Last week Any Given Reason was unbearably close to being strapped into the co-drivers seat of the world’s only tarmac rally prepared Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint, ready to take the starters flag at the 25th Anniversary Targa Tasmania rally. A mammoth amount of work has gone into the car over the past two months to get it to Tasmania, and for quite a while it was seeming as if the car might not make it. But with just hours to spare the car was finished and made the ferry to Tasmania, and we were almost convinced that we might have actually been pulling off the unthinkable. But not quite.
First, back to mid January…
For those who have missed it, previous updates can be found by clicking HERE and HERE.
With the cage in and most of the fabrication done, in early January the shell left Eurosport Automotive in Kent Town for the body shop. The opening photo of this story was taken just before the car left, and the second shot was taken just four weeks later at the start of February when it returned as a painted shell with the rust and panel repair completed. The body shop never wants to work to such a deadline again, but with Targa looming they turned the job around in just over four weeks. Incredible.
Myself, Luke Jaksa and car owner/driver Guy Standen took it upon ourselves to paint the roll cage with the three layer POR-15 product. In an ideal world we’d have sprayed the cage too, but with the deadline looming we brush painted it. Thankfully POR-15 smooths out brush strokes as it dries, providing a finish that looks pretty good given how it was applied. We worked nights to get it painted, and you’d never believe just how many complex surfaces there are on such an intricate roll cage and how long it takes to cover it all. And also, how long errant POR-15 takes to wear off your elbows and knees.
The build has been a challenge every step of the way. To our knowledge this is the only properly rally prepared Alfa 2600 Sprint in the world, and one of just a small handful of competition prepared 2600’s full stop. As such you can’t even get many stock parts for this car, let alone competition parts. And you can’t just jump onto Google to see how someone else has done it, because it hasn’t been done before. Where possible the team at Eurosport have tried to incorporate off the shelf parts into their design so that they can be replaced during a rally if they fail, but the effort required to make them fit has been enormous. As just one example, have a look at the body modifications required to cater for the radiator overflow.
Anyone who has been involved with rallying is well aware that as important as the car itself may be, it is a team sport and without a good service crew our efforts would be in vain. In early February we got the crew together for a team meeting to plan our assault – from far right heading clockwise is Guy (driver), Graham (Guy’s Father, Tasmanian local/guide/fixer, accommodation specialist and team doctor), my Father Mike (auto electrician and mechanic extraordinaire), James (Eurosport Automotive technician who’s been responsible for a fair part of the build) and Luke (general technical wizard/graphic designer/media expert/photographer/sticker placement guru).
At the end of February Guy and I headed down to Tasmania for three days to carry out a full course reconnaissance for the event. We purchased the Smoothline pacenotes from Steve Glenney and Bernie Webb, and found them to be brilliantly detailed and structured for the type of competition we want to do. The notes required very few changes, but it’s important to confirm this for yourself before you use them at full pace. Not only that, but I’d never been to Tasmania before so it was an excellent opportunity to study the course in person.
It’s been fastidiously maintained by a lifelong French car nut and is incidentally also for sale – this is a free plug in exchange for its use during recce. Someone please buy it from Graham, and make sure you mention where you heard about it!
I’d heard that Tasmania was a stunning place to visit, and this was confirmed to me each day as new vistas were continually revealed. We were blessed the whole time with sunshine and 27deg heat, something of an abnormality for Tassie I’m told.
With six weeks to go, the amount of work still to be done was mind boggling. The build had been more complex and time consuming than anyone could have predicted, and as a result it was behind schedule. Things you say quickly take huge amounts of time – starting from nothing, James built an entire loom and wired the whole car.
In the meantime, the 2584cc Alfa Romeo straight six engine was built up alongside the shell. It really is a huge lump of an engine, which is why Viano Jaksa is included here for scale. There are very few race prepared 2600 engines in existence, so the tune of this engine was intentionally kept relatively tame as we were heading into uncharted territory. The head has been worked over with a custom grind camshaft by Vin Sharp, and a specially modified inlet manifold houses the triple Weber 45 DCOE carburetor setup. You simply can’t find a Weber manifold for these engines anymore, so the stock manifold was modified at huge complexity to suit. With the Targa Tasmania deadline looming we didn’t have time to have a custom exhaust manifold and system built, so for the time being it is fitted with a stock exhaust system. This will be changed later on.
