Inside Targa Great Barrier Reef

Put your Ferrari to the test with some closed-road tarmac racing in Far North Queensland.

By Richard Clune 09/07/2021

This piece has stuttered into being a few times now.

Originally written and then held over in light of Targa’s 2020 Covid cancellation, the key was recently turned ahead of this year’s Great Barrier Reef event.

But then Tasmania (the famed tarmac rally’s debut destination and forever its spiritual home) came to be.

It was on Friday April 24 of this year that news landed of the passing of Targa veteran Shane Navin—killed in competition in a rollover on the Lyell Highway in the state’s remote west.

With the event still heavily enveloped in shock and mourning at his death, less than 24 hours later Leigh Munday and Dennis Neagle were killed when their 2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS hit a tree near Cygnet, in southern Tasmania.

Three fatalities in a day. An awful loss that has now brought to five those taken in Targa since its 1992 inception.

With enquiries pending into the tragedies that framed this year’s racing, there have been many questions raised about the tarmac rally’s future.

Still, regardless how strong the chorus of discontent—and these are choirs led, largely, by those unfamiliar with things automotive—Targa must remain. It is an experience unlike any other, each participant aware of the risk faced; and those lost are taken while doing something they passionately pursued. And so, in paying our respects to those drivers and co-pilots who will sadly never return, this piece again lurches off the line …

“You will be driving some of the world’s best roads.’

So stated the third line of the sixth slide of the driver briefing, held in the bland ballroom of a Cairns hotel.

‘Savour every moment—this is a rare privilege,’ chimed the next line of that same presentation. You can read these words on a screen and listen as they’re repeated by a portly man in a polo who’s done this many times—and yet you’ll still fail to fully realise all that’s to come. Because there’s no real way to completely relay the emotive experience that is piloting a car in Targa.

The closed-road tarmac event that wraps around the twisty tropics of Far North Queensland launched in 2018 as an addition to the acclaimed series that sprints across Tasmania and also Victoria (Targa High Country). It’s been growing steadily since (Covid not withstanding) as more come to understand the immaculate roads and driving on offer—so too the warming sun and dry conditions that frame the annual September event.

Our gifted Targa Great Barrier Reef entry was in the so-called ‘tour’ event. It meant a chance to belt along the same challenging stages as the Targa tarmac rally, albeit in a non-competitive manner.

Given that our gilded invitation arrived from Ferrari Australia, it also meant our three-day romp would be behind the wheel of an Italian supercar, alongside proud Prancing Horse owners pushing their personal steeds in an embrace of closed-road adventure rarely afforded.

To be completely honest, our ride wasn’t quite as envisaged. Among a collective that included a stunning 812 Superfast, 488 Pista, 488 Spider and Novitec-equipped (read: bonkers) Lusso, our silver Portofino first appeared a little, well, pedestrian.

But then you pull your head in and realise that this is still a Ferrari—a machine from Maranello and one that not only (rightly) banished the California to the annals of ‘never again’ but a car that still packs a 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 producing a more than healthy 441 kW and 760 Nm.

Each Targa morning begins early and with a breath test—yes, no boozy backpacker-esque Cairns escapades here. Blow over and you’re out for the day. Your navigator/co-driver too.

Once into the cars—each grouped as ‘packets’ behind an allocated tour leader who can generally drive at speed—it’s a short meander to the day’s stages and then an opportunity to unfurl and unleash; to push yourself and the car and use more of the road than most will ever experience on public highways.

If the Portofino proved a surprise, then so too, we’ll admit, did some stretches of the 800 kilometres of tarmac mapped out for racing. Where Cairns feels largely trapped in an early ’90s touristy hell—architecture/fashion/facilities/wine lists—the regional roads proved incredibly attractive.

Flying up and down stages such as the Gillies Range, Copperlode Dam, Lake Morris and Kuranda Range is to be wrapped in moments of true and unfettered automotive joy. Diving in and out of tight back-to-back turns, holding high revs, shaking the rear while pursuing that of the car in front— at the same time dancing with the blurred scenery and stirring mental thoughts about the aftermath of getting it wrong.

Targa, in the tropics, in a Ferrari—this is a buzz of incredible purity and allure.

It’s at this point we should mention the RallySafe unit locked in each car and which, it could be argued, made an unnecessary racket in its pursuit of driver restraint. Locked to a 120 km/h limit, the device bleats on anything ascendent. My co-driver (an accomplished motorist, automotive journalist and successful entrepreneur) and I each squeezed its lungs at various times, copping a couple of bollockings from our tour leader and rally officials in the process, because, yes, all data actually makes its way back to the organisers.

While such speeds may read as limiting, most stages, especially mountainous roads signposted at 60 km/h, offer an incredible level of enjoyment at this pace (and, well, slightly beyond).

Even if Covid’s claws have ripped much apart during the past 14 months, the prospect of making memories through unique experiences has led many to embrace opportunities that sit well beyond the episodes of everyday. And it’s this that Targa offers. And in spades.

Because what is supercar ownership if not to experience the true splendour of such a machine—to feel its force, power and agility; something more emotive than just another Sunday coffee club.

This is what propelled these impassioned Ferrari owners to Targa Great Barrier Reef and a tour experience that also comes neatly packaged with superior accommodation and meals far removed from hotel bain-maries.

By the end of the event, and a closing stage that meant a cheer from the gathered Cairns crowd on completion, each participant was smacked by a firm smile that spoke of an adventure like no other; men and women who, like us, had been fortunate enough to encounter what really is a ‘rare privilege’ and the chance to pursue ‘some of the world’s best roads.’

Targa Great Barrier Reef, September 3-5. For more details on Ferrari’s involvement in this year’s rally, please contact Ferrari Brisbane on (07) 3853 0125;
sales@ferraribrisbane.com

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