Targa rallying is a unique form of motorsport where purpose-built rally cars compete on (normally public) bitumen roads that have been closed for competition. Starting at 30-second intervals, the cars race against the clock with the winner being the fastest car over all the special (closed road) competition stages. A typical Targa event will usually have between 20-40 special competition stages across several days that may traverse much of the State.
Targa events are not for the faint hearted. Speed can be very high and as the roads are otherwise public roads, the condition of those roads varies widely. Most competitors undertake extensive road reconnaissance prior to the event but even so, the attrition rate in Targa events is often 20-25% of the field through accident or mechanical failure.
In giving the following account I will say that much of it is first-hand knowledge with a few aspects told to myself by people I know well (and trust) from their first-hand knowledge. The full story has only previously been known to a few and to the best of my knowledge, has never been retold in this format.
Peter Brock, otherwise known as ‘Peter Perfect’, ‘The King of the Mountain’, or simply ‘Brocky’, was one of Australia’s best-known and most successful motor racing drivers. Brock was most often associated with Holden although he raced vehicles from other manufacturers including BMW, Ford, Volvo, Porsche and Peugeot. He won the Bathurst 1000 race nine times, the Sandown 500 nine times, the Australian Touring Car Championship three times, the Bathurst 24 Hour and was inducted into the V8 Supercars Hall of Fame in 2001.
On 8 September 2006, while driving in the Targa West tarmac rally, Brock was 3 kilometres from the finish of the second stage at Gidgegannup, about 40 km from Perth, when he skidded off a downhill left-hand bend on Clenton Road in his Daytona Sportscar and hit a tree. Brock was killed instantly and his co-driver, Mick Hone, was taken to hospital in a serious but stable condition.
Video footage of the crash (provided by a spectator and the in-car camera) was reviewed by West Australian police to help determine the cause of the accident. Coroner Alastair Hope decided that Brock’s death was caused by high speed and that no coronial inquest would be performed.
Those facts are publicly available (Wikipedia) but they do not reveal the backstory of the accident.
In the evening following the crash, full details were still unclear but there was enough information from eyewitness reports and other sources to suggest that Brock was driving noticeably faster than the other competitors. That was very significant as the competition group consisted of many highly skilled, and very quick, tarmac rally drivers accompanied by experienced co-drivers.
The day after the crash it was revealed that Brock had attended a reception at Australia House in London barely 36 hours before he was due to be in WA. Other information confirmed that Brock had been unhappy with the handling of the Daytona and had requested several suspension and other changes be made prior to the WA event. (The Daytona was an innovative Australian manufactured vehicle with a high performance 6.0 litre V8 squeezed into a vehicle weighing only 1100kgs). Those changes would significantly alter the car’s handling characteristics but, perhaps tellingly, Brock hadn’t driven the car since the changes were completed.
Brock’s co-driver in Targa West was his friend Mick Hone who is very well known in the motorcycling fraternity as a motorcycle competitor and retailer. Hone had relatively limited experience in Targa style events although Brock and Hone had competed in the Targa Tasmania event a few months earlier. Unfortunately, mechanical issues plagued the car and their joint rallying experience suffered.
A clear picture of the relevant issues was now emerging. Peter Brock had attended a reception in London shortly before he was due to drive in Targa West. He flew directly from London to Perth and arrived just hours before the start of the event. Meanwhile, the car had undergone changes that altered the handling dynamics and, Brock didn’t test drive it before the competition start. Brock and his co-driver had not had the opportunity to conduct substantial reconnaissance of the course immediately before the event and yet they were using pace notes* purchased from a third party. And finally, the speed. It was subsequently confirmed that Brock’s official stage times prior to the accident were faster than any other driver. Various eyewitnesses along the previous stage and immediately prior to the crash reported that Brock was “absolutely flat out” in terms of his speed and driving style.
Was Brock jetlagged? Did the car have a new handling characteristic of which Brock wasn’t unaware? Why didn’t Brock make time to test-drive the car after the suspension changes? Did the lack of on-stage reconnaissance to verify the suitability of the purchased pace notes play a role? Why did Brock use a relatively inexperienced co-driver? (a driver of Brock’s undoubted driving ability would normally demand a thoroughly experienced co-driver).
Peter Brock was an highly talented driver and his loss was a tragedy for his family and friends, to motorsport and his many fans. His demise was a classic ‘Swiss cheese’ moment where all of the individual circumstances aligned to produce the outcome. No single factor was responsible. Yet, it must also be queried to what extent did Brock’s own actions, or omissions, play a contributing role. As a professional race driver, he must have (or should have) known that the actions or omissions in car preparation and the preparation of himself and his co-driver would significantly heighten the risk, and he should drive accordingly.
Tarmac rallying is a thrilling and demanding form of motorsport but it is ruthless towards those who treat it with disrespect. As mentioned previously, speeds are often very high and there is no room for error with trees and other immovable obstacles just metres away. Unbridled belief in your ability may mask, but does not diminish, the risk.
*’Pace notes’ are used in rally events, whether tarmac or dirt, and allow the co-driver to inform the driver of the road conditions ahead whilst the car travels at high speed. The information will include whether the road ahead is straight after, say, a blind crest or, the comparative tightness of an upcoming corner among other information. Some semi/professional co-drivers sell their pace notes to other competitors, but it is vital that the purchased notes are re-checked by route reconnaissance by the purchasing competitor. The competitor can then make any required adjustments relevant to the vehicle being used and comparative skill of the driver.