Targa Tasmania – At your service

2008 Targa Tasmania

An all expenses paid trip to participate in Targa Tasmania. Sounds good doesn’t it. What would I be driving? And could it compete with Gentleman Jim’s brand new Porsche GT2? Service crew … what do you mean service crew? Yes, the offer to take part in my first Targa Tasmania was not behind the wheel of a tarmac tearaway, but behind the wheel of a service vehicle. Still, when Andrew Robinson asked me to join him and his 2002 MINI Cooper S for his fourth Targa Tasmania assault, I couldn’t say yes quick enough.

This opportunity came up by chance, as most pieces of good fortune do. As an owner of a MINI Cooper S since 2004 I’ve very much enjoyed the social aspect that MINI ownership brings. There’s been plenty of great drives and new friends made in that time. It is through such connections that I had previously met ‘Robbo’. He’s shown me the way around Wakefield Park once or twice and seems a likeable enough chap. So, let’s talk Targa…


It was 4:50am and my alarm had just sounded. Even the bloody sun was still in bed! I hate early mornings. Despite all this, I was eagerly awaiting the day, and week, ahead. I had no real idea what to expect. I had no idea if I would be up to the task if, indeed, things did go pear shaped and I needed to act fast. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty under the bonnet, but truth be told, I’m a bit of a gumby when it comes to all things mechanical. Just as well, then, I was only one part of Team Robbo. Also joining me on the stupid hour flight out of Canberra was Andrew, a fellow MINI owner and good friend. He is far more mechanically able than I, and under his guidance, we have pulled my car to pieces a few times and managed to get it all back together again.

Robbo was driving down to Tasmania in his 2002 BMW X5, otherwise known as the service vehicle, with the race car on a trailer. Timed with the precision of a fine Swiss watch Robbo got off the ferry at Devonport, hit the road to Launceston and met us at the airport as soon as we arrived. Shortly after, the next member of our team touched down. Navigator John Ladavac had arrived for his fourth Targa in the hot seat next to Robbo. John is also a fellow MINI owner, hmm, sensing a theme here? There was only one further team member left to join us, our mechanic, Dave from Sydney’s Peak Performance. No, Dave’s not a MINI owner, but he has worked on MINIs before, including rebuilding Robbo’s MINI after a ‘little incident’ at Eastern Creek last year. He also helped to prepare the factory MINIs that competed in Targa Tasmania back in 2006. Dave’s flight wasn’t due to land until later that evening, so we had time to recce some new stages scheduled for Leg 3 of the event.

This was when the learning experience really started to kick in. I knew what pace notes were, but my only previous first hand experience included the words, ‘Very long easy left. Maybe.’ Others who have wasted far too much time in arcades playing Sega Rally Championship will know exactly what I am talking about. (Even though the Celica was quicker, I was always a Lancia man.) Robbo purchases his pace notes from a commercial vendor (Vandenberg Motorsport) and our task today was to simply drive the stages at normal road speed with John calling the notes to double check they were happy with them and to see if there were any notable road conditions or hazards that needed to be added.

2008 Targa Tasmania

The guys use a straightforward ‘1 to 6’ corner numbering system, where a ‘6’ is a bit of a kink, virtually straight, a ‘3’ is a 90 degree corner and a ‘1’ is a bloody tight hairpin. I’m not sure we heard a ‘1’ get called all day. Sometimes a ‘3 and a half’ might be thrown in, but generally, it’s ‘2s’ through to ‘6s’. Other simple symbols are used to indicate crests, cautions and the like. At first, the pace notes look like a bit of a jumbled mess, but I was surprised how easy they were to pick up, at road legal speeds anyway. Even as a passenger it was pretty neat knowing what was going to happen next on the road ahead. As with most things though, the more you do it, the better you get and having the notes read to you at pace, while concentrating on driving at full tilt must be another experience altogether. Of course, the roads travelled were superb. The highlights from the passenger seat were the Paloona and Mt Claude stages.