Alfa Romeo had a proud heritage of silky-smooth straight six engines from the 1920’s right through until the 1960’s, however the 102 series 2600 was the last ever Alfa Romeo straight six engine. It’s a bit of a shame when you consider that some of the world’s legendary straight sixes, the one’s from Nissan in particular, all had their glory days long after the 2600 was forgotten.
As the countdown loomed with three weeks to go we realised it would be a sprint to the finish. Guy, Luke and myself started coming into Eurosport after work in the evenings to knock off any small jobs that might save time further down the track.
The more research Guy has done into the car as the project progressed, the more he learned about it. And it was at precisely this moment, right as we started to cut into the bonnet, that Guy proudly informed us that a small handful of very early 1962 build series one Alfa 2600’s came from the factory with experimental Superleggera aluminum bonnets. They were not fitted to every car and none of the series two’s had them, and they are so rare that many longtime 2600 owners don’t believe they were ever fitted. But here we are cutting into one of these factory aluminum bonnets. Guy, ever competitive, is only thinking of the weight savings we’ll gain in our limited modification rally class that a factory built aluminum bonnet will bring. I’m sure that this mindset would be approved by the craftsman who hand formed this bonnet, so all is okay. He’d probably feel pretty proud that his handiwork is flying through the competition rally stages of Australia some 54 years after he formed it.
The engine started for the first time in late March, and the very first drive was just six days before we were due to leave for Targa Tasmania. There wasn’t even time to go around the block, it was driven right out the workshop door and straight to the Transport SA inspection centre at Regency Park for its identification check and dedicated rally car inspection.
The plan was to carry out a shakedown test at Mallala before we departed, but within 30km of road driving a pretty bad engine oil leak and some cooling system inefficiencies were discovered so the track day was cancelled. The engine oil leak was traced back to some incorrect o-ring’s sealing the head to the block inside the head gasket, and the cooling system issues were fixed by reorientating the electric water pump. It didn’t turn out to be a show stopper, but we lost a day we didn’t have in needing to remove the head and re-mount the water pump.
It was the final week before the rally and we needed to be on the road to Melbourne by Thursday morning at the latest. After spending the Tuesday morning finishing off a few small jobs to comply with the Targa rules, it went to West Torrens Dyno on Tuesday afternoon to be dyno tuned. The emphasis was not on making outright power, but rather making sure we don’t damage anything during the rally. There will be plenty of time to chase power later on.
Oscar Fiorinotto from Supashock suggested it was crazy that we were going to head to Tasmania without having ever driven it outside of the suburbs, so at 630pm on Wednesday night we took it for a quick run up to Norton Summit and back. It was the first time I sat in the co-drivers seat and Guy’s first time driving it in the twisties, which just confirmed that handling wise it was almost spot on out of the box. I guess that’s the benefit of designing the suspension on CAD before it’s built – you know it will work. And it sounds bloody magnificent, too. We headed back to Eurosport for more small jobs, and at 1030pm the night before we were due to leave we declared it as finished as it was ever going to be.
We towed it across to Melbourne with a borrowed tow car on a borrowed trailer (last minute trailer refurbishment required – another saga), before unloading it at Port Melbourne. We stashed our tools, spares and gear for the rally inside, and as I drove it on to the Spirit of Tasmania for the overnight crossing the 2600 had been driven a sum total of just 128km. But it somehow felt strong and ready.
We arrived at our motel to find a three-car historic rally team had come all the way from Yokohama, Japan, for the event. As they unloaded and organised their gear we tried to say hello, but not a word of English was spoken. Many handshake’s and thumb’s-ups were exchanged.
Taking a new car through scrutineering for the first time is always a nervous experience, so we’d allowed a spare day in case we needed to rectify anything. The scrutineering and documentation took place at Symmons Plains raceway, where the V8 Supercars had raced the weekend before.
Thankfully it sailed through without a single fault, and was ready to begin competition on the Monday morning. It was about as unknown a quantity as possible – the total distance that the 2600 had driven at that point was still under 250km, and it had never been faster than 110km/h.
Guy said a month ago that all we wanted to do was to make the event, and that just being here and parking it in the Silverdome was our own victory. We were under no illusions that it would be easy and although we secretly hoped to do well, none of us really fully expected to make it to the finish line in Hobart. After all, Targa Tasmania is one of the longest and toughest tarmac rallies in the world. Doesn’t hurt to dream, though.
