Motorsport fans are warming to Targa in Queensland
TARGA Tasmania may be king of tarmac rallies but the inaugural Targa Great Barrier Reef is the new sun-kissed driver and fan favourite.
It's three days of closed-road racing against a backdrop of shimmering ocean, coral reef, sugar cane and banana plantations, all under bright blue Far North Queensland skies.
Drivers and crews escaped the chilly winter coating much of the country to descend on Cairns' CBD, the central hub where classic and modern race cars departed for more than 200km of mesmerising and challenging closed roads.
I heard more than one seasoned driver say they'd just aced the best Targa stage of their life as early as 9am on the first day.
Stage two was on the Gillies Highway from Gordonvale to the Atherton Tablelands: 19km long, flush with 263 corners and with an 800m elevation change. Normally a 60km/h-restricted chore, the wide and perfectly surfaced track became a playground for high-performance exotica, engines screaming past rock walls and under rainforest canopies.
If the enthusiastic local welcome, warm weather and water views hadn't done so already, this first flying stage sealed the Tropical North Queensland deal for adrenalin-infused drivers.
While full competition cars were the flat-chat heroes, enthusiasts were able to take advantage of the closed roads as part of restricted-numbers Targa Tours.
Porsche Australia bagged first group honours here, with 28 of its customers and co-drivers the warm-up entertainment for fans on each stage. Most were piloting hardware like Cayman GT4s, 911 GT3s and 911 GT3 RSs - Porsche's full-fat editions - so it was a multimillion-dollar opening salvo.
Touring, in the traditional sense of the word, isn't what these cars are made for. The Porsche group may have been speed-limited to 130km/h but on such tight and twisty roads you rarely need such velocity to be on the ragged edge.
I'd snared a drive in Porsche's 718 Cayman GTS for the experience and from the get-go it was adrenalin override.
With my co-driver manning road book instructions - lots of warnings of blind crests, narrow slippery bridges and steep drops - we were launched at five-second intervals in a screaming convoy of primed Porsches.
Any thoughts of this being a tame touring affair were immediately dashed. No, 100km/h doesn't sound much on the highway but on tight gravel-peppered bends barely the width of a car, such speeds remind you you're alive.
Deep concentration was required by both driver and co-driver and soon we were revelling in that wonderful mix of fear and elation.
Yes, it's risky driving at such speeds but it's a calculated and controlled risk that rewards smoothness and accuracy. Plus a car as hugely capable as the Cayman GTS can't help but make the driver look good.
Some Targa stages were short and sweet, others up to an eyes-on-stalks 28km long: no mean distance when you're in attack mode.
The best stages were run in both directions, the return route tackled once all the competition cars had had their turn. This meant any bingles that had happened created an additional hazard. The occasional bent race car was left just off the road as a harsh reminder of the implications should something go wrong.
Touring stages between closed roads were always relaxing affairs, with locals out in force to welcome drivers and machinery.
And they were rewarded with incredible sights and sounds - the V10 scream of the Dodge Viper that ultimately won Targa Barrier Reef, to the roars from a DeTomaso Pantera, Lotus Exiges, Nissan Skylines, classic Holden Commodores and Toranas. Even a 1941 GMC "Jimmy Special” with tuneful 5.0-litre straight-six engine.
Entries are already open for next year's Targa Barrier Reef, and if it attracts the expected 250 entries for 2019, it'll be the world's second largest tarmac rally behind only Targa Tasmania.
While the Apple Isle may remain the ultimate, there's lots to love about a Tropical North Queensland high-speed escape during winter.