One of the other things on the pace notes were the Base Time and the Trophy Time. Each special stage has a Base and Trophy time, which vary depending on the class the car is entered into. Targa Tasmania is scored by the amount of time over the Base Time. So, if a Base Time for a stage is 2 minutes and a car completes a stage in 2 minutes, 30 seconds then their score will be +30 seconds. If you go under the Base Time, whether by one second or one minute, you have ‘cleaned’ the stage and incur no added time. The Trophy Time is slower than the Base Time, but they’re not overly generous by any means and if you can complete every stage of the event under the Trophy Time you win a Targa Plate. These are very desirable items and are, for the most part, what the majority of people competing at the event are aiming for. Winning a Targa Plate shows both the skill of the driver/navigator partnership and also proves a car’s reliability.

After completing our recce for the day we collected Dave from the airport and quickly found out that three blokes in the back of an X5 is not necessarily the most comfortable place to be.

We had tickets to the welcome party that night and it was interesting to get a taste of how an event like this is organised. I was a little surprised to hear a few gags during the official welcome about speeding and so on. Although Robbo assured us that it was light hearted banter and that during the driver’s briefing prior to the Prologue the law would well and truly be laid on the line by the organisers.

Each night during the Rally the cars are kept in a parc ferme style location and for the bulk of the Rally this would be Launceston’s Silverdome. It was here we went next morning to check in the MINI for scrutineering and to collect our identity passes and documentation. The first highlight inside the Silverdome was the bright yellow Pagani Zonda. I’d probably never buy one, but it was nice to run the eyes over all the same. Not long after our car’s numbers (923) were placed on the doors and scrutineering passed without concern.

2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania

We were booked in for scrutineering pretty early, which worked out well leaving us the bulk of the day to recce Leg 2 of the event. It was the Rossarden stage that sticks in the memory here. Not necessarily for the road, which was the liquorice strap delight you’d hope for, but for the small town itself. For fear of offending any readers from the, erm, quaint village, and it has to be said, for my own personal safety, I won’t elaborate any further.

Prologue day, also known as Leg 0, at George Town was next. This kicked off at Launceston inside the Silverdome with the driver’s briefing. It was an unusual sight seeing some 600 competitors, kitted out in race suits, all sitting in a grandstand. I can only imagine the anticipation that must have been welling inside the drivers and navigators readying themselves for their first Targa. How I wish it were me.

2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania

George Town is a pretty easy 45 minute drive north from Launceston along the Tamar. I was amazed to see the locals lined up along the side of the road, well within the Launceston city limits, waiting for to catch a glimpse of the race cars. All along the journey this sight was repeated with folks littered along the road side. We got to George Town nice and early and found ourselves a great spot to wait and watch the cars come through. Or so we thought. Here’s a tip, when you are a member of a service crew and you need to be inside the road closures, don’t find a spectator point on the outside of the course, haha. Luckily this dawned on us with enough time to fix the situation before the competitors came through. Just.

While the Prologue is timed, it does not count to the overall event and is used only to configure starting order for the Rally proper. The next day, when competition starts in earnest, the slower cars start first, with the crew from the quicker cars getting a bit more of a sleep in. It may seem odd running the event this way, but it does help bunch up the field and minimise the time required for road closures throughout the event.

The cars came through George Town in number order, starting with the Tour (open to road cars with no requirement for roll cages, race suits, helmets etc), followed by the vintage entries, then the classics and finishing of with the modern entries (cars built on or after 1 January 1991). I made the mistake of putting my camera down as the first couple of vintage cars came through. In doing so I missed the highlight of the day, which was a 1930 Oakland 8-101 getting the tail out through the chicane in front of us. It was so good to see these old cars being driven hard, a credit to both man and machine. The next highlight, of course, was the supercharger whine of Robbo’s MINI announcing their arrival. The car looked flat and smooth through the chicane, a stark contrast to some of the 1970s Escorts that had previously passed through. They looked spectacular, dramatically lifting their inside wheel on exit. The pointy end of the field passed through with clinical efficiency by comparison. Tony Alford’s new Nissan GT-R went through looking completely untroubled by the rough tarmac. Likewise, Jim Richards’ equally new Porsche GT2. The two Lamborghini Gallardos took the prize for best sound with their V10s really making themselves heard.

