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2006 Mazda 6 MPS takes on Targa Tasmania: classic MOTOR

By Steve Nally | Photos: Perfect Prints, Steve Nally, Ellen Dewar, and Jodie Steward, 12 Jan 2019 Features

2006 Mazda 6 MPS takes on Targa Tasmania classic MOTOR feature

MOTOR and Mazda rain dance for their assault on Targa Tasmania 2006

This has all the makings of a dull assignment: follow MOTOR's resident racer, Dean 'Sir Drifts-a-Lot' Evans, for six rainy days while he tackles his first Targa Tasmania in a Mazda Motorsport-prepared Mazda6 MPS

This feature was originally published in MOTOR's July 2006 issue

Oh dear. I would have to listen to Evans' nightly tales of rallying derring-do in the first person. And, as competent as the 190kW, 2.3-litre turbo MPS is, it's no fire-breathing RX-7 SP or MX-5 Turbo, cars Mazda has entered in previous Targas. It is all-wheel drive, though, and with Targa notorious for its foul weather, it's the MPS's big advantage. 

To be honest, I fully expect to be flying back to the mainland within a couple of days sitting between a seething Allan Horsley, the boss of Mazda Motorsport, and a glum Evans - whose carry-on luggage will consist of what's left of the MPS. 

Let's face it, Targa is a car and driver breaker and not to be attempted lightly; it has humbled some big names in the past like Steve Richards and Paul Stokell. And, as this is the worldwide motorsport debut for the MPS, there is enormous pressure on Evans to bring the car home - and not in his Samsonite. 

So the bloke not known for his rubber conservation is under strict instructions from Horsley (not a man to be trifled with) to drive to a carefully crafted plan and with a margin of error. Most of all Evans has to take care of his tyres (cough). On Targa, each tyre change incurs a two-minute penalty, so tyre preservation, while still going quickly, is the order of the day, every day. 

And Horsley isn't just going to take Evans' word that he is being kind to the car. Sitting alongside would be diminutive Lyndall Drake, a feisty pro navigator so experienced, Evans is her 50th driver, and is not only Horsley's ears and eyes, but needs to make all the calls so Evans doesn't become a notch on her roll cage. 

Following four months in the build, the MPS is entered in the Modern Competition showroom stock class, meaning aside from tyres and brake pads, it's stock: not even a muffler change! But Horsley is quietly confident and hoping the traditional Targa weather - snow and ice - will allow the car to take advantage of its excellent traction, pudgy weight (1810kg with crew) and protect its Dunlop semi-slicks. 

Whether he has any confidence in our hero is another thing. Horsley has looked after the likes of Dick Johnson, John Bowe and Allan Moffat, and cleaning up the mess of a motor noter parked in the trees probably isn't high on his 'To Do Before I Die' list. 

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The traditional start to Targa Tasmania is the Georgetown Prologue, a 4.2km through-the-town-streets blat to set the starting order for leg one. The weather is perfect and Evans drives straight and fast, avoiding gutters and hay bales to place 76th out of 210 starters, 65th in class, with nary a hint of headline-grabbing heroics. 

"He didn't even take the nipples off the tyres," Horsley smiles, but maintains his easy-does-it mantra. He also confides that he is still unsure that Evans can keep up the same consistency over the full distance. 

"That was the first time I'd driven the car at any real speed, the brakes got so soft I was yanking the handbrake a few times, but they're bedded now. Surprised at how wallowy it felt compared to the road car; must be the extra grip from the semi-slicks. We're just biding our time until we get to the wet." - Dean Evans

Leg One

The Matthew Flinders Northern Loop stars and ends in Launceston. After stage three, the MPS is leading the event... along with 103 others who have also beaten the easy target times designed to ease drivers into the event.

The weather is sensational, and I'm hoping something exciting will happen because after the Prologue I've re-named Dean 'Uneventful' Evans. I don't have to wait long. Drama strikes at the end of the last 3km Longford town stage after a jump and bottom-out. 

During the 20km transport back to Launceston, the car pulls into the service with 30 minutes to find and fix the problem or incur a time penalty, or (worst case scenario) withdrawal. There's a lot of bright green oil under the car and a cracked sump is feared. 

