There is no sport more expensive than motorsport. Arguably, there is also no sport as thrilling as motorsport. Any human that has ever been in control of a car at its limits knows the joys and the sheer adrenaline that the experience brings. It’s an addictive activity, but for many it’s often done in a manner that is both illegal and rather dangerous.
Track days are fun, don’t get me wrong, but the idea of racing your own car flat out on twisty and mountainous public roads is rather appealing to any car enthusiast. The fact that you can do it legally is almost seemingly absurd. But that’s exactly what Targa events in Australia have offered for years. A chance to race along some of our great nation’s best roads legally and, more importantly, safely.
If you’ve been following our story of the Lotus Elise and its road to racing, you will know that I am prepping the car to run at Targa High Country in November. The reason for this is – frankly – to see if I am actually any good at driving fast. I have never really put myself out there in a competitive manner against others who are keen to beat me. Sure, I have done hundreds of track days and find myself driving as fast as humanly possible at least once a week – for work purposes, of course – but nothing is the same when there are others who want to be faster than you.
As a warm-up event, I decided to do Targa Great Barrier Reef as tour leader for Lotus Australia. For two reasons: one, because this was the very first time North Queensland was getting the event; and two, the roads up there are truly spectacular.
The Targa Tour is a strange and potentially confusing category, though these days it encompasses the largest number of entrants in Targa. According to the actual written rules, Targa Tour drivers are meant to go the ‘posted speed limit’… Which is rather humorous because why would you enter Targa and go the speed limit? Sure, the roads are closed, and hence you can use it all up, but really, if you were going the speed limit you wouldn’t need the road closed and you may as well just drive the roads on your own time.
The reality, thankfully, is rather different as there is a soft (or hard, depending on who you ask) speed limit of 130km/h for Targa Tour vehicles. This is monitored using a rally-safe device that is fitted to the car. If you go over the 130km/h limit, someone is meant to come and give you a warning and a talking to. The key words there being ‘meant to’.
If you’ve never done a Targa event before, the tour is the absolute best place to start. It’s a safe environment whereby you can join one of the many companies that run tour events and drive to your limits. It also means you don’t have to put a rollcage in your vehicle and comply with other CAMS requirements.
In most cases, cars are divided into groups based on their drivers' willingness for speed. Tour groups are also moved around if one tends to be catching the other, as we found ourselves doing with the group in front of us more often than not.
For those that have always wanted to do some enthusiastic driving and are after a purpose-built vehicle for the task, you know by now our recommendation is the Lotus Elise. So much so that we bought one for this exact reason – not only for track driving, but also for Targa. At around $100K new and delivered, there’s really not much else out there that will give you the same level of competitiveness both on-track and at Targa events like this. It’s a purpose-built race car that you just happen to be able to drive on the road.
But the beauty of buying a Lotus in Australia is not just limited to the car, it’s the community and manufacturer support. From constant track days at the best tracks around Australia to a full support crew at every Targa event, Lotus vehicles in Australia are imported by Simply Sports Cars – which is a very different kind of automotive distributor than your typical sales and marketing company.
Having visited its offices a few times, there’s no-one wearing suits and we are yet to hear any nonsensical marketing speech about how buying a Lotus is a lifestyle choice that empowers the owner to embrace their new synergetic lifestyle of passion and enthusiasm. None of that rubbish. This is one distributorship that is actually run by car enthusiasts and racers who also compete in Targa and track events. I would liken the operation to a hobby for extreme Lotus fanatics, but that would be a discredit to the highly professional men and women who run the place.
So, if you own a Lotus and haven’t done a Targa event, you really need to. But if you don’t own a Lotus and are thinking about buying one, it’s events like this and all the manufacturer support that comes with it that really should push you over the line.
Of course, other brands such as Ferrari and Porsche also run organised events at Targa and regular track days, but while there were plenty of Porsches in this year’s Targa Great Barrier Reef Tour category (many of whom were very much holding us up), there were just eight competing in our Lotus tour, led by yours truly.
I should point out at this stage that I have been to Cairns and Port Douglas a dozen times. It’s a beautiful part of Australia and one that every Australian should at least visit once. One of the great things about doing Targa Tour is that you don’t really need a proper navigator, which means you can take your significant other or one of the older kids along. As this year’s event was being held over Father’s Day, there were numerous father-and-son teams enjoying the tour (you can indeed change drivers at any point between stages).
Although my sons would absolutely love to do this with me – in fact, my six-year-old is karting so regularly now that he can definitely beat me in a fair fight – they don’t allow booster seats in Targa. So, initially my thought was to take my wife as my navigator and maybe even get her to drive a stage or two.
