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Time with...Walter Röhrl

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He might have arrived late on the rallying scene but Walter Röhrl made a massive impression, scoring championship drives for both Opel and Audi.

Nearly 30 years on, he’s lost none of his speed and commitment.

It’s a memorable morning introduction. We’re at the Col de Turini, the temperature hovers around freezing point, the sky’s azure, and the haunting near-silence of the mountains is punctuated only by the distant and offbeat howl of a tortured in-line five at full chat. The muted war cry is bracketed by the staccato pop and crackle of a hot exhaust system on the overrun, and it’s getting louder, harsher, more insistent. My excitement starts to build; memories of cold, damp November days in the Kielder Forest come flooding back.

Then an explosion of noise, fury and light; the bright yellow quattro rounds a blind bend, its driver holding it in a beautiful four-wheel drift, accelerating hard towards me. And then in an instant it veers to my left, once again sliding beautifully but this time to an elegant, inch-perfect halt.
 
Something else pervades the air now – it’s the smell of hot rubber and oil combined with the sound of a highly strung competition engine idling away. Welcome to the world of Walter Röhrl on a series of demonstration runs, a return to the venue of his greatest-ever victory behind the wheel of an Audi quattro A2.

It’s the first time I see Walter in the flesh – as oppposed to on a TV set, in the pages of Motor magazine or from afar as a rally spectator. He’s behind the wheel of the quattro that has just mesmerised me cresting the hill. I walk over, open the passenger door, and he smiles warmly at me. It’s clear Walter’s not only a master behind the wheel but also at dealing with star-struck fans such as me.

He beckons me in to sit alongside him in the car in which his Audi team mate Stig Blomqvist finished second in the 1984 Monte Carlo Rally. For a moment, I falter. Not because I’m worried about the drive down and then up the Col de Turini, but I’m in awe. But the smile is enough to convince me that Walter’s just as human as the rest of us.

Except, of course, he isn’t. Once I’m strapped in and heading back down the sinuous mountain road, it’s clear that Walter’s car control is super-human. He’s tall and slim, and you’d swear that his body isn’t designed for economy of movement but, as he cracks up the pace, his minimal steering and pedal input are astonishing. I’m watching the road ahead, and his attack of each 180-degree lacet on the infamous D2566 is spellbinding. He flicks the car with one hand on the wheel, steering impossibly early, making good use of his left foot.

At the bottom of the run, Walter turns the car around, takes a look across to see that I’m okay, and readies himself to go back up. Comfortable in my seat, I spend much of the return run watching Walter and trying to make sense of what he’s doing. My impression is that even when he’s going for it, Walter’s driving is effortless.

There’s no see-sawing at the wheel, no histrionics, and although I sense he may be showboating a little, it’s all so controlled. Given the quattro’s girth, laggy throttle response and propensity for turn-in understeer, this is a virtuoso performance. And over all too quickly.

At the top of the hill, I notice Walter checking his time for the run. Ah, so he was trying…

After such an exhilarating drive, settling down for a chat with Walter at the legendary Hôtel des Trois Valées should be an anti-climax. It isn’t. For one, he’s the consummate professional but, more than that, he’s passionate about his driving. You’d never believe that a man so fast and so agile in the cockpit is 63 years old – Walter looks as if he’s stepped straight out of the cockpit of his winning quattro in 1984.

It’s also hard to believe that the final World Championship Rally he took part in was the 1987 Acropolis. Obviously the years of testing for Porsche have maintained his edge.

Walter maintains his relaxed and friendly air when I put this to him. ‘I love driving, and I am happy that I still have the opportunity to push myself hard behind the wheel,’ he smiles. ‘It’s been great, and I hope to carry on as long as Porsche will have me.’

In a decade dominated by flying Finns and whistling turbos, his rally achievements were impressive indeed. But it might have been very different. ‘I loved skiing, and wanted to do it at a championship level. Sure it was dangerous,’ he smiles, ‘but when you’re young, it’s okay.’

Walter’s passion for speed was there from an early age. ‘My brother, Michael, was ten years older than me,’ he says. ‘He was a great skier, and from what I could see as his kid brother in the passenger seat of his Porsche 356, a great driver, too. I just wanted to be like him.’

