My first tarmac rally
I went to Targa High Country in November 2016 with the SSC Lotus contingent in my 2006 red 111R aka ‘Red Rocket’. I competed in the Time Speed Distance (TSD) category with a group of 12 Lotus’. Aside from the frustrations of having a car that was way too fast for the category and coming to grips with the peculiarities of the RallySafe device, I enjoyed the event immensely and managed to get on the podium and spray some passion pop (it was fun but pretty sticky and gross!)
After this taste, I was hooked and decided to set my sights on competing at Targa Tasmania in 2017. I wanted to step up a category to GT Sports Trophy (130km/h speed limited) which meant I’d need a car with at least a half roll cage. Red Rocket hadn’t been built with a roll cage in mind and the effort to install one would have been significant with relocating the Motec, battery, seat etc etc. I’d also had the car for nearly 7 years and after my win at Challenge Bathurst it was time to move on to a new car.
Searching for a rally navigator
The step up in category also required me to learn a new skill – hearing the corner calls from a co-driver (navigator / nav). The pace notes they call ‘paint a picture’ of the road ahead. It’s like being superman and having x-ray vision to see around the blind corner or over a crest you normally can’t see. It really is the combination of driver and co-driver that makes for a successful team and its imperative that both have absolute trust in each other. I spoke to a few people I knew who were in the rallying scene and they put me in touch with Bernie Webb from Smoothline Stage Notes.
I had a chat to Bernie about my background and the sort of nav that I was looking for. He explained there are three different levels of nav:
– Minimal or no experience, generally share costs
– Good amount of experience, generally NOT sharing costs
– Professional, NOT sharing costs plus daily rate payment
I was keen to learn as quickly as possible and decided to go for a nav with a good amount of experience but couldn’t justify paying for a professional like Dale Moscatt. Bernie put the word out and came back to me with a top 3 for me to speak with. I decided to go with Dennis Neagle who is a Kiwi now based in QLD at the base of the Toowoomba mountain range. Dennis has extensive rally experience both on tarmac and gravel and is also a qualified mechanic. Another bonus was that we are pretty much the same height so he could drive the longer transport stages to give me a break in driving.
New rally car build
For me there was no other choice for the new car other than a Lotus so I had the crew at Simply Sports Cars Lotus start with the preparation on a new Exige Sport 350. It was super exciting seeing the car being stripped back and rebuilt as a race car all ready to compete.
I kept my fixed Sparco race seat from Red Rocket and had SSC transfer it into the new car. Richie made a seat mold to get me as low in the car as possible so that my helmet would clear the roll cage. I must have a long mid-section, we even had to remove the seat cushion so I would be sitting on the base of the seat!
Apart from the roll cage, the other work Simply Sports Cars did to prepare the car for Targa was:
- Lightweight Exige V6 small can exhaust – crazy loud, but it saves weight!
- K&N panel filter in standard air intake box
- Fitment of a lightweight lithium battery
- Custom Nitron 3-way 46mm suspension with a full alignment, corner weight and ride height setup
- A set of pro forged wheels with Yokohama a050 medium tyres
- 2 piece brake rotors all round with Pagid RS14 pads
- Installation of a 60L pro alloy baffled tank with upgraded fuel pump
- Installation of front and rear tow hooks
- 2 x 1kg fire extinguishers
- 2 x 6 point harnesses
- OMP quick release steering wheel
- Transferring the Stilo DG-10 intercom system from Red Rocket
- Installation of a Racelogic HD2 video V-Box with OLED display
- Eliptech Shift-P2+ shift light
Sydney Motorsport Park shakedown day
Once the car build had been completed, it was time for a shakedown to make sure all the systems worked. Lee drove the car out and when I met the team there, the car had 69km on it, my first time driving the car would be on the track.
The plan for the day was to tune in the Shift-P2 with the GPS speed display from the V-Box such that the shift lights would come on progressively as the car approached 130km/h in 3rd gear. During the first session I also bedded in the pads and new disks. We had to move the Shift-P2 to from on the steering column to hanging off the windscreen with the OLED display of the V-Box so that I could clearly see the shift lights in my peripheral vision. I spent part of the 3rd session trying to drive to a 130km/h limit to simulate what I’d experience in Tassie and then did a couple of faster laps to put a heat cycle into the tyres.
