Being Björn

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He might not be the most famous Porsche driver but Björn Waldegård can lay claim to being the most successful. His speciality was rallying, so what better way to remember him than to take one of his beloved 911s to his Swedish homeland and master the Scandi Flick 

Think of legendary Porsche drivers and you tend to recall heroes of Le Mans, Can-Am or the Targa Florio. Yet for a purple patch in the late Sixties and early Seventies the Stuttgart marque also ruled the roost in the world of rallying.

Vic Elford was the higher profile name, thanks to his 1968 Monte Carlo win – Porsche’s first – and his subsequent exploits for Porsche in the World Sportscar Championship. Yet it was a burly Swede by the name of Björn Waldegård who achieved the most in a variety of rallying 911s.

A hat-trick of wins on his home rally between 1968 and 1970 are formidable proof of his talent, but he also managed back-to-back wins on the Monte in 1969 and 1970, completing Porsche’s own hat-trick. He even shared a Porsche 908/3 with Richard Attwood in the 1970 Targa Florio, the duo finishing in fifth place, but on the same number of laps as the winning car.

His foray into sports car racing was short-lived, but his love affair with the Porsche 911 would continue throughout his life, most notably with repeated efforts to win the East African Safari Rally. He came tantalisingly close to doing that with a second place in 1974, but despite repeated attempts a Safari victory would always elude the Porsche factory.

Like all great motor sport yarns the story doesn’t end there, for despite becoming the most successful European driver in the history of the Safari Rally, Waldegård always viewed Africa and the 911 as unfinished business. And so he returned, in a Tuthill-prepared Porsche, to compete in the 2011 East African Safari Classic. In something of a fairytale he won, with his son Mathias alongside him as co-driver, exactly 40 years since first attempting to conquer the Safari in a Porsche 911.

Sadly Björn would succumb to cancer just three years later, aged 70. In the course of researching his career I came across an obituary written by Richard Tuthill, preparer and co-driver of Björn’s 911s on numerous occasions, protégé of the Swede and super-quick Porsche driver in his own right. What he wrote fascinated me because it hinted at what made Waldegård so special in 911s – notoriously quirky cars that I happen to love more than any other. Here’s some of what Tuthill wrote:

“I have been lucky to sit alongside many world rally champions and WRC winners in our cars: none understood the front of a 911 better than Björn. He just knew where the front was and what it was going to do: the secret to getting the best from an early 911. He didn’t need to left-foot brake, so his driving style was incredibly positive and efficient.

“Safari 2011 bolstered Björn’s reputation as the best European Safari Rally driver ever. Famous for his Safari exploits, he told me he had spent more than three years of his life driving there. I rather upset him a year earlier when, en route to the airport after a Moroccan event, I enquired whether he thought he could still win the Safari Rally. He was adamant that this was a question I should not have asked!

“We arranged a pre-Safari suspension test in Marrakesh, six months prior to the rally, and I flew out for the second and third day of the test. My primary reason for attending was to evaluate Björn’s assurances that he could win. I wanted to sit in a car with him, to make sure that nothing had changed. Landing in Morocco at 10am, two hours later I was with him in our car, driving full speed down a 40-kilometre test stage. When we had finished our test drive, I got out of the car, drove straight to the airport and caught the first flight back home to England. I had no reason to stay: it was clear that Björn remained unbeatable down a blind road in Africa.”

Awed and intrigued by this heartfelt eulogy, I resolved to learn more.

ALL OF WHICH is how I find myself on a frozen Swedish lake, fully crossed-up in an old Porsche 911. Not just any old 911 either, but the very car Waldegård drove to that historic victory in the 2011 East African Safari Rally Classic. Better still, I’m sitting alongside Richard Tuthill, taking part in one of his annual Below Zero Ice Driving events.

Hundreds of people have done these epic two-day sessions over the years, but none has attended with quite such a particular goal: to gain hands-on insight into Waldegård’s way of driving, and to then attempt to follow in his wheel tracks by threading a classic 911 rally car at speed along a snow-covered special stage. As someone who has only dabbled with rallying it promises to be quite a trip.

There’s a surreal quality about the Below Zero event. For starters there’s a mouth-watering array of rally-prepped 911s with which to play. There’s even a mid-engined 914/6. If you love Porsches this is nirvana. And then there’s the track, or rather tracks. Ploughed into the snow covering the thick layer of ice that turns a vast lake into a winter playground, the courses can be run individually or linked to present a longer lap and a greater challenge. There’s nothing to hit apart from the low snow banks that line the course, and there are recovery vehicles that come and drag you back onto the track if you run out of talent and get beached in the powder.

