The ultimate tarmac rally

How do you keep a car on the road in the world’s longest, largest and hardest tarmac rally?

It might come as a surprise, but Australia is home to the world’s’ longest tarmac rally.

Targa Tasmania takes place over six gruelling competition days, with teams travelling more than 2,000 kilometres. Now in its 28th year, Targa involves professional race drivers, celebrities and rookies competing for a Targa Trophy. Drivers need more than skill in this tough competition and a good service team is worth its weight in gold.

This being my first Targa, I was fortunate to be part of Lexus Technical Advisor Nate Pullos’ crew. We looked after Hobart local and rookie entrant Pat Cullinane and navigator Nathan Hobson, ensuring their car was ready to race each day. Both had been racing for years but never competed in rallies.

Our journey started in a single car garage in Hobart. We met with Pat just days before the event, to give his car a once-over.

The car, a 1990 Toyota MR2 Turbo, started life as a standard 163kw road car in Japan. During the early 2000s it was imported to Australia and, after several rallies and one rollover, it was sold to Pat in 2012. Dreams of competing in Targa Tasmania drove Pat to modify the engine, brakes and roll cage. The once mild mid-engine sports car now produces 300kW -almost double its original power.

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Before the rally, we thoroughly inspected the car. Tasmania is notorious for its fickle weather, changing road conditions and extremes of elevation so no nut or bolt was left unchecked and every hose was tightened. This treacherous event tests both man and machine so there is no room for error.

After two days working on the MR2 we headed to the Launceston Silverdome for scrutineering. Pat and our navigator enjoyed the ‘luxury’ of driving the MR2 to Launceston followed by our Volvo XC90 packed to the roof with tools, service items and even a gearbox.

Scrutineering was trouble free and soon after our attention was diverted to the array of cars. Ranging Targa had something for everyone, from 1920s GMCs to the current year’s production cars. Give examples…

Our ‘service centre’ for the next three days was our accommodation, a local house with ample room to work on cars. After settling in, our first task was logistics. In most races you’re racing against other cars or setting lap times but Targa’s different, your total time is key.

Each day teams raced against the clock over six competition stages. Competition stages were linked by touring stages which took place on public roads with speed limits. On the touring stages cars were given enough time to travel to the next start point without speeding. This may seem easy enough but, if your car needed fuel or repairs, the servicing crews had to work fast to avoid late penalties or run the risk of constantly chasing, or being chased, by other cars during the competition stages.

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The next challenge was service time. When Pat and Nathan’s race stopped, our race as pit crew began. At the end of each day we had 60 minutes to service the car before returning it to the highly secure lock up for the night.

What needed to be done in those 60 minutes? Everything from brakes and spark plugs to fluids and suspension. We inspected, serviced or replaced parts daily. If nothing went wrong, we would have just enough time to finish the service, but of course nothing is easy in Targa and we hit tuning issues on day one. The engine was running poorly and pace was slowing so we had no choice but to take a penalty and keep the car out overnight to find a local tuner to fix our issue.

With the car running well our confidence built over the next few days. The weather, however, had other ideas. Heavy rain rolled through on day three. For the service crew, this meant little more than getting wet at stops, but it was a terrifying learning experience for Pat and Nathan. Driving fast in the rain does not come naturally and, with no electronic driving aids such as anti-lock brakes or traction control, every input had to be precise as steep drop-offs and trees were just metres away.

Pace increased despite the horrible conditions. The rain took several competitors out of the race and others were plagued by mechanical issues.

On day four we crossed Cradle Mountain and stages grew in length, by nearly 60km. Road closures forced our service routes through logging roads that seeming to go on forever. Often the drive was so long we’d only arrive at the service point minutes before the car. To make matters worse, we had no real service location at the day’s end.

The weather had cleared by day five and we made it to the south of Tasmania. Speeds were fast at more than 200km/h so jumps were not uncommon. By now our group of amateur Targa entrants were in the groove of servicing and driving but that’s where the trouble-free motoring ended. A problem with the turbocharger meant no power low in the rev range and, despite our best efforts, it couldn’t be fixed in our 60-minute repair window so Pat had no choice but to keep driving the car.

At the final service location on the last day of the competition, Nate and I watched the live results with bated breath hoping there would be no trouble with the car. Luckily, Pat breezed through the final stage and began the final sprint to the finish line at Hobart’s convention centre.

Among family and friends, we watched the MR2 cross the finish line and I felt a rush of relief knowing I wouldn’t have to service a car in a bus stop for at least a twelve months. My relief soon became celebration after finding our team in 5th place out of 16 cars.

 It was a great result for our first rally – and it surely won’t be the last.

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