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Roo Spotting on the Targa Florio – James Nicholls

It wasnt just kangaroos, but wombats, exotic coloured parrots, wallabies, cockatoos and a host of unusual flora and fauna not seen in Sicily. And the reason, this was not the Targa Florio, first run in 1906, but the Targa Florio Australian Tribute, an officially sanctioned event honouring the legendary Targa Florio, vision of Vincenzo Florio, and the first ever car race in the world. This was the third running of the Tributo, and it certainly embodied the spirit of the Sicilian classic. Whilst there are no medieval villages around the next bend in Australia there were plenty of opportunities to experience the Italianicity of a country where half a million Italians live and work. 150,000 of these are Sicilian, and as we drove the 1,200 kms around the State of Victoria over four days, it seemed like every one of those car-crazy Sicilians, reared on over 100 years of the most famous car race in the world, had turned out to meet and greet us. On the same weekend that much of the Eastern part of Australia seemed to be burning due to the terrible bushfires, so much so that the final round of the 2019 FIA World Rally Championship due to be held at Coffs Harbour in Northern New South Wales had to be cancelled, the entrants of this Regularity Race enjoyed weather of a much different kind. It is oft said that Melbourne, the State Capital, can experience four seasons in one day and so it proved to be for the competitors in the Targa Florio Australian Tribute. For a competition it certainly is. Showing how serious this is Angelo Pizzuto, President of the Automobile Club Palermo (which runs the real thing) was on the start line with his navigator Caterina Vagliani in a sprightly MGA. Yes, it was serious, but at the same time great fun as we drove an incredible variety of wonderful roads through an array of topography: rain forest; rolling pastures; mountains; farmland; craggy cliffs; vineyards; through small country towns and along country tracks; twisting hill climbs; empty beaches; ocean roads. It was on the most famous ocean road of all, the Great Ocean Road, celebrating its centenary, that the event began at Point Danger in Torquay. The Great Ocean Road is on the Australian National Heritage List and credited with being the world’s largest war memorial, its 243 kms dedicated to those who fell in the Great War and built by those lucky enough to return home. What a road, hugging the rugged coastline, it is an idyllic sweep and curve of non-stop vistas and panoramic views, hardly surprising that so many wish to visit it. With my co-driver, both of us rally virgins, I was hoping to be cruising along in my 1975 Citroën DS, a hugely comfortable design icon and successful machine at the Monte Carlo, Liège-Sofia-Liège, East African Safari, and Rallye du Maroc et al back in the 1960s. Unfortunately, it was still in the shop, so a kind friend lent me his 1982 Mercedes-Benz 380SL which meant that we were now in the Legends rather than the Classica class. This was not a problem though as we all, ran together around the route through the Mornington Peninsular, Phillip Island, and the Yarra Valley. Being from Sydney we trucked our car to Melbourne with eight or nine others. Included amongst these were father and son team, Carlos and Filipe Piteira, originally from Portugal and seemingly with rallying blood in their veins driving an Alfa 105 GTV 1750 (car #29) – speed seemed of the essence for this pair, so many points were accumulated over the timed sections, average speed tests (PM), and regularity stages (time trials or PC). Disappointingly for them, the idea however, is not to score penalty points!
Taking it slightly steadier but still racking up the penalties were Glen Drysdale and Jeremy Best. Glen, a collector of fine automobiles in pristine condition, had been persuaded to bring along his rare Australian delivered, factory right hand drive, manual transmission, 1972 Maserati Indy America 4700 before it undergoes a full restoration in Jeremy’s hands back to pristine condition. Glen now has the rallying bug though whether in the future this will be as a navigator or driver remains to be seen. For me, my future, if any, is as a navigator, as Sascha is a much, much better (and faster) driver and he also gets travel sickness reading the detailed Road Book provided to us at scrutineering. At scrutineering we were also given our car number. Number 101, made me slightly apprehensive. Were we to experience some form of Orwellian torture facing our worst fears in the Mercedes-Benz metal room that was to be our home for the next four days? Any qualms were quickly allayed through the wonderful organisation of the event, and the sheer unadulterated pleasure of the ever changing scenery and the magnificent driving roads that had been set out for us: a veritable movable automotive feast – driving, eating well, and exchanging stories and anecdotes of daring do at the end of each day. Everywhere we went local communities were out to watch us drive by, school children stood in the rain waving flags as though we were Vincenzo Lancia or Felice Nazzaro early pioneers of the Targa Florio from before the First World War, Achille Varzi or Giovanni ‘Ernesto’ Ceirano, or legendary runners from the 1960s such Arturo Merzario or Nino Vaccarella, or Jacky Ickx from 1973. Another of the Sydney contingent which certainly tried to live up to the legend were Rene Aalhuizen and navigator James Andrea in a 1955 Porsche Speedster. Dressed like Biggles and Snoopy to protect themselves from the very cold, often wet, sometimes sunny, and occasionally foggy weather, they cut a swathe though the field in their fast, open car. One or two had turned up their noses at the bodywork of the gallant Porsche little realising that underneath its battered, unrestored bodywork, this wolf in sheep’s clothing could fly like the proverbial off a shiny new shovel. The gregarious, likeable, Rene is nothing if not competitive, and despite this being his first outing at this type of event, car number 9 finished a very creditable third in class and fourth overall. If his navigator had been able to read as fast as Rene could drive and not directed his pilot into so many wrong turns, then a maiden victory could possibly have been on the cards. Ultimately though it was the experts who took the prize, Pizzuto and Vagliani wearing the laurel wreath of outright victory in front of thousands, and I mean thousands, of excited spectators basking in the warm Spring sun as the cars arrived at the finish on Lygon Street in Carlton for the annual Melbourne Italian Festa. Special mention should go to organisers Linda and Andrew Lawson who did a sterling job throughout and competed in their beautiful 1951 Lancia Aurelia B20 Coupé, finishing two spots in front of car number 101, which somehow finished a hard fought fourth in class and 17th overall. My personal favourite bit was covering the 10.6km road course of the old 1928–1935 Australian Grand Prix circuit located 2km south of the town of Cowes on an island near the Australian south coast. Next year the aim is to be on the podium on an island near the Italian south coast – this sport is contagious!