it was heading back up toward the grand finish of the showcase stage that runs up the entire Mt Buller road and into the village. With not enough time to see another stage but a few hours’ up our sleeve, we plotted out the twistiest route back to Melbourne we could find and set course.
Matt Close and Cameron Reeves would go on to win the showroom class in their Porsche 991 GT3. Other than exhaust and roll cage this is essentially a standard car, and it really goes to show just how far the modern performance car has come in the last decade. These are brutally quick cars and it was a rare experience to witness one being driven at ten tenths on a closed road. Throw in an experienced co-driver and driving with complete commitment and the result is astonishing.
Speaking of commitment, in one of the drives of the weekend Alan Roe and Steve Glenney won the early modern category in an Evo 6.5 Makinen, and in the process won the rally outright. After three days of rallying they were an incredible 9 seconds faster than the GT3!
Our blast through the hills in the Renault was light years away from what these guys were doing. The Megane turned into the perfect hot hatch for the point-and-squirt driving we were doing on these narrow and twisty roads, and the engine I’d so maligned earlier was in its element here on this unfamiliar tarmac. If we had some highly-strung Prima Donna that relied on revs we would have been going nowhere fast, but the lowdown torque allowed us to pull out of corners if we were a gear too high and then rapidly gobble the straights without ever feeling like we’d caught it snoozing.
We chanced upon a roadside pub full of bikes and stopped for a beer. The place was buzzing, and we sat out on the front step amongst the bikes and watched a seemingly endless Sunday afternoon procession of sports and classic cars whiz by. It was certainly the place to be.
And soon enough the time had come to drop back down into suburbia and head to the airport. On the way back we reflected on the importance of a strategic impulse decision every now and then, on how we couldn’t have really planned this trip and if we had, we almost certainly would have failed. Doesn’t work all the time, but every so often you get lucky.