There's high tension as the eight-person service team swings into action. Within minutes, chief spanner Nathan Hui finds the culprit: a gearbox filler plug that's fallen out and lodged in the sump guard. Phew! 

The 'box is topped up and Evans and Drake make it to service in time, their day's effort vaulting them a massive 26 places up the order to finish 39th outright. 

"There was a left-right kink at an intersection 100 metres before the finish that we took flat, but there was a ridge we didn't even notice in recce. I didn't think the ground-out was that bad but I smelt oil straight away, my heart sank when I saw the oil." - Dean Evans

Leg Two 

Things start to get serious down to Hobart via the Captain Nicholas Baudin North Eastern Trundle for nine competitive stages. With cars released as 30 second intervals, on The Sideling they pass a Porsche 911 GT3! On Elephant Pass Evans is 25th quickest; there is some moisture but not enough for Horsley. 

Everything goes smoothly, Evan and Drake are in sync, the MPS is beginning to stretch its legs and the team moves up again, to 33rd outright. Things are looking good. "There are no problems at all; everything is just perfect," Horsley smiles. 

"We get about two kays of greasy roads on The Sideling - and the MPS loves it, as does Horsley when he heard we passed the GT3. We were fast on Elephant Pass partly because of the few kays of wet roads up the mountain," - Dean Evans

Leg Three

The Bruny D'Entrecasteaux Southern Loop takes in the picturesque countryside around Hobart and its stages also pass without incident. They maintain 33rd position overall ahead of many faster cars that should be creaming the heavyweight MPS. The tyres and brakes are holding up - following frequent rotation and a new set of standard front rotors - and if the rain comes soon, there is a feeling the team could eventually challenge for an overall top-20 result. 

"The day's tight or high-speed stages, again totally dry, didn't suit the MPS, so we conserved the car and tyres. Happy to hold 33rd." - Dean Evans

Leg Four

Another long day, north from Hobart to Burnie, starts with a headline-grabbing crash with a MINI injuring spectators at the Hobart Domain stage. The stage is cancelled but the MPS, last in the stage queue, cruises past the crash site an hour later, with ambulances still on the scene. 

The George Bass North West Challenge is where the rally is reaching its demanding crescendo. Incredibly, half way through day four, the event reaches its mid-point in competitive kilometres, with serious stages like Cethana (37.4km), South Rianna (24.4km) and Natone (9.7km). It is on this last stage that things go horribly wrong, again within sight of a good finish. 

"The day was going alright, we were pushing hard, saw 220km/h and even passed a Nissan GT-R on Cethana, but 5km through Natone we started to get fuel surge," Evans reports. "We had '0km to empty' on the trip computer but the low-fuel light hadn't even come on. I buttoned off but the engine died on a steep climb."

Somehow, Evans manages to coax the car up the hill using the starter motor and occasional bursts of scavenged petrol power and virtually coasts to the stage end but they have lost seven vital minutes. It's a miscalculation and a crushing blow. They were running 31st but fall to 58th. Dinner is subdued. but the car is in one piece and still in the event. And "to finish" is all Horsley ever asked of Evans. And, if he can, to make it rain.

"We graze a plastic pole at the train-crossing jump on the 2.5km Ross Reverse town stage, but literally 'butt if out' so Horsley won't notice. When we stopped on Natone 5km from the end of the day, I never gave up, and once the fuel settled, it was enough to crawl the 500 metres up the hill and onto flatter ground. Crushed, but we're still in the running." - Dean Evans

Leg Five

The crucial one Horsley has been brow-beating into Evans' consciousness all week - he must save his tyres for this day. The Abel Tasman West Coast Enduro's nine competitive stages amount to 145km, more than 30 percent of the total, and include the iconic Strahan (33.2km), Queenstown (6.3km straight up), the monster Mount Arrowsmith (47.2km) and Tarraleah (6.6km) power station stages. 

With the promise of afternoon rain, the plan is to push to make up ground, but there is a lot riding on today, not the least Mazda corporate pride. The car must make it to the Wrest Point Casino finish. 

The morning's four stages go according to plan and the MPS even blows by "one or two" cars on the Strahan stage. 

