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INSIDE LINE- Targa Time, with Robert (& Johnny) Whelan!

Firstly, I want to dedicate this blog to the late Cecil Sparks

Well, what a weekend we had in England at wat was my first Targa rally across the water. The one & only Complete Rally Services Challenge run by Chelmsford Motor Club. Irish entries consisted of Eamonn Byrne, myself, Christopher Evans and John O Reilly- driving 2 Toyota Starlets and 2 Mazda MX-5s

Before we go any further I think I should probably explain what a Targa Rally is First.

It’s very similar to an actual rally- just on a smaller scale. The tests must have an average speed of 30mph and you normally do 18 tests in the Rally. They are held in private farms, fields and lanes. You are not allowed to recce the tests but are given pre printed maps of the tests (a good navigator is handy). Cars must be road legal with Valid NCT/MOT.

This Rally had 24 Tests- 60 competitive miles (that’s at least 3 Targa rallies rolled into 1). It was a challenge I had to accept, especially going up against the best in England.

The Rally didn’t start on a good note, Nick Sparks, navigating for John O Reilly, came to the event knowing his father Cecil had just passed away but decided to race on in memory of his Dad.

We arrived at Lynford Hall Hotel for Scrutineering and documentation on the Saturday evening, I got the car off the trailer and off to scrutiny we went, this is when I realised this is a serious event first we met the noise police, then we moved onto the tyre police recording what tyres were on the car and the spares we were carrying ( I must add we are only allowed road going tyres. No competition tyres are allowed on Targa Rallies) and then onto mechanical scrutiny where 4 scrutineers dived onto the car to check it over. Thankfully a bit of Irish charm and bit of yellow tape for the negative cable on the battery  and we had a signed scrutiny sheet in our hands. With documentation done, it was off to the pub for the evening for food and some tactics.

So onto Sunday morning and Test 1. This was set In the grounds of Lynford Hall Hotel-  a short loop twice with a control check point. Not being used to same, my Dad John started chatting to the guy at the control whilst I lit up the tyres leaving him a split second to grab back the paperwork to finish the stage!! 2 seconds quicker than Eamonn was the result, and unusually, 7 seconds quicker than Chris (who by the way was only getting used to his newly liveried race car- his go faster stripes having been taken off the car due to technical reasons). John O’ Reilly was also getting used to his new surroundings and was only 10 seconds behind Chris.

On test 2, Eamonn clawed the 2 seconds back over a more difficult stage with the introduction of code boards- again something Dad was not used to and would have to learn- quickly!! Chris however was quickest this time, 2 seconds quicker than Eamonn, John O’ Reilly equalled Eamonn’s time, meaning all 4 of us Irish teams were in the top ten !!

Before Test 3, I had a quiet word with my navigator which resulted in quickest time- or so we thought.  However Eamonn was after us and knocked 5 seconds off our time and topped the time sheets to boot!! We did however have a big moment mid-way through which would catch up with us later on, Chris was 2 seconds behind us and John lost a further 10 seconds, but was still in the hunt.

Test 4. This was the longest at 3.3 miles and 7min 41sec later we blitz this tough test taking 3rd fastest test time, again with a couple of dodgy moments but still in one piece. Yet again Eamonn took 3 seconds out of us, code boards appeared to be the issue we think!! Explanation- “navigator has to turn 180 and read a code board backwards and write same down!” John lost a further 17 seconds, however Chris lost 3 more than John, the MX-5s have to run a hard top so not the easiest to see out the back of.

Test 5 Again a long test- we did go the wrong way around a cone (my fault!) however we topped the timesheets with a 4.27, Eamonn came in at 5.11, Chris 5.13 and John 6.23 with an overheating engine. With going the wrong way around the cone though, a time penalty would be added to my time. A unique thing to Targa rallies is that if you don’t follow the route intended there are time penalties.

Test 6 This was a simple enough test compared to the last few, Chris fastest on a 1.56 followed by me on a 2.01, Eamonn 2.04, and John 2.14.

