On Tuesday, 500 cars and 1000 drivers and co-drivers started the 30th running of Australian rallying’s equivalent of the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. Targa Tasmania is the world’s largest rally, roaming over 2000km of some of the most beautiful places on earth and definitely the best rally roads on this or any other planet. About 130 of the cars are serious competitors paying about $10k to be there. The rest pay about $6k to drive the Targa Tour on closed roads at no more than 120km/h.
Twenty-fours later three competition cars had crashed badly, one driver was dead and the competition section of Targa had been cancelled. The 59-year-old Brisbane driver had rally experience, had competed in Targa last year, was heavily involved in the sport and was a popular tarmac competitor. His wife was beside him in the car when it left the road on the Mt Roland stage, rolled down an embankment and hit a tree. She walked from the car and was kept in hospital overnight under observation. Rain had made the road very slippery and there was fog in one section.
As Wired’s Sam Smith wrote: “Rally drivers race on closed-off public roads. They run against the clock, one car at a time, on dirt, pavement and anything in between. They run in all weather, in virtually every country on the planet. The sport is a glorious, lovely thing, all noise and violence and sliding sideways between trees at 100mph. There is real, palpable risk and skill on display. You stand next to a closed-off rally road – they’re called “stages” – during competition, and it’s instantly obvious why people do this sort of thing.”
Like most motorsport, tarmac rallying is dangerous. So are ocean racing, snow skiing and competitive cycling. Thirty-five people died and 246 were seriously injured on Tasmanian roads last year. So far 10 have died this year. In 1998, in the ocean-racing version of Targa, the Sydney Hobart race, six sailors died and fifty-five were rescued in the largest peacetime search and rescue effort in Australian history. Both race organisers the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, and the coroner investigated the disaster and recommended significant changes.
In his report, NSW state coroner John Abernethy could have been talking about Targa when he wrote, commenting on the “innovative” changes made by the CYCA, “which in turn have made the running of this race much safer for its contestants”. He wrote: “Some of these changes, inflicted, as it were, on contestants have not been well received by a few, as being so draconian that an element of the ‘sport’ of yachting has been taken away. On the whole, I view the changes already made as both desirable and necessary. The yachting movement cannot afford another disaster of the magnitude of this one.”
After three deaths during Targa Tasmania last year, Motorsport Australia set up a tribunal to investigate and make recommendations for Targa and other tarmac rallies.
In its report, the tribunal recommendations included: limiting the speed to below 200km/h by either course design or limiter; limiting average speed to below 132km/h; ensuring the driver’s skills match the potential of the car; that competition crews preview drive each stage of the event; and a host of very substantial organisational changes that mirror the Sydney Hobart coroner’s findings.
The tribunal also echoed the NSW Coroner in writing: “A small number of competitors expressed the view that they are well aware of the dangers of competing in an event such as Targa Tasmania and that therefore it was up to them as individuals to decide the level of risk they will tolerate and expose themselves to.
“This tribunal holds a contrary view. It does so not only on a philosophical basis but also on a pragmatic one. The reasons this tribunal believes that it is not solely the right and responsibility of each individual to decide the level of risk they’re willing to be exposed to (are because) the death or serious injury does not just impact the deceased or injured party. It impacts their immediate family both emotionally and financially. It also impacts their friends and it impacts others involved in the event, in particular the intervention teams and organisers.”
It’s hard to imagine what the wife and family of the driver is going through and the impact it will have on their lives. And as rally boss Mark Perry said: “It’s shattering for everybody (associated with Targa).”
Right now, the media and competitor discussion is about whether Targa Tasmania should continue, should the competitive section be discontinued and only the tour remain, or should tarmac rallying now be finished in Australia?
The answer to all those questions should be no. No activity can be made totally safe, nor should it be. But like the Sydney Hobart, like F1, like safety on work sites, rally organisers and competitors are going to have to cop more regulation, slower times and more red tape if we are going to continue to enjoy one of the world’s great sports.
Talking of F1: on last weeks episode of Drive to Survive Emilia Romagna Grand Prix edition we saw Mad Max actually finish and at the top of the class. George Russell beat Hamo by nine places and one lap and worse, Mad Max lapped him. Ferrari just managed sixth with our man Dan taking out Fezzer’s Carl Sainz at the start. After festivities finished, Danny immediately went and apologised to Carl and the technicians on the tools (formerly known as mechanics). Next week the circus moves to Miami International Autodrome, a temporary circuit around the quaintly named Hard Rock Stadium.
Fifty-one years ago the Hard Rock Cafe was trendy. In fact, Carole King, one of the most significant and influential musicians of all time, wrote a song about it that was really an ad but charted very well. Carole wrote and sang lyrics like: “After a hard day’s work I guarantee, there just isn’t anywhere better to be, if you’re unable to find good company, you can always sit down and watch the colour TV.” Note for younger readers: before colour was invented everything, including our lives, was in black and white; TVs were big boxes with coat hangers on the top that persons gathered around at a certain time to watch content together.