Day 1 begins with a slow slalom. The 911s are running with road-legal studded winter tyres, with nice crisp treadblocks and small metal pips to find some purchase on the ice. It’s a good way to start because it highlights just how slippery the surface is, and gets you familiar with the Porsche’s pendulous weight distribution. Tuthill and crew quickly instil the need to be ‘ahead’ of the car, letting the weight rotate it but also helping it along and then containing the slides by using your left foot on the brakes. It’s an alien feeling, but once you’ve re-calibrated your left leg to have some sensitivity it’s easy to find a smooth rhythm through the cones.

We’re then let out on the smaller of the ice lake’s courses to get a feel for the conditions and build some speed and confidence. It’s a fabulous feeling, one quite unlike driving any other car on any other surface. Slowly but surely you hold the 911 in a longer slide on the way out of the corners, then try a bit of tentative left-foot braking on the way in to destabilise the car. Words can’t describe the satisfaction of executing your first Scandinavian Flick, even if it is in slow-motion. As the light begins to fade we pretty much have to be forcibly removed from the cars. It’s so much fun you simply don’t want to stop.

OVER DINNER AND a few beers, Tuthill describes Waldegård’s driving in more detail. It’s fascinating stuff, especially now I’ve spent a day driving his car in conditions he relished:

“Björn rallied VW Beetles early in his career and really made them go well. I’m sure this is why he had such natural pace in 911s. He understood the physics. His theory with 911s was somewhat abstract, but beautifully simple, in that he likened the car to a cat. He explained that cats always hunker down before they jump or run, and so he applied this technique to the 911.

“His style was aggressive, certainly. He’d hammer the brakes to get the nose down and then stamp on the throttle to fire the car through the corner. He also liked a bit of letting go of the wheel (a trick all 911 experts love to pull as the steering has an uncanny ability to self-centre), but he had real mechanical sympathy. He was a big bloke, physically imposing, but he’d just sit there and drive. No fuss, just relentless stamina and speed. I’m convinced he knew more than anyone how to get the best from a 911 rally car”.

Sleep comes easy after a day on the ice. Old 911s aren’t particularly physical to drive, but they’re mentally demanding because they require constant monitoring and interpretation. It’s this process of dialling yourself into the 911’s unique handling and unlearning the rules that apply to normal cars that’s so absorbing. To be honest I’m in heaven, for there’s something about 911s that I connected with, even from well before I was old enough to drive. I’m sure it had a lot to do with Porsche’s motor sport achievements, and I’m equally sure the widow-making reputation (largely unfounded, as it happens) added a certain something, but strip all that away and you’re left with a car that’s endlessly enjoyable with unmatched dynamic depth.

Day 2 is a big one because we’re let loose on the ice with proper studded rally tyres. These toothy hoops of rubber and tungsten carbide instantly transform the feel of the 911, like an athlete putting on a pair of running spikes. Two things are immediately apparent. The first is that there is more traction, but the more welcome improvement is greater bite from the front end. It doesn’t need coaxing or coercing as much as on the small pips fitted to the winter tyres we were learning on yesterday.

For a while the balance of pace and grip is a little more in favour of the latter, at which stage I occasionally manage to drive in the manner Tuthill described of Waldegård. It feels spooky though, as you’re committing absolutely to nailing your braking points and getting the car turned while still on the brakes. Slow the car too early and you have to come off the brakes and wait until you reach the curve, which is hopeless as you’ve missed the moment of weight transfer to the front end. Alternatively you come piling in, panic at the speed you’re carrying and promptly plough into the snow bank, or turn too aggressively and induce a ton of oversteer.

I persevere for a while, but as I begin to get my head around the added bite and therefore speed offered by the long studs I decide chasing Waldegård’s technique is a hiding to nothing, and switch to developing my left-foot braking skills. This is much more successful. In fact I can’t believe how much more control I have over the car in every phase, from corner entry right the way through to corner exit. The trouble is once you get an idea of what a tickle of the brake pedal can do, the temptation is to fiddle, adjusting your line because you can, because it’s fun and because when you’re slewing through one of the big track’s majestic fourth-gear transitions you need all the control and reassurance you can get. I’m chuffed the left-foot penny is beginning to drop, but I’m more baffled than ever at how Waldegård could be so quick and consistent simply using his right foot.