However, given that in our almost 10 years of being together she has consistently refused to get in the car with me when I have been going fast, and that I tend to refer to her as the 'human handbrake' for the constant screaming and nagging whenever the right foot is applied, we thought it would be a recipe for divorce. In saying that, there are plenty of couples that compete together in all categories. As such, I managed to convince the events manager at Simply Sports Cars that she has a more than 50 per cent chance of surviving a Targa event with me.
This year’s event ran from Friday to Sunday, but realistically you need to be there from the Thursday morning for scrutineering and registration. We flew in Thursday morning and left Sunday afternoon, with all the actual work of getting the cars there and ready done by Lotus.
The only thing you can really criticise of this year’s Targa Great Barrier Reef was that it felt slightly disorganised on the Targa side. The majority of the folks that staff the tents at each stage’s start and finish line are volunteers, and given this was the first event many of them had ever done, some of the ‘hurry up and wait’ was fair enough.
In saying that, my biggest annoyance with Targa Great Barrier Reef this year was that no-one told me how amazing the roads were going to be before we went through! Probably my mistake for not checking more thoroughly, but to put it simply, Cairns has some of the best roads I have ever driven anywhere in the world – even compared to the majority of the well-known roads through Europe. It’s on par with sections of the famous – but significantly longer – Targa Tasmania.
As a nation, we are definitely missing out on tourism from a car enthusiast perspective (though you can argue that unlike Europe, the police here don’t take kindly to ‘driving tourism’). The highlight was Gillies Range, which was literally the second stage of the whole event and remained my favourite throughout. An absolutely spectacular stretch of road that had me grinning from ear to ear as we stormed through at maximum pace.
If you’re not an early riser, the 6am wake-up calls three days in a row will take some getting used to, but it’s worth it once you get out on the road. You can find the full route for this year’s event online, but for us, the event got started at Greenhill before going up the already mentioned Gillies Range. If we could just do that section of the road for three days straight, it would be three days well spent.
From there, we headed into Atherton and then carried out one of many transport stages down Gillies Range (which is rather strange, having just competed on the same stretch of road) and on to Lake Morris Road that led to our first run up to Copperlode Dam. From the top, you come back down – this proved a tad annoying as lunch was factored in, and all cars needed to get to the dam before the first cars could leave to go back down, which meant we stayed stationary for close to three hours.
Day two saw us heading towards Upper Barron and through Lake Eacham and Glen Allyn in both directions before competing through Lake Morris Road in both directions. And on the last day, we drove through the Kuranda Range and to and from Malanda and Moregatta before finishing off in Cairns from 2:30pm.
On all three days, there was both a morning tea and lunch stop, and Cairns put on an amazing show by having the cars parked right along the beach for a public event on the Saturday night. That led to thousands of families and enthusiasts enjoying the race cars and chatting to the drivers.
At the end of each and every stage, there was a Lotus crew waiting to support the cars if anything had gone wrong. For those competing, this can be a lifesaver. For us Tour folks, it was more about getting some cold drinks and having the brakes and tyres checked frequently.
All in all, doing a Targa Tour is the perfect way to get some experience in what it’s like to actually go flat out on a public stretch of road. Of course, you can ask to be put in the back and drive at your own pace if you find it hard to keep up. But for those that have some experience and want to take it to the next level, this is an ideal way to both see a location and enjoy some spectacular driving experiences.
Like other manufacturers, Lotus in Australia offers the Targa Tour as a package for customers. The retail price to do the tour (excluding the cost of transporting your car to Cairns) was $5500 including GST. The cost covered:
- Two people’s entry to the event
- Pre-event information night for tips and tricks
- 5 nights of accommodation, all meals and beverages (including alcohol at dinners)
- Driving shirt (for driver and navigator)
- Decals for the car (applied by the support crew)
- Full maintenance and support from the Lotus crew
- Refuelling strategy and where necessary actual refuelling
- Dedicated Lotus Tour lead car and personnel to guide you through the event
- End of day car washing
The same tour is offered at Targa High Country in Mt Buller. That one costs $4500 including GST. If you really want to have a good time, there is also Targa Tasmania Lotus Tour.
As I said at the very beginning, motorsport isn’t cheap, but for three days of thrills around some of the most spectacular roads you will ever come across, it’s actually a relative bargain.
As far as insurance goes, bet on the fact that your car is completely uninsured for a Targa event. Even in Tour. If you’re paranoid, it's best to get separate insurance just for the event, otherwise I would highly recommend you look into some sort of protection for the car’s paintwork, because it will get pelted and you will 100 per cent damage the paintwork.
Our Lotus has a full Halo cover on it, which is a spray-on layer of paint that sits on top of the existing factory paint. Kind of like a wrap 2.0, except you can get it in any colour and it looks like paint. In fact, in our case it looks better than the original paint, and if you don’t like it, it literally peels off. A full story on Halo soon.
For now, though, we head into Targa High Country with great enthusiasm.
Photos by Angryman photography