My impressions of the car were very positive. Compared to Red Rocket it had more compliant suspension and wider rubber. I noticed the turn in was better and general composure of the car with the Race traction control gave me lots of confidence. This car was certainly very different to the beast that was Red Rocket and I was looking forward to getting to Tassie to get it into its element.
Making it look like a rally car
The final part of the prep work was getting the car looking like a race car which meant it was time to get the livery sorted. My old business Autopia liked the idea of having their branding on the car and gave me a (small) amount of sponsorship. I also got some sponsorship from the watch brand SevenFriday (funky swiss designs at reasonable prices ) in the form of a contra-deal – hit me up if you want a watch – I’ll get you a great deal!
To keep the costs down I decided to go for a simple black and white colour scheme and worked with the in-house designer from Autopia to come up with a livery that would work. Michael from Carbon Demon was great and had the stickers ready in very short time.
I put all the stickers on the car over a period of a couple of days, it was a great way to bond with my new car.
Getting to Targa Tasmania
I picked up my nav Dennis from Launceston airport on the Wednesday before Targa would start. Dennis had put together an ambitious reconnaissance (recce) plan – over 2,000km of driving in 3 very full days.
At the last minute, we decided to take my Porsche Macan Turbo rather than the Corolla hire car I had booked. It was a great choice – the Macan was the perfect recce vehicle; much closer in pace to my Lotus and a very comfortable place to cover bulk km.
Dennis brought all his recce gear with him including Stilo intercom system, video camera and GPS Terratrip. The mission was simple, I needed to learn pace notes and the only way was to get out and get busy on the competition stages. The roads in Tassie are amazing and we had so much fun doing recce that I couldn’t wait to cut loose on closed roads once Targa Tasmania would finally get underway.
Targa Tasmania rally race
I figured for my first serious tarmac rally that I wanted to limit the risk as much as possible and keeping the speed down would help achieve that. The downside of the speed limited category is that the only opportunity to make time is by going faster through the corners as everyone can go the maximum speed down the straights.
The GT Sports Trophy competition is only in its 3rd year of running at Targa Tasmania and the same team had won it for the first two years – Jeff & Nerida Beable in their R34 GTR N1 Skyline. Jeff & Nerida have extensive Targa Tasmania experience – this was their 24th entry in the 26 years the event has been running and were clearly the team to beat.
After documentation and scrutineering of the vehicles, all the cars were put in parc ferme in the Silverdome in Launceston – ‘White Lightning’ looking all nice and shiny.
Leg 1 - wet and slippery
I was told you can’t really trust the weather forecast in Tassie but the forecast for Leg 1 (day 1) was accurate and it wasn’t good news. Wet and very slippery roads which wasn’t what I was wanting to wake up to for my very first day of competition. I had agreed with Dennis and Lee that I wouldn’t check the stage times until the end of the day. It made sense, knowing the times could only add pressure and I really didn’t need that on my first day of competition!
I was driving comfortably, taking in the pace notes and getting a feel for the car and the new a050 Yokohama tyres. It was great fun learning how ‘White Lightning’ (the name I had chosen for the car) behaved in the varied conditions and was hoping not to lose too much time to the 4wd cars that tend to have an advantage in wet conditions. I was thinking it would be good if I could stay in touch with the Beable GTR and try to catch them later in the week if the weather dried out which would suit my car better.
I decided to run in Sports mode. The first competitive stage was Sideling which I later found out we finished 22nd overall, just two seconds off Matt Close in a Porsche GT3 RS (who ended up coming third outright). The combination of the advanced traction and stability control systems, good tyres and compliant suspension gave me a lot of confidence that I never once had a moment that gave me cause for concern.
At lunch on the first day the line was very long so I decided to skip lunch, eat some nuts I had in the car and find somewhere to fill up my water bottle. I looked everywhere for a tap and in the end I happened upon a vacation care class at a school next to the park where all the cars had parked for lunch.
After lunch we started to play games with the Beable GTR. We followed him out of lunch and planned on starting behind him for Elephant Pass. He had other ideas and pulled over into an abandoned service station to get behind us. We tried to find somewhere to pull over just off the freeway where we could see him coming but he couldn’t see us. He ended up pulling over behind us, blocking our view of the road (it’s hard to turn your head with a HANS device on!). We just decided to get on with it and went in front for Elephant Pass. It started to dry up and Rossarden the final stage of the day was pretty much dry. You can imagine my surprise when at the end of Leg 1 I checked my times to discover than I’d won every stage of the day and had pulled a gap of nearly 1:30 to the second placed Subaru STi with the Beable GTR in 3rd a few seconds behind!
