I saw the Mustang on TV beating BMW M3s round Laguna Seca and I just had to have one. Driver Paul Collins Two-time Targa Rotorua winner Leigh Hopper and co-driver Simon Kirkpatrick head the 100-strong line-up of competitors for the three-day Targa North Island tarmac motor rally this weekend.
Having enjoyed the extra stage time and challenge of last year's two-and-a-half-day Targa Rotorua event, Hopper thinks a three-day event is the perfect build-up for the six-day main event in the South Island later this year.
"You have the intensity of the shorter sprint events but the strategy in terms of having to pace yourself and keep on top of the car that is important when you are racing over five or six days," Hopper says.
Without the detailed corner-to-corner pace notes of a typical gravel rally event, a Targa rally puts plenty of pressure on the driver's ability to read the road, which is one of the appeals of such events.
Set to take the battle to the Hopper/Kirkpatrick Subaru WRX in the Allcomers 4WD class are the Mitsubishi Evos of Glenn Inkster and Spencer Winn, and Jason Gill and Mark Robinson.
Reigning Targa New Zealand winners Martin Dippie and Jona Grant are the Modern 2WD category favourites in Dippie's Porsche 911 GT3. But with last year's Rotorua class winners, father and son pair Mark and Chris Kirk-Burnnand a late scratching because of engine problems with their BMW M3, the 2WD is now expected to be a battle between the similar BMW M3 of Barry Kirk-Burnnand and co-driver Dave O'Carroll, and the BMW 325i of Rex McDonald and Daniel Prince.
Dark horses in the class could be Paul Collins and his co-driver Russell Bezzant in a 2013 Ford Mustang Laguna Seca edition.
They made their Targa debut in the main event last year in a Nissan 350Z and are keen to have a go at the BMWs.
"I saw the Mustang on TV beating BMW M3s round Laguna Seca and I just had to have one," said Collins, who has fitted the Mustang with a full roll-cage, bigger Brembo brakes and a suspension upgrade.
Set to provide a different perspective on the event's twisting hill stages is drifter Cam Vernon, who mesmerised competitors and spectators alike with his extreme sideways skills on the last Targa Bambina event. This time Vernon will drift his newly acquired 6.7-litre V8-engined Nissan S15 through four stages - Coromandel township to Te Rerenga on Friday, the Pumpkin Hill and Whiritoa stages south of Whitianga on Saturday morning and the Hamurana stage which skirts the northern side of Lake Rotorua on Sunday.
Targa ambassador Ray Williams will be hard to miss; he will be behind the wheel of the 001 promo car, a supercharged HSV GTS V8 liveried to look like Aussie ace Garth Tander's V8 Supercar.
"It's a beauty, too," said Williams. "Very quick obviously, but also very nimble, and there's room in it for four."
The Auckland-Whitianga-Rotorua event starts at the Simunovich Olive Estate in the Bombay Hills at 8.35am on Friday and ends on Rotorua's Eat Streat (opposite the Village Green) on Sunday, May 18, at 4.10pm. The 74 competition and 26 associated Targa Tour cars will cover 457km of closed special stages and 840 touring kilometres.
*This weekend Driven Editor Matt Greenop will be bashing around the countryside as part of the Targa spectacle.
Last year he drove a HSV Clubsport as a safety car, and this year is getting behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG on the event between Auckland and Rotorua - get out there and check it out, or come and say gidday.
For more car news go to nzherald.co.nz/driven