This isn’t the story from the 25th running of the Targa Tasmania rally that I ever hoped to write. In my mind, I was going to recount the experience of racing along the legendary 51km Mt Arrowsmith stage, of how my friend Guy’s Alfa 2600 sounds going up The Sideling and what it feels like to cross the finish line in Hobart after completing the biggest tarmac rally in the world.
Guy Standen had made the madcap decision to do something that nobody (to our knowledge) had done before – to turn a classic 1962 Alfa Romeo 2600 Sprint into a tarmac rally car. And through an extreme gesture of kindness and generosity, he invited me along as co-driver for the 2600’s first event – Targa Tasmania.
But sadly it wasn’t to be. The mad rush to get the 2600 built in time for the event and its subsequent head gasket failure are detailed in previous Any Given Reason posts, but the short version of a very long story is that on the eve of Day One we elected not to start the event. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly, but strangely enough it wasn’t a tough one and it was almost a relief when we pulled the pin. The mechanical reality in front of us meant we had no other option, yet there was still a sense of achievement in that the 2600 made it to Tasmania in the face of extreme adversity. I don’t think anyone except Guy, and to a lesser extent myself, really thought we’d make it. And we did.
The night before the rally would begin, while all of the other crews were preparing their pacenotes and getting to bed early, we went out for few drinks at a bar and then a late team dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Launceston’s waterfront area. We’d all taken time off work to come down from Adelaide for the event, so we discussed our plans. The option of going home early was on the table, but it was a unanimous decision to stay and have the best damned week of spectating that we possibly could. After all, there’s plenty of worse places for six petrolhead’s to be stuck than Tasmania during Targa week. Clockwise from 12 is the team – Luke Jaksa, Guy Standen, Graham Standen, myself, James Wiltshire and Mike Coles.
We put on brave faces, but it was difficult waking up on the Monday morning to see the sheer amount of traffic on social media surrounding the start of Targa. The hardest to swallow was a Facebook post from Bernie Webb, putting the word out about a driver looking for a last minute co-driver just a few hours’ before the event start. The driver’s regular co-driver was unable to compete due to sickness, and there I was lazing in bed with a brand new race suit and a National Rally license next to me. It took all of my willpower not to pick up the phone to Bernie, but my personal safety compass says you don’t go jumping into a rally car with someone you’ve never met to tackle the most challenging tarmac rally in the world. As it turns out it would have been fine, but you don’t know that at the time.
We drove out to the Launceston Country Club to grab a coffee and watch the official start. Guy and I made sure to stand in the crowd at the start line at what would have been our allocated start time, but it made no difference. We were quickly letting go and accepting that we were now on a spectating mission, and there’s no use in letting any form of disappointment cloud what was set to be a cracking week. We watched a few more cars cross the line and then headed toward the town stage at George Town.
With only four stages covering just 29 competitive kilometers, Day One is very much an easy introduction to the event. The first stage, Legana, controversially had a minimum time that would result in a penalty for those who covered it too quickly, the idea being to ensure crews are properly prepared and ready for the serious competition to come. We filtered into the rally traffic heading out of Launceston to the first stage, but then cut directly to George Town which would be the fourth and final stage of the day.
On the drive out to George Town, James quipped that the Tasmania of today is like Melbourne in the fifties. Graham was quick to point out that James wasn’t around in the fifties so how would he know, but the point still stands.
George Town, situated on the Eastern mouth of the Tamar River in the North of the state, is symbolic of the problems facing much of rural Tasmania. Employment in the town is largely underpinned by the power station and the aluminum smelter at nearby Bell Bay, which was built to take advantage of Tasmania’s plentiful supply of hydroelectric power. Now that Tasmania has joined the National Electricity Market, they no longer have the advantage of cheap electricity and it really throws the viability of these plants into doubt. Why keep shipping all of that ore down to Tasmania when electricity costs the same in Queensland? Closure of the plant would devastate the town, but the state government can’t keep subsidising its power forever.
It’s a shame, because the local council keep the town beautifully presented and hosting the annual Targa stage is a proud feather in their cap. The George Town council, like many others in Tasmania, are desperate to do whatever it takes to keep the rally in their shire as it brings thousands of people and gifts tens of thousands of dollars to their local economies. Our own local Adelaide Hills Council could stand to learn a thing or two.
The rally properly gets underway on day two, with 69 competitive kilometres comprising of The Sideling, Legerwood, Moorina, Weldborough Pass, Pyengana, Elephant Pass and Rossarden stages. This is when the real Targa Tasmania begins to shine.
Graham, Guy and Mike decided that bed was a better option at that hour of the day, but Luke and James bought into my scheme. With an early morning McDonald’s breakfast under our belts, we got in before road closure and waited amongst the ferns for the cars to show.
The Tasmanian weather had so far been remarkably kind to us, but even so I was warned by Targa veterans to watch out for The Sideling. Traditionally run as the first stage of the morning, the road is famous for its hidden patches that are always damp and greasy and never have a chance to dry out. Punctuated by its steep drop offs on one side and rock banks on the other, there is no room for error and it almost always brings the unprepared unstuck.
