When it was announced last year, the Targa Great Barrier Reef (Targa GBR) generated immediate interest. As the first event of its kind to be held in Queensland, specifically tropical Cairns, Targa GBR already had appeal.
And when organisers said the three-day tarmac rally would comprise more than 200km of competitive stages on some of the most exciting roads in Australia, that was enough of a hook to see more than 200 entrants sign up.
Held from 31 August to 2 September, the inaugural Targa GBR also served as Round 3 of the 2018 CAMS Australian Targa Championship, so it attracted big names in modern Australian tarmac rallying, like Jason White, Paul Stokell, Steve Glenney and Craig Dean of JUST CARS advertiser Mustang Motorsport in the front-running GT2 class. Familiar names in other classes included Ross Dunkerton (Subaru WRX STi - Early Modern), Tony Quinn (Porsche 996 Turbo – Early Modern) and Michael Bray (Holden Torana – Classic GT).
The event attracted a good representation of classics, too, with everything from a Fiat 131 Abarth Rallye, Austin-Healey 3000 BT7, Mk2 Escort, Alfa Romeo GTV6 and even a 1980 Datsun 1200 ute in the Classic Handicap class.
That class also included the oldest Targa GBR entrant in the form of the 1941 GMC ‘Jimmy Special’ of Graham Copeland and Josh Herbert. Copeland’s efforts at this year’s Targa Tasmania saw him leading his class coming into Targa GBR, but the 77-year-old GMC still needed a comprehensive rebuild – including sourcing new parts from the USA – to make the start in Cairns.
On the course itself, most of the stages were short but challenging, with some sections described as providing more corners per kilometre than Targa Tasmania. That would suit nimbler cars, like the Lotus Exige piloted by Stokell, but punish the brakes and tyres of bigger, heavier racers like White’s brawny Dodge Viper ACR. White would, however, have the advantage on areas of steep elevation and the course’s handful of long straights
Two preliminary runs through the 18-stage course were permitted for entrants to familiarise themselves with the roads and conditions ahead of competition, but no-one really came to the event with a strong advantage - White’s seven Targa Tasmania victories would count for little in tropical North Queensland!
Organisers aimed at making the event not only a challenge for racers, but a blast for spectators, too, with fan-friendly features including a Targa Expo at the Cairns Convention Centre and a ‘Targafest’ party on the Cairns Esplanade.
When the 215 starters gathered at the Cairns Reef Hotel Casino on 30 August for scrutineering, there was a feeling anything could happen. Here’s how the inaugural Targa GBR panned out…
DAY 1 The first day of the first Targa Great Barrier Reef opened with a ceremonial start outside the Cairns Convention Centre, then a short 6.01km opening stage at Green Hill before the first true test, the tight and twisty 19.47km Gillies Range run. Three more competitive stages would complete the opening day.
The Whites, driver Jason and navigating uncle John, had some trepidation ahead of the event, which proved to be well-founded on the narrow, challenging roads, but the Tasmanian pair nevertheless prevailed to take the class and overall lead by a slim margin at the end of the opening day. This year’s Targa Tasmania winners squeezed out an advantage of 17 seconds over the Lotus Exige of Stokell and his new co-driver Malcolm Read, replacing Erin Kelly
“As expected Gillies Range wasn’t so suited to what we thought, but we were very happy with the speed going up there,” Jason White said. “Inside the cabin and the tyres in the heat; everything was out of its comfort zone. All said, we were really happy with our run up Copperlode Dam. It was well beyond our expectations because that was where we thought the Lotus would be hunting.”
Finishing third in GT2 and overall, Jeff Morton and Cameron Reeves (Lotus Exige) were 36 seconds off the lead and 19 adrift of Stokell. Quinn ended Day 1 fifth overall behind the Shelby Mustang of Dean and leading the Dutton Garage Early Modern class by 32 seconds from the 1995 Nissan Skyline GT-R of Liam and Larry Howarth. Mark and Scott Meletopoulo, along with Mitchell and Darryl Ringuet, were flying the Lotus flag in GT Sports Trophy and finished the opening day 1-2 in that class.