After the Prologue we met up with the guys back at the Silverdome. The car was running well, so not much for the service crew to do except chamois down the car after it had been washed.

2008 Targa Tasmania

Leg 1 of the competition took the guys to the north west of Launceston and with a one car service crew it is impossible to meet up at the completion of each special stage. We did meet up with our MINI at the Sheffield lunch stop, and were pleased to hear the car was still running well. On our way back to Launceston we were able to meet with John and Robbo at the start of the Frankford special stage. This was really the only time during the rally we were able to see any part of a special stage during competition and it gave a real appreciation for just what a mammoth logistical task Targa Tasmania really is. There were around 15 volunteer event staff, a paramedic vehicle, a fire inspection vehicle and one police car. There were nine special stages throughout this day, with each road closure lasting approximately four and a half hours. There was something like 2,500 volunteers signed up to this year’s event. I told you it was big.

2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania

The only report from Robbo at the completion of the competitive stages was that his brakes were not quite right, so when we got back to the Silverdome we bled the brakes.

The next day, Leg 2, saw us heading east to St Helens, although road closures for the competition cars meant service vehicles had to take the long way round, heading south, before taking the Esk Highway, via St Marys, to the east. We only just made it to the lunch stop in time, but fortunately the car was still in good shape so we did our usual quick check of the fluids and wheel nuts.

The return leg saw us head back over the same route towards Launceston. This meant another drive over St Marys pass. Even better, it was my turn behind the wheel today, so this was my second run over the pass. This stretch of road has been used as a competition stage in previous years and it’s easy to see why. A lovely tight winding climb with a smooth surface begging you to push on. Left 3, tightens. Right 2, 200. Left 3 over crest. Right 2, don’t cut. Okay, I felt a bit of a goose making mental pace notes to myself while driving an X5, but I was just keeping with the theme! It made me think I should have pursued the idea a little harder of taking my own MINI to Tasmania. It would have been serious fun.

A brief meet up with the guys at the completion of the Elephant’s Pass special stage, no negative reports, so we pushed on to Longford for the upcoming town stage. We saw some of the classic entrants pass through before, again, the distinctive supercharger alerted us to Robbo’s arrival at full pace. Shortly after, though, my phone rang and we had to head straight back to Launceston. The MINI had gone into limp mode just before the completion of the Longford stage and they were able to creep across the line in first gear. A quick reset of the ECU had the car running properly again and we headed back to service to try and further diagnose the problem. Fortunately, the town stages do have generous Base Times so that the competitors don’t need to push too hard while driving through neighbourhood streets. As such, Robbo and John were able to complete the Longford stage under their Trophy Time. Phew!

After checking in to the Silverdome we had approval to leave parc ferme conditions for service work. We checked in at Launceston BMW to hook up to their diagnostic equipment and check see what fault codes the car was giving. The big advantage of Dave’s previous MINI dealership experience was his ability to pretty much walk in and know exactly what to do. Codes read and cleared the outcome was a suspected faulty MAF (mass air flow) sensor which helps the ECU mix the air/fuel ratios. Robbo had a spare used sensor which we fitted after returning to the Silverdome.

2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania

Next morning, I dropped John and Robbo at the Silverdome and was on my way back to the hotel to pick up the others before heading towards Devonport for the day. As it turned out I was right behind Robbo as he left, we got a few hundred meters down the road and he pulled over. Oh, I wonder what he’s forgotten I thought. Sadly, the car had gone into limp mode again. Bugger. Another ECU reset and the car got going, I followed behind for a while and we got maybe one kilometre down the road before the car stalled again. We quickly swapped the previous MAF sensor back in which at least got the guys back on the road. I went straight back to Launceston BMW to order a new sensor. Neither Launceston or Hobart had one in stock. David, the Service Manager, followed another lead to try and source a suitable sensor from a third party. We found one, from a Ford Focus, of all things, that looked exactly the same. However, when testing the part on a dealer’s Cooper S the car just wouldn’t idle. Plan C was then quickly implemented and the dealer tracked a part down in Sydney and arranged air freight for delivery later that evening. A big thumbs up and huge thank you to Launceston BMW for their assistance.