We decided to participate in the official Targa media day at Symmons Plains Raceway, about 45mins out of Launceston. Taking any rally car to the track on the day before an event is always fraught with danger, but we needed any opportunity to drive the 2600 we could get and it would be our only chance to experience it at speed before we hit the stages. It wasn’t ideal, but we had no choice.
It all seemed to be going a little too well. It behaved brilliantly on track, and bar a slight tail-happiness it stuck amazingly well in the bends, stopped on a dime and that Alfa straight six and its triple Weber’s sounded nothing short of glorious from inside. I hopped in for the first warmup session and was genuinely excited for the event to come – I started to think we might just be able to pull off the unthinkable.
It started to unravel when Guy came in to swap passengers and I noticed some excess coolant spray around the engine bay. I searched high and low for the leak but couldn’t find anything. Dan Deleur and his friend Gareth were on a spectating holiday from South Australia, and sensing our desperation they kindly stopped to help us – Guy and myself know enough to be dangerous but our service crew were yet to arrive, and with these sorts of issues we were way out of our depth. Even though Dan and Gareth had promised each other they wouldn’t work on rally cars during their trip, with their help we methodically went through the symptoms and found a milkiness under the oil filler cap and on the dipstick and a few drops of water blowing out the exhaust. We suspected a blown head gasket, and needed to get the 2600 back to Launceston and to a place where our service crew could work on it when they arrived from the airport that afternoon. But with no trailer, this was going to be difficult.
After helping us for over an hour and missing a catch-up with their friends, it got to the stage where Dan and Gareth had to leave. As they pulled onto the highway they saw an empty car trailer ahead, flagged it down for us and told our story. It belonged to none other than Matt Close and Cameron Reeves, who would go on to win the event outright in their 2015 Porsche 991 GT3. Cameron and his crew member were more than happy to turn around, and before we’d even properly introduced ourselves they had started to load the 2600 up and were suggesting places they could take it for us.
I’d heard stories about the camaraderie and spirit that is found only at Targa Tasmania, and before the event had even started I witnessed it first-hand. These guys were gearing up to have a shot at winning the biggest tarmac rally in the world, yet they still had time to help us out. What legends – thanks Cameron!
With the 2600 back at the Silverdome in Launceston, Guy and I set about trying anything we could to diagnose and make a repair to limp the 2600 to the start line. We figured that if we could just patch it up and if it would hold, we might be able to treat it gently and with a fair helping of luck we could make the finish line and get a finishers medal or even a Targa Plate. Guy and I attended the drivers briefing at the Launceston Country Club with the fading hope that we might still be racing the next day.
In the end it turned out to be a lost cause, and when our service crew arrived at 530pm it only took them 20 minutes to confirm our fears. James carried out a few tests and confirmed that the head gasket had blown – there was water getting into cylinder 6 which was causing it to run rough, and compression was leaking into the cooling system. To our knowledge the only 2600 head gaskets available were in London, and even if the rumor we heard of someone having one in Melbourne turned out to be true, we wouldn’t have got it in time to make the start the next morning.
And as James pointed out, brand new head gaskets don’t just blow for no reason. There was obviously something wrong inside the engine, and a new head gasket was just as likely to blow again. Engine components for Alfa 2600’s aren’t exactly common, and the last thing we wanted was water running into the oil and causing a bearing to spin at high rpm or something similar. As it stood the 2600 could be fixed to race another day, but that might not have been the case if we’d damaged something irreplaceable. It was heartbreaking, but the only option was to withdraw. We almost made it.
The benefit of making the call before the event began was that we were able to roll over the entry for next year’s rally. With a full year of development under the 2600’s belt, 2017 might just be our time to shine.
Throwing the helmet on for some competition would easily have been more fun than spectating, but with the crew down and the accommodation booked we decided to make the best of it anyway. I got my camera gear out, and satisfied a long held ambition to see Targa Tasmania in person. The ambition to compete will have to wait. An AGR post about the event is coming soon.
Words and photos by Andrew Coles2600 Sprint #Alfa Romeo #rally #Targa #Targa Tasmania #Tarmac Rally #Tasmania