Test 7 This is where my day took a turn for the worse, I had a massive moment during the stage I hit a massive bump which sent us flying into the air and towards some trees. Somehow I kept it out of the ditches but then kept my eye on the oil light as it was a hard landing- even with a sump guard. After 50m or so I knew we were ok, and pushed on again. Eamonn took the honours on a 4.46, me next on a 4.50, then Chris 4.54, and John 5.02. Things were not all rosy however, as we had completely broken our exhaust system just after the manifold.  A clean break and nothing to fix it with! Or so we thought…….

Test 8 We waited our 30 minutes late time and decided to start the 8th Test even though we had no chance of surviving same, we did complete the test via a short cut but we had no choice with our exhaust hanging dangerously low we couldn’t do anything at speed. We did get a time however it was only a matter of time before we got hit with a penalty for same.

At this stage I just knew I couldn’t give up after travelling this far for the rally and got the car jacked up at the start of stage 9 and just waited till a very nice crew in car no 58 who had cable ties.  “Yes,  I’ll have all of them please” and under the car I went…..

Test 9 We dropped down to 64th seeding but took our starting place. Nothing to lose so pedal to the metal and all that and hey presto 3.01, Eamonn was quickest on a 2.57 but given what was holding us together, we were happy with that. Chris came in on a 3.00 dead, John 3.11

Test 10- Out with the jack again and 4 more cable ties later- 3.13 and fastest overall, this was a challenging test due to the map diagram being a rough drawing. To make things even worse, it was through a mustard field where the crops were taller than the car, so you couldn’t even look on to see where you were going! Chris was 1 second behind, Eamonn 5 seconds adrift, whilst John did 3:26.

Test 11 The last of our cable ties went on and the result? Fastest time again, 6.11! I couldn’t hear my navigator at this stage yet I put my fastest times in- Hmmm interesting, lol!! Chris was 5 seconds adrift & Eamonn 8 seconds with John loosing 30 seconds with engine issues once again.

Test 12 We had to wait till car 72 came along with yes some wire, I installed same as best I could, we were outside our 30 minutes but we kept it going, 3.30 and yet again fastest overall Eamonn next 9 seconds adrift, Chris 14 seconds down and John losing 1.23

Test 13 Eamonn tops the sheets once again on a 4.11, Chris 15 seconds behind, me 18 and John losing 1 minute. I made a massive mistake at the end which cost me a lot of time hence being 18 seconds down to Eamonn.

Test 14 A very tricky test set in a farmers yard with only inches to spare between the steel pillars at times! We topped the times at 1.34, Chris 1 second behind, Eamonn lost 8 seconds and John a mere 2 seconds behind Eamonn.

Lunch time :   We knew we had chanced our luck and indeed we were lucky to be still in the rally, but the noise level and fumes were too much and The clerk of the course confirmed to us what we really knew anyway which was retirement. Also we had found out Christopher Evans had to deal with a small fire due to the straw getting into his sump guard and getting too hot beside the exhaust and also his hardtop roof trying to make a break for freedom, John O’Reilly had come up with a novel way to clean the straw off his radiator which involved his navigators tooth brush cabled tied onto a sweeping brush lol! And Eamonn had no problems to report.

The good news was that at that stage we were leading the Rally. However, with penalties applied for being over our time it was never going to happen along with Test 8 being maximised. Eamonn Byrne & Anthony Preston were never going to be beaten and indeed they won the event by 3 minutes! If I wasn’t going to win at least one of my Merlin engines did.

The Irish luck wasn’t shining on Chris Evans & Kevin Fagan either as they too fell fowl to the rules being excluded due to a slight paper work error.

John O Reilly & Nick Sparks came home with a 10th overall which Cecil would have been very proud of!  Till next time Its Robert & his Co- driver John saying “Take Up Targa Rallies they are brilliant!!”

Until the next time,

Rob Whelan

Cecil Sparks 1938 – 2017


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