But there’s always an exception to the rule, and we witnessed The Sideling as a bone dry and grippy Targa stage. Experienced competitors were taking full advantage of the conditions, surely reveling in the rare chance to commit properly on a stage you’d never usually dare.
Local hero Jason White, debuting his new Dodge Viper ACR in the GT2 class (one of two examples of the new ACR in the class), gave us a fine demonstration of just why he’s won this event so many times. He was millimeter perfect though our little series of bends, shimmying the splitter against the grass and not an inch further.
Later on (after accidentally disappearing with both of the hotel room keys, much to their malign) we met up with the late risers back in Launceston, and temporarily left the rally for a pub lunch in Longford.
Including a car that raced in period at Longford on display, the bar is filled with all manner of memorabilia that references the great drivers and cars of the time that came. The 7.2km circuit was world renowned as one of the fastest in the world, and at the final meeting in 1968 Chris Amon set a hellish 196.62km/h one lap average speed driving a Ferrari P4.
Day 3 saw the event travel away from Launceston, with eight competitive stages and 138 competitive kilometers before an overnight stop in the northern town of Burnie. A record entry list of around 360 cars meant it took a good few hours for the field to pass, meaning we could only easily fit in one full stage that day.
We scanned through our stage maps and made way for a nice little bridge just outside of Natone, on the famous Riana stage. Even though it was the final stage of the day the first tour cars were due to pass through at 12pm, such was the size of the field.
If I’m honest it was here, standing in a farmers paddock somewhere in rural Tasmania watching the rally go by, that I did begin to feel a little dejected. It was okay to go and spectate on stages I’d never heard of before, but now the rally was starting to traverse the famous stages I’d watched on television for years and I really wanted to be out there amongst it.
Burnie is also the home of the Jaquie Lambie Network political party, and within an hour of our arrival we witnessed a slightly disheveled Audi wearing some rather proud plates drive past. A strong supporter, or the great woman herself?
Targa presents a litany of logistical dilemmas for teams, one of the primary ones being fuel supply. Guy tuned his Alfa to run on 98 Octane pump fuel which was going to be hard enough for us to find in some parts of the state, but not impossible. However it was really tricky for cars tuned solely for E85 because Tasmania’s pump E85 supply in reality ranges from E70 to E90 and has usually been sitting stagnant for a while. The solution is to bring your own supply of E85, but even this becomes tricky when you’re burning up to 1 liter per competitive kilometer over a six day event.
We sometimes take these sorts of shows for granted, and I know that many competitors see them as a bit of a pain and would rather just put the cars away and relax after a long day. But the general public who aren’t as exposed to motorsport as us are fascinated to see the cars up close, and it’s a great opportunity for them. I wonder how many ten year old’s convinced their parents to bring them, and would likely remember these cars and the experience for years to come. This is how it all begins for those who haven’t grown up with it.
We crashed that night at Guy and Graham’s friend Col’s house, nestled into a particularly scenic hillside with expansive ocean views just outside of Burnie. Even though Col was away holidaying in New Zealand, he kindly opened his house up for our crew. James and Luke decided it would be warmest to sleep on the reclining armchairs near the heater.
Luke gave us a proud demonstration of his chair’s eject function. The next morning this very eject function made a particularly effective and entertaining alarm clock when we got up early to head out to the first stage of Day 4.
It was awesome to see the 1955 Abarth 750 of Jack Waldron and Vin Gregory still in the event, rallying their diminutive pocket rocket that competed in the very first Targa Tasmania in 1992. They damaged it pretty heavily during Targa High Country last November, and had been working around the clock to get it repaired for Tasmania. The story goes that they were still screwing bits onto it while in the line for the ferry from Melbourne!
I vaguely remembered from our recce two months prior that there was a lovely little section of road that snaked through a pine forest. We snuck in just minutes before the road closed, with no guarantee that this spot would actually be any good.
Our luck paid off, with a brilliant background of road snaking off behind the cars. When you recce to write pacenotes you don’t pay much attention to potential photo spots, so whilst I had a vague memory that this might be a good spot I really couldn’t properly remember. When we recce’d I was more focused on noting immediate landmarks so I didn’t fall off the notes during the constant “5 right on crest into 5 left on crest into 5 right on crest into 3 left on crest into 5 right on crest” calls. Get that 3 mixed up in the 5’s and you could quickly be off down that verge.
We hiked a short way into the forest and found a spot next to some other spectators and set up the laptops to edit some of the morning’s photos. There was a lovely soft bed of pine needles to sit on while we waited, and incredibly there was full strength 4G signal in that forest to get them uploaded! We cracked open a few Pellegrino’s and reckoned we had found just about the best spot to shoot a rally, ever.
Once the stage had finished we drove through it and meet up with Guy, Mike and Graham. After getting stung by a wasp on a particularly sensitive part of my ass when I sat down at a small town deli for lunch, we re-formed out little French car convoy and began the three hour drive to the overnight stop at Strahan, following most of that day’s rally stages once the roads had opened.
