Luck was with the winners of this year’s Targa Rotorua tarmac motor rally, Leigh Hopper and co-driver Michael Goudie. At least it was for all but the last few metres of the two-day/320km event, held in and around the southern and eastern Waikato and Rotorua regions over the weekend.
Where number one seeds Jason Gill and Mark Robinson had a gearbox problem with their Mitsubishi Evo 9 – literally – just after the start at Rydges Rotorua hotel on Saturday morning, Hopper and Goudie had a dream run in their earlier model Mitsubishi Evo 3- until the last two stages on Sunday.
On Saturday the pair, from Orewa north of Auckland, won all six timed stages to lead their class and the event outright.
After repairing his car, Gill was back in the event, and won five of the six stages on Sunday. But by always finishing just a place or two behind, Hopper and Goudie were able to maintain their class and outright leads and win the event by just over a minute from multi-time Targa New Zealand event winners Tony Quinn and Naomi Tillett (Nissan GT-R35), and gravel rally star Chris West and co-driver Chris Cobham (Mitsubishi Mirage Evo).
Quinn and Tillett could, however, have inherited the win had the Hopper Mitsubishi not – just – got he and Goudie back to the finish line at Ridges Rotorua hotel’s forecourt.
“We blew a head gasket on the second to last stage,” Hopper told the crowd of well-wishers at the finish. “Fortunately we had a service stop between it and the last stage so we flushed what was left of the coolant in the system, put some Bars Leaks in it, and backed off the boost and the pace to hopefully get us home.”
It was a strategy that worked – just. The car got to the ceremonial Targa arch and was flagged home for a finish, but would not restart and had to be pushed to its pit bay in the hotel car park.
For five-time former Targa NZ winner Tony Quinn and four-time co-winning co-driver Naomi Tillett the event was a case of ‘close but no cigar.’
“Look I enjoyed it,” said Quinn, “but you know, maybe I started my run too late? If this was a main Targa look where I’d be on the third day. Leigh would be out, Jason would have too big a deficit to make up and I’d be in the box seat. But I don’t know, I just felt awkward in the car on the first day. The stages were good but perhaps some of them were not appropriate for a car as big as the GT-R.”
Jason Gill and Mark Robinson, meanwhile, were philosophical about their early exit on Saturday yet pace-setting speed on Sunday.
“That’s motor racing,” Gill said at the prize-giving. “You have to take the good with the bad. It just means we have to come back next year.”
The annual two-day Targa Rotorua event attracted 59 starters across three competitive classes, plus 25 entries in the allied Targa Tour category.
Dunedin pair Martin Dippie and Jona Grant made the long trip north worthwhile with a dominant win in the Global Security Modern 2WD class and fourth place overall in Dippie’s new Porsche GT3 RS.
Dippie and Grant topped their class in three of the six stages on Saturday and all six on Sunday to claim a comprehensive class win from fellow stage class winner, Tauranga ace Simon Clark and co-driver Richard Raglan in Clark’s own new car, a 2015 BMW M3 Turbo, and a hard driving Clark Proctor and co-driver Sue O’Neill in Proctor’s old-skool Nissan V6-turbo engined Ford Escort.
The event could prove to be a pivotal one for the hi-tech new-wave cars like Dippie’s Porsche and Clark and fellow Saturday class stage winner Matt Todd’s similar BMW.
“Happy to finish,” said Proctor, “but at the same time a bit disappointed at our finishing position. Not that third is to be scoffed at but it is really apparent now that the bar has been lifted with these late model supercars which are now in the same class as us. While I have always backed myself that I could keep up with them…………we can in the dry, but as soon as the weather is a little bit inclement or the road is greasy or wet, with all the electronic aids they have, we just can’t do it.”
Meanwhile long-time Targa event supporters Andy Mygind and Anthony Baker from Auckland claimed a popular win in their Datsun 240Z in the Metalman Classic 2WD class after a three-way battle with the BMW 325i of Rex McDonald and late-call co-driver David Dixon, and the Peugeot 205 GTi of Paul McCulla and Andrew McLean.
Early on in the event the Metalman class was the closest and most competitive it has been in years, with at least three other pairings – Taranaki duo Michael Jury and Steve Hildred in Jury’s Holden VL Commodore, Rick Finucane and Derek White from Whakatane in a Toyota MR2, and Pat and Toni Dillon from Wanganui in Dillon’s low-line Ford Anglia – buying into the fight for a spot on the class podium.
All, however, struck mechanical problems of one sort or another. Rex McDonald’s was relatively minor (a fuel relay came loose yet stranded him in the final Saturday stage) but after winning two of the stages on Saturday he and Dixon were the pair who looking most likely to challenge Mygind and Baker.
Five more class stage wins on Sunday underlined his pace but he couldn’t haul back enough time to get further up the order than second.
Targa event identity, and former Rotorua man, Mike Lowe and co-driver Phillip Sutton had what Lowe described as ‘an event of two-halves’ in their distinctive Enzed Fiat Abarth Assetto Corse, finishing 10th in class and 20th overall.
“People were telling me on Saturday how to drive the car with the new, bigger, turbo and it just wasn’t working for me on,” he explained. “On Sunday I drove it like I drove the old car – wringing its neck – and I think we both felt much better! We still have some issues with tyre wear, but I am much happier after setting some competitive times today.”
Another Targa regular, Eddie Grooten with son Ben alongside, was another to have two very different days, rolling his Porsche 911 down a bank early on the first day but, after being able to get it back on the road and repaired later in the day, was third in class in four of the stages on Sunday and second in one of the others.
“I had to get back on the horse,” he laughed. “And today (Sunday) was definitely a better day than yesterday.”
Also impressing again with his speed and technique on tarmac was Eddie’s other son Tom in the turbocharged Mazda MX5-engined Toyota Starlet he debuted in Targa Bambina earlier in the year.
A former winner of the Castrol BMW E30 circuit class scholarship, Grooten Jnr (with fellow rookie Andy Bowie co-driving) was always nibbling away at the top ten in the Global Security Modern 2WD class, ending up a frankly incredible sixth in class and 11th overall, sandwiched in the latter case, between the Subaru WRX 4WD and Nic de Waal and Natasha Oakden and the Mitsubishi Evo 10 4WD of Brian Green and Fleur Pedersen!
As far as Targa debuts go rookie Joe Kouwenhoven and car-building co-driver Carl Hannaford were another combination to do well, starting conservatively in Kouwenhoven’s state-of-the-art Nissan GT-R35 and getting quicker as the weekend went on to eventually finish a very respectable seventh in class and 13th overall.
Leigh Hopper won his first Targa Rotorua event with son Gray co-driving, in 2011, and his second – with Simon Kirkpatrick reading the notes – in 2013.
He and Kirkpatrick also won the three-day Targa North Island event which ended in Rotorua in 2014.
Targa New Zealand events are organised with the support of sponsors AndrewSimms.co.nz, Chicane Racewear, Ecolight, Global Security, Kids In Cars, Metalman.co.nz, NZ Classic Car magazine, Race Brakes, Racetech, TeamTalk, TrackIt and VTNZ.