At the time, Walter didn’t even know that his own talents extended to driving supernaturally quickly. When he was 16 he began working for the Bishop of Regensburg, and inveigled his way into the position of driver after passing his test. ‘I was 18 when I passed and, although my brother died in a car accident, I knew I wanted to carry on in his footsteps,’ he recalls.

‘My mind was still focused on skiing, but because of the driving I was doing, my good friend Herbert Maracek thought it would be fun to invite me to drive a rally car.’

Walter would drive Maracek to skiing events and his friend soon realised the kid had serious talent behind the wheel. Walter remembers: ‘He’d say to me, “You must become a racer, I have never seen anyone with such feel.” He kept pushing for me to go rallying, and in the end I did a few events: one in my car, and others in ones I borrowed.’

This combination of talent and persistence paid off – after every event Walter competed in Maracek would write to the magazines saying his friend was the best driver in the world. After five rallies he was offered a contract from Ford.

Within five years and after a comparatively late start, Rohrl was competing in the World Rally Championship, usually at the sharp end of the leaderboard. He puts it down to his continued strive for perfection. Between 1973 and 1977 he drove the works Opel Kadett GT/E and Ascona A, before moving to Fiat in 1978.

‘I was never the fastest driver,’ he modestly reckons. ‘But I made the least mistakes and was the most consistent. And over the course of a season, this added up.’ Walter’s selling himself short, as all the greats do – he won the Monte Carlo Rally four times in total with four different marques, and in 1980 his combination of speed, consistency and a reliable Fiat 131 Abarth swept him to the Drivers’ title.

His Championship success in 1982 was more impressive. Returning to Opel to drive the Ascona 400, Walter found himself fighting the Audi quattros, which after a faltering start in 1981 were finding reliability to match their speed. At the end of the season, once again, his consistency was the magic ingredient that took Rohrl to a second World Championship, beating Michele Mouton into second. Walter smiles when he recalls: ‘This was particularly satisfying.’

In 1983 Walter joined Lancia and helped take the mid-engined 037 to the Manufacturers’ title ahead of Audi, but narrowly missed out on the Drivers’ title to Hannu Mikkola in the quattro.

For 1984, he moved again – this time to Audi. For seasoned observers, it was the creation of a dream team, which also offered the tantalising possibility of seeing Rohrl go head-to-head with Stig Blomqvist and Hannu Mikkola in identical cars. For Walter, it was also a case of helping the German manufacturer to Championship glory by testing and developing the quattro.

It was a task that wasn’t without its difficulties. ‘Getting into the quattro for the first time in the run-up to Monte Carlo was like learning to drive again,’ he smiles. ‘It also gave me the chance to try the car in many permutations and get comfortable in it, as well as making it go faster.’

Come the 1984 Monte Carlo, Walter was ready. And after a memorable battle with Stig, he finished on top, perhaps proving himself as the most complete driver of his generation. ‘Monte Carlo was very special for me because I came into the team, worked hard and beat my team mates on the toughest rally. On the final night in the mountains, I was easily the quickest,’ he grins.

But it wasn’t to be a full Championship challenge for Walter. ‘I just wanted to do a few nice events, and help develop the car.’ His contribution was enough to secure the Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ titles for Audi in 1984, just at the beginning of the Group B era, and before the roller-coaster got too dangerous to stay aboard.

For 1985, Audi’s SWB quattro S1 made its debut, but the firebreathing machine wasn’t enough to keep the mid-engined Peugeot 205T16 in sight. Walter scored his final of 14 WRC victories during the season.

Pikes Peak, touring cars and testing for Porsche have kept Rohrl in full employment since. It’s obviously helped him stay young. ‘My wife understands my full-time commitment to driving, and we took the decision not to have children, so I could stay focused on that.’

Does having children slow you down, I ask. ‘Not at all – look at Michael Schumacher,’ Walter laughs. And with that, he’s off for another look at the quattro A2 cooling down outside. It’s obvious that Walter’s itching to attack the Col just one more time…

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