I wasn’t about to let a wasp sting to the ass-crack keep me from driving Graham’s Renault Sport Clio through some of the best roads Tasmania has to offer, so I convinced Luke and James that I was fine to drive and kept the keys firmly in my grasp. Even three-up with luggage, the little Clio had ample power for the tight roads and had all of us convinced that these things are excellent value at what they’re trading for right now.
Anyone who’s ever toured along Tasmania’s West Coast would surely have stopped in Strahan, the former port town which today is more renowned for its tourism rather than its shipping. What it lacks in size it makes up for in atmosphere, and the entire town was teeming with rally cars and crews until well into the night. That evening we went out for our final team meal together at the local pub. Luke, James and Mike would be flying home to Adelaide the next day, and Graham would be driving them to the airport in Hobart.
There’s only one road into Strahan and one road out, and the road out was being used as the first stage of Day 5. This meant that if you want to travel in the direction of the rally, you either had to be out of Strahan before the road closed or stay there until lunchtime. This resulted in a very early morning for us, and Guy and I were on the road by 6am in a long train of rally traffic – officials and support crews, mostly.
Of everything in the rally, Day 5 was the one I was most looking forward to. A massive 116 competitive kilometers would take the field across six special stages from Strahan to Hobart, including the legendary 51.37km Mount Arrowsmith.
I’ve been watching the Targa Tasmania television packages every year since I was a kid, and the mid nineties images of Jim Richards and Barry Oliver sliding their 993 RSR up the 99 bends out of Queenstown are etched in my brain forever.
Of all the stages in the event, it was Queenstown that I most wanted to see. I waxed lyrical at dinner the night before to Guy about how much it would mean to see it for real, and convinced him it was a good idea that we climb up the craggy moonscape for a spot of early morning spectating. He’d almost had enough of rally spectating by this point, yet he was still kind enough to entertain my enthusiasm for a few more hours.
Similar to our luck on The Sideling earlier in the week, we’d somehow struck a bone dry and grippy Queenstown. These parts of the state see regular snow during winter and it’s almost always damp for Targa, often providing some dramatic action as the below in-car video shows.
After five full days of rallying Jason White was still holding the outright lead in the flagship GT2 class in the Viper ACR. It never really looked insanely fast, and that big V10 never sounded as if it was revving particularly hard. They were just getting the job done.
We filed onto the course and had to wait at the start of Mount Arrowsmith for the road to open before we could pass through. The advice to competitors showed all the cars that had gone off and their distance into the stage. We noted car 934 on the list, the Viper, and wondered what we’d find.
Mount Arrowsmith claims a few victims each year, and even though the entire stage was dry and grippy 2016 was no exception to this. We followed the stages back to Graham’s house in Hobart, and rounded the day out with a hearty dinner and a few red wines that night.
Day 6 was comprised of a short morning leg out from Hobart of 6 stages comprising just 64 competitive kilometers. The distance may have been short but it was by no means a coast to the finish, as each of the stages were very technical with lots of pacenote calls and literally thousands of spots waiting to claim a car so close to the finish line.
And the worse happened to many unfortunate crews. We saw this Cayman GT4 go into the bank right in front of us on the Cygnet stage, and as we followed the Targa Live app on our phones it became apparent that there had been a few big accidents and a couple of heartbreaking mechanical failures that morning. It was disappointing enough for us not to take the start, but I can’t imagine how it must feel to get this close and not finish.
We watched each approaching car with great anticipation, keen to check that our favorite crews were still going. The three car team that had come out from Japan still had all three of their cars in the event, and all would go on to take the finish. What a great result for their international historic rally project.
Despite a few all-nighters earlier in the event to rebuild the rear end after a nasty bump onto a bridge, Adelaide’s Damian Reed, co-driving for David Young, even had time to wave to the crowds as they sped through.
But all the attention was rightly on Matt Close and Cameron Reeves, who despite a final morning close call went on to take a well deserved maiden victory in their 991 GT3. I was ecstatic to see them take the victory, for these are the guys that volunteered to tow our broken Alfa back to the Launceston Silverdome when we had the head gasket failure at Symmons Plains. Top blokes.
It was an obvious disappointment not to compete, but in the end we still managed to fit in a pretty good week. Spectating at Targa has been checked off the list, so I guess competing will have to wait one more year.
We rented a little Wicked Campers Corolla and braced ourselves for the worst. But I’ve gotta say, it was actually a great little thing. The tent was easy to set up and comfortable, and even with 265,000 hard kilometers on the clock the Corolla ate up the Tasmanian roads. We even found a few unsigned dirt roads through the wilderness behind the Bay of Fires that were only marked on my detailed recce maps and not on any other maps or guides we found. There were a few occasions when the Corolla really needed a sump guard… let’s just leave it at that. And the handbrake worked exceptionally well, too.
Competitor photo packages from the event are available – email firstname.lastname@example.org with your car number for more info. Help fund our 2017 Targa Tasmania entry!
An AGR post of all the Targa Tasmania class winners can be found here.#2600 Sprint #Alfa Romeo #rally #Targa #Targa Tasmania #Targa Tasmania 2016 #Tarmac Rally #Tasmania