It’s the 27th of December and it’s 4:30 am with my alarm going off. For most people over Christmas, it means lying in and lazy days but not for us- its Targa time again. This time it’s the “UAC It’s not the Boxing Day rally” if there is a Targa to do all year, this is the one!!!! To give you an idea how popular this event is, it filled its 140 entries in 19 hours with reserves!!!! Now that must be a record.

I was entered to do the TDC Autosolo in Holfield’s the day before but due to a bad flu I was stuck in bed (as we know, most of the country seems to have got it this Christmas) I normally use this event as a warm up to the Targa the next day. So with the alarm going off at 4:30am I dragged myself out of bed not feeling too bright or enthusiast about doing the event and off we went with my dad driving up in our Starlet (Merlin engine of course). We are one of the few crews from down south who don’t trailer our car up and down to the event.


On the back roads to the Targa’s New HQ this year, Edenmore Golf Club, we were slipping and sliding, hand brake here and handbrake there- before we even got there. We knew the start of the Targa was going to be interesting to say the least with all the ice that was around. Anyway, Scrutineering was very well organised and we got through quickly with no problems then documentation- again no hassle and with the entries being full, we were split into two groups 1-70 and 70-140. 1-70 starting at Test 1 and the second group starting on Test 7. We got breakfast included in our entry, and took full advantage of it. Pity my taste buds were lacking, as it looked really good on the plate!

My dad started sorting out the paperwork while I went and got the car ready for the day ahead. He came out to me shortly afterwards leaving half the paperwork in the clubhouse but luckily, he noticed we had a flat on the front! As you can imagine, it was panic stations with only 10 minutes before our scheduled start time. As we were late getting to the starter, we pushed our way past a few competitors and slotted in behind Frank Lenehan-  11th on the road (We were seeded 8th for the rally, behind some very competitive competition!)

We got to Test 1 “Stoneyford Concrete”. I had an idea of this test from last year and knew it was like sheet ice on the best of days so with ice it was interesting to say the least. We got through it cleanly which is the main thing as mistakes this early on are very hard to come back from.

Test 2 “Jordan’s Concrete”. Again, like Test 1, very slippy but with a nice open gravel section halfway through which you could really get going on, but had to be cautious coming back onto the ice. At the end of the test, we felt I could have pushed a bit more but discovered I was 8 seconds quicker than Damien Mooney who is the man on form at the minute- which was a big shock.

Test 3 “Hillview”. This starts off in mud but you pop onto concrete halfway through I had a close call with a house (!) but got away with it by millimetres but then messed up my braking into the stop box and lost a few seconds.

Test 4, 5 and 6 were more like autotests- tight and compact with accuracy being the key to getting a quick time. All went well, but I was sweating in the car now with the flu. I wasn’t  feeling great, but the adrenaline was pumping so kept going.

Onto Test 7 and this is where we get a break from being the first few onto the test at this stage 60 cars had passed through, so ice wasn’t going to be a problem and therefore we should be able to catch up on time as we were now running 4th on the road. Unfortunately, water was at the start causing flooding so off the startline and straight through what only could be described as a deep river. Flat in 1st, wipers at full speed, wheels spinning and we’re through, then up a narrow muddy lane, up to 3rd gear at this stage and we’re through the test. At the end we were told we had got the fast time of the day. I was starting to get the feeling I might be doing well but the flu was keeping me from thinking too much- I was trying to stay focused and awake.

Test 8 was a another short Autotest type which I enjoyed as it was flowing.

Test 9 “Hallstown”. This is very well known test and requires a brave pill half way through! You start in a farmyard full of slippy concrete with barns to get around and then it’s onto a muddy lane where its flat- if you’re brave enough! The Starlet had other ideas however, and we got into a big tank slapper, all I could hear was my Dad saying “Keep her flat Rob, that’s it!” and then “Oh sh*t!” followed by “Well done Rob, that was close, now 90 left don’t cut!”  Phew, we kept it out of the ditch and had another quick time to our credit.

Tests 10 and 11 were straightforward tests on tarmac and concrete so no real dramas to speak of. I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were actually leading the rally at that stage. That, however  was all about to change….

Test 12 The test where I wish I had Ice Notes!! The start was a complicated set of cones which I got perfectly but then came THE chicane. I didn’t realise how icy and tight it was, and to make it worse it was laid out using concrete blocks. I came in all locked up. I was trying my best to pump the brakes to stop the Starlet but once again, she was having none of it so up came the handbrake and before we know it I’m sliding backwards down the stage. We somehow managed to slide through the only gap in the concrete blocks- now facing the wrong way! I got it going again but on the exit of the chicane I got a little brave and clipped a concrete block which again sent us tank slapping all the way to the finishline!  Even the official was laughing his head off when Dad let down the window. We lost 15 seconds in this stage due to our error but only fell back to 2nd place overall by 1 second.

No Lunch on this rally due to lack of daylight hours so just a repeat of the 12 tests again.

I had calmed down a bit due to test 12 but was still pushing where I could get away with it. That was until Test 19 “Broomhedge”. Off the line, through the river as before and into a slight left then a left and right into 3rd gear and this, as they say,  is where it all went wrong! The steering knob on my steering wheel (which is plastic) exploded in my hand on the second left. I had to let go of the wheel due to the pain of the sharp plastic piercing my hand and straight into the hedge, gate and then ditch and then we bounced back out with a very bent Starlet. All I could hear was my dad shouting “Go go go go and sure enough I was flat again with a driver’s wing pointing out 90 degrees to the car. Got to the finish with steam pouring out of the ca,r not knowing what damage had been done and I couldn’t even get my door open. I hopped out the passenger side and had a look. It wasn’t that bad said my Dad- typical him as he didn’t have to fix it! I got the spanners out and stripped the wing off the car, pushed the headlight back on and a few cable ties later, we are back on the road but the tracking was definitely out!!! “I think she’s had enough” said my Dad, “Do you want to retire Rob?”  No, I said we’ve come this far and we’re not giving up now, “100%” said my Dad, “100%”. I lost 5 seconds due to our little off and fell to 4th overall.

I finished off the last 4 stages with a cloth over the smashed steering knob trying to steer our Merlin Starlet. I had to change my driving style due to my hand and no steering knob which involved a lot more of the handbrake being used and trashing the engine by using 1 lower gear than usual!!!!

We got back to HQ and after a few mishaps during the day we thought we wouldn’t be in with a chance of doing well. So we waited for it to get a little dark, due to having to drive our damaged Starlet home! 165 miles to go, with no front wing and mud everywhere-  Dad drove her home. Once back in Dublin, I checked the results and we had finished 4th overall- only 14 seconds off the winner! I was well chuffed with the result after the eventful day we had. The next day though,  I could not stop thinking the next day about the 20 seconds we had lost through the day. We had won our class which made up for it!

Well done to Sam Wilson on winning the event in his Mini, but it was a close call as himself and Damien Mooney (Saxo) were split on exactly the same time but unfortunately for Damien, Sam had more quickest times therefore been handed the win. Mind you, Sam started near last, therefore avoiding the ice that the top ten had to deal with- which included Damien. Robert Woodside finished 3rd  in his MR-2, only 1 second off the winning time. Just one minute covered the top 13 cars- that’s how close it was!

Until next time,

Rob and Johnny

Header image from Leslie McMullan.

All other images from Peespeed Photography.