But just before the start of Queenstown, a crash delays the stage start. Luckily. Evans then discovers a flat tyre. Quick-thinking Drake grabs a can of tyre sealant and a compressor and they make the start with seconds to spare. The mousse-filled Dunlop is only rated to 80km/h but the MPS will soon be topping 200 heart-in-mouth km/h. 

On the monster, the technical 47km Mount Arrowsmith stage, six or seven cars are crashed, one even upside-down, but 5km before the finish, the prayed-for rain finally arrives. It's a treacherous deluge and Evans makes the most of it, placing 23rd. 

On the 6.6km Tarraleah, stage 42 to 44, it's raining and the first full wet stage. But instead of setting a fast time, the MPS gets its first body modification on a slippery corner when the MPS clouts the rear into the Armco. It's a close call, and they lose 10 seconds and still finish the stage in 28th. Six cars later, an Evolution VI noses in and crashes out. 

"On Mt Arrowsmith, ten corners from the end in the wet, dufus driver spins and we lose 10 seconds. We're 23rd fastest instead of 18th. On Tarraleah, I was pushing maybe six-tenths and we slowed for a 90-degree right with a 'caution bump'. I was crawling, but there must have been oil or something because I hit the brakes and it just went straight on. We were facing an Armco and weren't going to stop, so I yanked the handbrake and backed it in." - Dean Evans

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Evans and Drake relatively cruise through the final two stages and to the finish in Hobart; from 58th overnight, they move up to 39th outright and, most importantly, first in class! 

On debut, the MPS has beaten of all the production Mitsubishi Evos, Subaru WRXs and Porsches on one of the sternest tarmac tests anywhere in the world - delete the fuel problem, and it would have placed 24th. The 15th running of Targa Tasmania also proves to be the driest: from 450 competitive kilometres, it's wet for just 15 klicks. It's a top effort. 

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"If you really want to get your teeth into driving fast for a long time, this is it," observes Dean. "But there are just so many ways to stick it in!"

The last word goes to Horsley. "I think Dean drove brilliantly; he didn't put a foot wrong. And Lyndall did a great job, too. The car was a huge surprise to us, it went better than we expected."

And better than I expected. The victorious but battle-scarred MPS goes home to Sydney on the boat, and not in Evan's check-in luggage. And it rains in Tasmania for the entire next week. 

Love the Drake

Lyndall Drake, 38, has been rallying for 19 years, and involved in the ARC since 1996, alongside the likes of Rod Salmon, Rob and Dean Herridge and Steve Winwood. Which is why Mazda's Allan Horlsley has drafted her in for three Targas. Drake says she actually used to get carsick as a kid, but not any more. 

She has had her share of crashes, but is selective about who shoe co-drives with on tarmac: "It has to be the right combination of car and driver. Everyone wants something they are good at and I like to compete, and on pace-noted events, a navigator really feels they have contributed to the overall result." Drake was an indispensable part of Mazda's Targa attack this year; just ask Evans. 

'H': Mr Mazda

Allan Horsley's Mazda Motorsport handles everything from special projects (RX-7 SP, MX-5 SP) to race programs, often in conjunction with long-time rotary expert Jon Waterhouse. Horsley's motorsport pedigree is long, with a reputation for forthrightness and irascibility, the latter unfounded during Targa. 

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While inextricably linked to Mazda since he managed Allan Moffat's successful RX-7 touring program in the early-'80s, he started racing in the '60s in a homemade 500cc openwheeler at Tarrawingee, raced Holden, Jaguar and Peugeot touring cars in the '60s/'70s before his last racecar, a 656kW tank engined open wheeler. He even built 25 turbo Mazda 929s, and dubbed the MX-929. His highlight is presiding over a fourth consecutive 12 Hour GT-P victory with Dick Johnson and John Bowe in an RX-7 SP, designed and built by Mazda Motorsport Australia. 

Mazda at Targa

Mazda's entered Targa Tasmania five times in its 15 year history. It's used the event to refine the MX-5 SP prototype, and in 2006 made the worldwide MPS motorsport debut. 

Year Drivers Car
1994 Garry Waldon RX-7
  Gregg Hansford RX-7
1997 Garry Waldon RX-7
  Steven Johnson RX-7
2001 Murray Coote MX-5 SP
  Michael Taylor MX-5
2002 Rick Bates RX-7 SP
  Dean Evans Mazda6 MPS