Leg 2 - Georgetown
Leg 3 - Launceston
The unreliable weather forecast worked in our favour when the rain we had expected didn’t eventuate, waking to clearing skies for an early 8am report time to the Silverdome. It was a fantastic day of driving including the classic stages of Cethana and Riana. We started the 38km Cethana stage 30 seconds behind the Beable GTR and managed to catch him 7 and a half minutes into the stage. We were caught behind him for 20+ seconds after Dennis hit the push to pass button on the RallySafe.
Leg 4 - Burnie
After a chilly start we continued our good form in dry conditions winning all the morning stages before lunch. After lunch, the weather started to close in but didn’t bucket down until after the glorious 20 odd km stage of Hellyer Gorge. We had a great run through Hellyer Gorge but the Subaru STi of Woodman / Towle pipped us by a second.
We were happy for them to have a win, they were great blokes and had firmly put themselves into second place with the Beable GTR in third. The last two stages were very wet and slippery and for the first time I felt nervous; gripping the steering wheel harder than normal but even though I was aware of it I couldn’t stop. The Subaru beat us over the last two wet stages of the day but we still increased our lead by 25 seconds for Leg 4 thanks to our great dry running before lunch.
At service in Strahan, Richie found a loose bolt in the rear suspension which could have contributed to my uneasy feeling in the last couple of stages. That night at dinner Lee explained to me how Race traction worked with the car constantly sensing the grip levels available. He advised me to try using it in the wet.
Leg 5 - Strahan
It was great to have over a 4-minute lead with the wet conditions that had set in as we rolled into Strahan. It really took the pressure off knowing that we didn’t have to push as we had a comfortable buffer. With 3 days of rallying under my belt I was getting more confidence in the car in the variable conditions we had experienced. We left a wet Strahan in the morning with the iconic Queenstown aka ’99 bends’ as the second stage of the day. If ever there was a stage made for the Lotus this would be it – but unfortunately it was wet meaning we couldn’t attack it like we would in the dry. I decided to just enjoy the slippery conditions in Race mode, letting the car slide around a bit. We probably had a bit too much fun and ended up losing the stage by 1 second to the Beable GTR.
The epic 52.91km Mt Arrowsmith stage was next and even though it was still wet we really managed to get into the groove and put some more distance between us and the rest of the field. Unfortunately the Subaru STi of Woodman / Towle blew their engine on the next stage Tarraleah which saw them miss the rest of the day and fall from 2nd position to last place. Their misfortune was to the gain of the Martin Duursma & Richard Wodhams in their Lotus Exige V6 who went from a distant fourth to a solid 3rd on the podium. The last three stages of Leg 4 were dry and we increased our lead to over 8 minutes with only the final day’s 6 stages and 66km of competitive distance to complete.
Leg 6 - The last leg
The last day was all dry running and we continued with our ‘100% fun, 0% risk’ approach. It was great to see that our friends were back in their Subaru STi, they had put a new engine in overnight and were able to take the start for the final day of the event.
The only thing left for us to do was to see if we could stretch out the lead to more than 10 minutes. It worked out that we needed to pull ~2 seconds / km to get to the target, significantly more than the ~1 second / km we had been averaging for the first 5 days. We were doing more than that over the first few stages and after the second last stage of Cygnet we already had more than 10 minutes in hand
The next steps
I experienced mixed emotions coming to a stop after the end of Longley. It was great to seal the victory and take a clean sweep of the 6 stages on the final day but at the same time it was the end of driving free on some of the best roads in the world. I think I’ve found my calling as a driver, Targa Tasmania has won me over and I’ll definitely be back… just not sure where to take my driving from here. I’ll be competing at Targa High Country at Mt Buller later this year and there is a 4 round National Targa Championship that is going to be launched in 2018. There is also a revamped Rookie Rallye for first timers in the open (no speed limit!) competition that I would be eligible for.
I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what happens but one thing I can say for sure as I’m writing this post is that the ‘post-Targa blues’ as they call it have definitely set in and I’m already counting the days until next year’s event!