Opening honours in GT4 went to Mark Balcombe and Brian Foster (2011 Nissan GT-R R35) by 24 seconds from Nathan and Nicolas Stokes (Subaru WRX STi), while John Coleman and David Richardson (Alfa Romeo GTV) ended the day with a lead of more than one minute over Tim and Kym Hall (Holden VB Commodore) in the Thoroughbred Trophy class.
In Shannons Classic GT, Michael and Daniel Bray went on the attack in their 1975 LH Torana to lead the way by 37 seconds from Daniel and Kristy Callinan (Holden VB Commodore), while the exotic 1972 DeTomaso Pantera of Daniel’s parents, Keith and Mary Anne Callinan, dropped out of second place in the class - and out of the event - following an incident late in the day.
All the prep work done by Copeland on his ’41 Jimmy Special came to naught when he also retired on the opening day, handing the Shannons Classic handicap lead to the 1961 Volvo 122S of Ashley Yelds and Charlie Hughes. Ensuring this class would be a contest, Leigh Achterberg and Greg Fitzgerald were only 14 seconds behind the Volvo in their 1982 Porsche 944
Finally, in the points-based TSD Trophy group, another Lotus, this time the Elise S of Peter and Tristan Taylor, finished on 4 points ahead of the 2002 Ford Falcon Pursuit ute of Daryl and Peter Marshall on 19 points, with Rob Bryden and Victor Lewandowski (Lotus 380 Cup) third on 31 points.
DAY 2 Despite energy-sapping heat, the White/White Dodge Viper managed to build on its opening day advantage over the Lotus Exiges. The extended lead, 45 seconds at the end of Day 2, was assisted by stages that suited the Viper’s superior horsepower, as well as an incident that forced Stokell’s Exige to slow down late in the day and drop to third overall behind Morton.
Thwarting the more nimble and agile Lotuses, the Tasmanian Viper crew said they’d take a defensive approach into the third and final day’s stages. However, with the final six stages totaling more than 111km - almost half the distance of the entire rally - they couldn’t afford to take it too easy.
The first stage tomorrow (Kuranda Range) is one we earmarked as our best chance and it really suits our Viper,” Jason White said. “But the rest of the stages up on the Atherton Tableland are very tight, narrow, tricky and treacherous, so we’ll have to work hard.”
Speaking after a frustrating day, Stokell conceded the Viper holds the trump cards with its prodigious grunt: “The Viper is a weapon and we’re struggling on anything which goes uphill. That’s showing on the times. “However we potentially could come away from this weekend with the outright and GT2 championship lead, so we’re playing the long game, really.”
Morton was rapt, saying he felt incredible after securing his first outright stage win in only his second tarmac rally. Holding his lead in the Dutton Garage Early Modern category at the end of Day 2, Quinn also moved to fourth outright ahead of Dean, but his margin to overall leader White had blown out to more than three minutes.
Balcombe and Foster remained the benchmark in GT4 on Day 2, dropping only one second of their Day 1 lead, despite some near off-track excursions. However, mistakes from the Stokes Subaru saw it drop to third in class behind Geoffrey and Toni Hewitt’s Nissan GT-R R35.
In GT Sports Trophy, the Meletopoulo’s Lotus held the advantage over Ringuet’s similar machine by 15 seconds, but Coleman and Richardson’s lead in the Thoroughbred Trophy class was slashed to just four seconds, with the Hall/Hall Commodore finishing the day nipping at the heels of the Alfa Romeo GTV and an upset brewing.
Choosing to run without pace notes, Coleman blamed himself for the result and expected to lose the class lead on Day 3. It was a similar result in Shannons Classic Handicap, with Yelds/Hughes (Volvo 122S) ending the day only four seconds ahead of Achterberg/Fitzgerald (Porsche 944).
