When you’ve won Australia’s ultimate tarmac challenge seven times, you come to expect that you’re the driver that everyone wants to beat.

For Australian motor racing legend, Jim Richards, that’s a fact of life every time Targa Tasmania rolls around each April.

While Tony Sullens beat Richards home last year in an Impreza WRX STI, the Subaru driver is absent in 2008, leaving spotlight back on the veteran.

Over the years, Richards has used a variety of Porsches for his assaults on Targa, in both four- and two-wheel drive guises. This year, the seven-time Bathurst 1000 winner is driving a brand new two-wheel drive Porsche 911 GT2, and naturally, he’s hoping for dry weather during the event.

Tasmania’s often fickle weather can throw anything at Targa competitors, and it’s not unlikely for crews to face dry roads one day, only to be challenged by cold, wet and snowy conditions the next.

As a result, the weather can have more of an impact on the event than many would like – but that’s one of the beauties of Targa Tasmania.

Melbourne-based Richards has had Tasmanian, Barry Oliver, calling the pacenotes for him during all his Targa victories, and the pair team up again this year. However, for those Tasmanians wanting an all-local victory, the nephew and uncle combination of Jason and John White will start as crowd favourites.

Former winners of Targa, in a Nissan Skyline GTR, the Whites now push a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera to its limits and are keenly targeting their second victory. Like Richards, though, they’ll have their fingers crossed for dry weather.

“If the weather’s dry, then that’s as good as it gets in the Lambo, but if it rains, it’s a very, very nasty car to drive,” Jason White says.

“I aim to take it relatively easy in the prologue stage, but as long as we’re somewhere in the top ten, I’ll be happy. After that, it’s flat out until the finish.”

Queenslander, Ray Vandersee, is another driver whose two-wheel drive car will be best suited to dry roads. His self-built Skelta G-Force led Targa for a time in 2007 and should set competitive times again, although a weight penalty for 2008 could hamper his efforts.

While Richards has the most Targa trophies, and White is the local favourite, the man most widely tipped to win this year’s event is neither of these men. South Australian horse trainer, Steve Glenney, will start the event in winning form.

Glenney uses horsepower of a different kind when he’s not working, and drove his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX to a dominant victory in February’s Rally Tasmania, held around Burnie. Now recognised as one of Australia’s best drivers, having also won a round of the gravel-based Australian Rally Championship, Glenney is confident of being able to add the Targa Tasmania trophy to his mantelpiece.

Glenney admits that deciding on a plan of attack is not going to be easy.

“The Tasmanian weather is the main indicator on how you plan your strategy,” he says. “Obviously to win you need to start fast, but there are a number of factors that need to be considered this year.

“For a start, the course is different this year, and you need to pay close attention to the weather, how your tyres are wearing, and, of course, how fast your main rivals are going.”

He names Jim Richards, Tony Longhurst and Jason White as his biggest threats.

Longhurst is another driver with a long list of credentials. Like Richards, he has won the Bathurst 1000 on more than one occasion, but in recent years has turned his attention to Targa rallying, and is relishing the challenge.

“I’m certainly enjoying rallying as much as I enjoyed circuit racing when I was in the prime of my career in the 1990s,” Longhurst says. “In the last few years, driving around a circuit hundreds of times became quite stale, so I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of rallying.”

Longhurst will drive a Subaru Impreza WRX STI for the Launceston-based Les Walkden Rallying team, and if the weather is wet, the event is expected to turn into a Subaru vs Mitsubishi battle as the drivers in four-wheel drive cars make the most of the slippery conditions.

Gravel rally star, Dean Herridge, will make his second trip to Targa at the wheel of a Subaru, while five-times Australian Rally Champion, Ross Dunkerton, will contest the Modern Competition for the first time, after winning the inaugural Rookie Rallye in 2007 in a Lancer Evo IX.

Burnie brothers Jamie and Simon Vandenberg will also be targeting a top five finish, while long-time Toyota factory driver, Neal Bates, will debut the TRD version of Toyota’s Aurion.
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