2008 Targa Tasmania

Later that day Robbo and John would encounter another problem that is one of those frustrating things that can only happen in competition, you can never plan for it. Some of the stages are quite bumpy and on one of the shorter stages a strap holding the spare wheel in place broke and the wheel worked itself free. Not so bad in isolation until I tell you that once the wheel had broken free it hit the kill switch inside the car and shut everything down immediately. Fortunately, Robbo tends to think pretty clearly in a crisis and was able to work out the problem and get the car running again and secure the wheel in around one minute. The problem was, being such a short stage, the delay cost the guys their Trophy Time. On a longer stage they may have been able to scrape through. Of course, that was no consolation. But true to the competitor’s spirit that exists in such events the guys forged ahead in good humour. Mind, just to rub it in, a bit later on in the day the car, again, went into limp mode in what was a repeat of the original problem from the day before.

2008 Targa Tasmania

Once back in Launceston for the day Robbo was having a progress chat with the guys from Peak Performance back in Sydney and letting them know how things were going. In that conversation the limp mode problem was diagnosed as a small mod that had been made to the car’s supercharger bypass valve. Again, one of those disappointing motor racing things that took a whole thirty seconds and a pocket knife to fix. At least the problem had now been fixed, once and for all.

All gremlins and unplanned issues hopefully now behind us the guys were prepared for Leg 4. One of the longer and tougher days in the event. This was our last morning in Launceston and we were due in Strahan that night, before finishing up in Hobart the following day. But, we had one more unexpected problem yet to rear its ugly head.

We were on our way to meet the guys at the Burnie lunch stop. Just as we were approaching Devonport we received a call from Robbo saying he was having exhaust problems and while the car was able to be driven it was unsafe to maintain competition pace. We met with him at Ulverstone, found a workshop with a hoist and had a look under the car. There was a large crack where the headers meet the exhaust and the only real option was a temporary re-weld until a new exhaust could be fitted when Robbo returned to Sydney. Turns out, early afternoons on a Saturday in Ulverstone, are not the best time to be chasing suitable workshops to undertake the repair work. Our best option was to line up a garage in Strahan that would have the gear we needed.

We had the trailer in tow after checking out from Launceston, so the car was loaded on and we headed to Burnie lunch stop where we could inform the event officials of our progress, or lack thereof. En route to Burnie Robbo raised the idea of withdrawing from the event. The factors bringing him to this suggestion were threefold: we had just lost over half a day’s competition; the drive to Strahan would be at least three hours on some of the twistiest, hilliest roads in Tasmania; there was no guarantee that the repair would last any more than five minutes of race pace, as it was, best estimates were it might last a full day. The back seat of X5 was previously packed tightly with most of our luggage, the rear of the car was full of service gear, tools, spare parts and so on. To fit the five of us in the car we had to load the MINI up with our luggage. It was pretty uncomfortable in the back seat of the X5 and the drive to Strahan looked like being a big task. Leg 5 of the event took place on the main road from Strahan to Hobart, so we would have to leave bright and early to beat the road closures. Of course, this meant if the MINI did breakdown again we would be unable to get back in to collect the guys until after the roads had re-opened. It was going to be a tough call, either way.

In the end Robbo made the pragmatic decision to withdraw. It was pretty hard on him, as in twelve tarmac rally starts he had never failed to finish, including four previous Targa Tasmania rallies. As bitter as the decision was, it was probably the right one. And with that, at Burnie, our Targa Tasmania experience came to an early end. The reality was, things could have been worse and our retirement could have been caused by an accident or severe mechanical failure. As it was, both John and Robbo were in one piece and, once home, the fix to the car’s problem would be quick and straightforward.

2008 Targa Tasmania
2008 Targa Tasmania

It was a disappointing end to my first Targa, but overall, it was a fantastic learning experience and I will always remain grateful to Robbo for the opportunity. I have a much better appreciation for how a rally such as Targa Tasmania operates and have been suitably inspired to dream of competing myself one day. I hope to see Robbo, John and the MINI back for Targa Tasmania 2009, in the meantime, if anyone feels like sponsoring me so I can take my MINI down for the Targa Tasmania Tour, you know where to find me!