In Shannons Classic GT, the Brays (Holden Torana) had a comfortable run, extending their Day 1 lead over the Downey/van den Akker Commodore to over a minute. In the TSD Trophy, the Marshalls (Ford Falcon Pursuit Ute) moved into the lead on 25 points ahead of the Taylors (Lotus Elise S) on 33 points.
DAY 3 To triumph in the inaugural Targa GBR, the Whites needed to only maintain the near-metronomic precision they had employed on the first two days, which they duly did to claim the GT2 class and overall win by 53 seconds.
Their cause was helped by the cancellation of the final two stages, but it’s unlikely this impacted the final result. “This was a really good event to challenge ourselves as it was a real level playing field with no-one having a home advantage,” White said after his win.
“Events like Targa Tasmania we’ve done over 20 times, so you get a bit familiar with the roads. No one was familiar the roads up here, so it was a very good equaliser and very close competition.” The Whites lost only three of sixteen stages on their way to victory, but each stage victory was only by a handful of seconds, showing how the tight, narrow roads of the Atherton Tablelands levelled the field.
That Lotus vs Lotus battle for the GT2 and overall runner-up spot eventually went the way of Stokell, but he and Morton traded places several times before Stokell’s experience saw him prevail by a mere six seconds. Stokell’s result also gives him a 36-point lead over White in the CAMS Australian Targa Championship ahead of the final round – Targa High Country - in Victoria in November.
“We were really up against it in the horsepower stakes, (but) we’ve taken the outright Championship lead, so we’ve had a good weekend,” Stokell said.
Off the podium, Quinn had crossed the finish line in fourth outright, but a mechanical problem on the transit back to Cairns saw him penalised five minutes and lose both his overall and class position; honours in Dutton Garage Early Modern defaulting to the Howarths and their Skyline GT-R.
GT4 saw Queenslanders Balcombe and Foster guide their 2011 Nissan GTR R35 to a reasonably comfortable victory over the similar machine of Geoff and Toni Hewitt, while the Meletopoulos Lotus Exige S took a 38 second victory in GT Sports Trophy over the Ringuet’s Exige Cup 350.
In Thoroughbred Trophy, Coleman’s prediction of a loss proved accurate; the Alfa eventually finishing well behind the Hall VB Commodore, with Tyson and Celise Cowie’s Mk1 Escort third in class. Shannons Classic GT saw the Brays keep on keeping on, holding off a fast-finishing Downey/van den Akker to claim another Targa class win, with the Porsche 916 of Ted Banks and Bruce Douglas completing the class podium.
“We had a minute and four seconds lead at the start of the day and by the time we got to lunch it was down to 29 seconds,” Michael Bray said. “We struggled in the winding stuff and made a poor tyre choice, but lucky for us the final two stages got cancelled.”
This win means Bray also leads the Classic category in the CAMS Australian Targa Championship on a perfect score of 240 points from three rounds. While the West Australian looks likely to take the title, a DNF at Targa High Country could see him lose out to second-placed Peter Gluskie.
In Shannons Classic Handicap, the Volvo vs Porsche scrap went right down to the wire, with the Yelds/Hughes 122S holding out the Achterberg/Fitzgerald 944 to by just 11 seconds.
“We really thought we didn’t have a chance in this event, so we’re a bit overwhelmed, to be honest,” Yelds said. “It was a challenging event and a lot of the stages were very technical - some of the stages were an event in themselves!”
TSD Trophy winners were the Marshalls (Ford Falcon Pursuit Ute) over the Taylors (Lotus Elise S), with the class podium completed by Rob Bryden and ‘Doc’ Lange (Lotus 380 Cup). With the inaugural Targa Great Barrier Reef a resounding success, planning for the 2019 event is already underway, scheduled for 30 August to 1 September, 2019.
Thanks to Targa Australia and Angryman Photography for assistance with this article.
Words: Mike Ryan, Photos: Angryman Photography