Targa Newfoundland, John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S
Targa Newfoundland, John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

Forty years ago, a red and white Mini Cooper won the famed Monte Carlo rally with Paddy Hopkirk at the wheel. Screaming up the mountains above Monaco and over the Col de Turini, Mr. Hopkirk ran the little car flat-out. Nothing could touch the Minis in 1964.

Fast-forward to 2004, and you’ll see modern-day Mini Coopers running in the third-annual Targa Newfoundland road rally. National Post editor Brian Harper and I returned there with one after last year’s fifth-place finish in class, but this time we came with more horsepower, and a plan.

The optional John Cooper Works kit, a $6,800 supercharger/performance package available from Mini, supplied the extra grunt. Our Mini Cooper S now made a prodigious 200-horsepower, up from 163. Plus we had low-profile Dunlops on 17″ rims and a fancy Terratrip rally computer that was supposed to pretty-much drive the car for us.

And the plan, well it was simple: drive like mad when the flag dropped, then scrub off time at the end to “zero the stage” (come in exactly on time over all the rally stages). We figured we’d win for sure.

Turns out the race organizers were wise to our plan (it was, apparently, not an original idea) and concerned that cars in the Touring class (limited to 140 km/h) were driving like maniacs without the roll cage and three-point harnesses required in the 200 km/h Targa class.

So they changed the rules, making the Touring event more of a time-speed-distance rally. This lowered speeds and placed an emphasis on precision driving, rather than last year’s Hopkirk wannabees flying around corners and occasionally into walls.

Some, like Montreal’s Thierry Parisot in his Porsche GT3 and Colorado’s Don Adams in his Chevrolet SSR, said to heck with it and drove like maniacs anyway, but most of us fell in line and established a deeper, if frustrating, relationship with our Terratrips.

Targa Newfoundland, John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S

Targa Newfoundland, John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S

Targa Newfoundland, John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S

Targa Newfoundland, John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S
The author signs autographs for local children. Click image to enlarge

The JCW kit’s extra horsepower came in very handy. Even though our wings were clipped on the long straights, average speeds were up in the shorter town sections. This required rapid acceleration around ninety-degree turns into steep inclines, short, fast bursts for maybe 400 metres along side streets and narrow lanes, and stopping, or slowing, in impossibly short distances.

The 2004 Mini, of course, is made for this. To say that its handling is superb is an understatement. This little car responds to your steering, braking and acceleration inputs with instant obedience. Novice rally drivers like us found our skills augmented by the sheer ability of the car. What it could do in the hands of someone with real professional experience and skills one can only imagine (win, maybe?)

Yes, well, let’s not rub it in. It’s true that both Mr. Harper and I in our roles as navigator discovered a certain propensity for dyslexia under stress, sending the driver left instead of right on more than a few occasions (but we were better at this than last year, as Mr. Harper took the clever precaution of writing a big L and R on his hands; an old rally trick, he explained).

And our car, as well as the extra horsepower, came with a range of modern electronic stability technologies like dynamic stability control (DSC), electronic brake force distribution and, of course, anti-lock brakes, which saved our butts too many times.

There’s really nothing like flying sideways over a crest in the road, freaking out the DSC and the navigator when you hit pavement, sailing around a suburban street corner at 90-km/h – and realizing too late that you’re heading straight for the front door of a church – slamming on the brakes, banging it into reverse, banging it into first, dropping the clutch and standing on the accelerator to find that wonderful 200 horsepower on tap, just what you need after your unscheduled excursion.

You can do this all day with a Mini Cooper S, although I’d recommend staying on the road. And where else can you do such a thing than at the Targa Newfoundland?

It’s five-days of competitive driving over 2,200 kilometres in Central and Eastern Newfoundland, with 38 closed stages where you can go crazy in a car.

As I say, in the Targa class you need a modified car with a roll cage and other safety equipment (many people brought purpose-built race cars, not normally licensed for public roads).

But in the Touring class, along with your car, all you need is a helmet, a fire extinguisher and a towrope.

Which is why the Touring class saw huge growth this year, up 150 per cent from 14 cars to 38, while the Targa class only grew 35 per cent to 53 cars. Let’s face it, there’s a much larger market for people who can drive what they bring, compared with the limited market of people willing to transform their daily driver into a race car, or purchase one for an event like this.

Consequently, the Touring class has arguably emerged as the most competitive event in the Targa Newfoundland (in numbers, at least). With 38 cars running in only two classes (“equipped” with rally computer, and “unequipped”), there will be only two winners, and less than a handful of second and third place finishers.

In contrast, the 53 cars in Targa class were divided into two major classes (Classic and Modern) with further subdivisions for engine displacement, modifications, etc., creating 19 sub-classes. Some of these included a grand total of one car (a guaranteed first-place finish in class) and the biggest class in Targa – Modern, Modified, Large displacement – finished with five cars.

So our fifth out of 17 cars in Touring, equipped, was not too shabby after all. Especially when we were competing against experienced rally drivers and navigators in cars like an Audi RS6, Subaru STi, and Cadillac CTS-V, to name only a few of the high-powered Touring entries.

At the 2004 Gala and Awards dinner, Touring competitors were the minority of prize recipients, while it seemed like just about all the Targa competitors won some kind of trophy, plaque or plate for their efforts.

Next year, event organizers should address the imbalance.

And also next year, Messrs. Harper and Williams may be back with a yet another plan, and even more horsepower, as the John Cooper Works kit takes the Mini Cooper S to 210 horsepower for 2005.

Placentia, here we come.

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