Before he leaves for the UK, Tuthill promises me I can experience driving on a proper stage before I head home. This is the ultimate challenge and – I’m hoping – the moment where I really get to understand Waldegård’s mastery. But where’s the stage? In this remote part of Sweden all it takes to close off a section of public road and create your own impromptu special stage is a quick word with any locals that live along your chosen section of road, in this case one gnarled Swede referred to by the Below Zero team as ‘The Elk Hunter’. A van parked at each end is the best way to stop any passing traffic and walkie-talkies ensure the stage sentries are in contact with the car.

It might sound dodgy, but this is rally country. It transpires many of the roads near to the lake are regularly used by WRC teams to test ahead of the Monte and Rally Sweden, so it’s part of the culture. Nobody seems to mind waiting a few minutes and it does no harm.

Tuthill has arranged for Martin Rowe to be my mentor. 1998 British Rally Champion in the days of the F2 Kit Car and Production World Rally Champion in 2003, Rowe has retired from professional rallying and now lives in the Canadian Rockies where he spends the summer indulging a different passion for speed, as guide on the many mountain bike trails. In the winter he works as an instructor with the Below Zero guys.

Like Tuthill he’s a tremendous talent behind the wheel, though his precise, measured style couldn’t be more different from Tuthill’s high-energy helmsmanship. He also has a deadpan sense of humour and, being a rally driver, is impossible to impress.

We start with Rowe taking me for a few runs up and down the stage. It’s predictably impressive with Martin going quicker and using more of the road’s width with each pass. I think he’s a bit disappointed when I evict him from the driver’s seat – you can take the man out of stage rallying, but you can’t take stage rallying out of the man etc – but I’m itching to have a go.

Settling into the driver’s seat and pulling down on the shoulder straps it’s sobering to look out at the sinuous, snow-banked road stretching ahead, framed between the 911‘s front wings. It’s a view that would have been as familiar to Waldegård as looking out across the farmland of his birthplace in Rimbo, southern Sweden. To my novice gaze it looks wonderful and daunting in equal measure. If the lake has been my classroom this closed road is about to put what I’ve learnt to an altogether more revealing examination.

Select first gear, feed the power in and clutch out with equal smoothness, feel the tail hunker down as the rear wheels spin, studs digging into the snow and ice for purchase through the first three gears. With a nice bed of groomed snow the road is like a freshly bashed piste. After the ruts and deep patches of powder on the lake courses, the Porsche feels sweet, floating but still connected to the surface.

I’VE LONG SINCE abandoned hope of emulating Waldegård’s technique. It was okay to have a play on the racetrack-like confines of the lake, but his aggressive right-foot braking requires absolute commitment with no hesitation. I understand the principle of his method, but I also know I don’t have the skill, confidence or experience to carry full speed on this road. If there’s one thing that unites race and rally drivers it’s wishing to avoid the humiliation of an understeer accident, so left-foot braking it is.

It’s a peculiar turnaround, for back in the real world I’m a resolute right-foot braker. However, after an intensive day and a half on the lake with some expert tuition (and a remarkably sanguine attitude to pulling lovingly prepared Porsches out of snowbanks) I’m can’t imagine attacking this snowy stage without using my ‘wrong’ foot.

And do you know what? Once the intimidation loosens its grip on my limbs and I relax sufficiently to let the car flow, something truly magical happens. Despite the road being little wider than the length of the 911 and its twists, bumps and blind crests still unfamiliar, the skills instilled in us on the lake mean I’m seeing the road not as a circuit racer, but as a rally driver. More specifically, as a 911 rally driver, albeit one without Waldegård’s genius.

It’s quite an epiphany. One where your primary objective is having the car dancing not just out of the corner from apex to exit, but into the corner too. If the tail is sliding you’ve got something to work with. If it isn’t you’re done, at least for that particular corner.

Just as Tuthill said, left-foot braking acts like a fifth damper, except the forces it allows you to control are lateral and longitudinal, rather than vertical. The process becomes addictive; what was once counter-intuitive now feeling surprisingly natural as you play steering, throttle and brake inputs against one another or in harmony depending on what you want the 911 to do.

Once this clicks in your brain your left foot is able to rotate the car, let it slide or hold it in a strange mid-slide stasis. Brain suitably re-wired (I always knew rally drivers weren’t wired up correctly – now I know this to be true!) driving at speed along this snow-covered country road is to experience something beyond anything I’ve ever attempted before. Not least because there are moments when I would kill for three legs and feet in order to work throttle, brake and clutch independently. It gets a bit busy in the footwell.

Even with a rudimentary grasp of things I’m finding the 911 will do things I never imagined I’d be attempting on such a confined road. It’s empowering, because it enables you to attack an unfamiliar road with greater confidence, certain that you can position the car for whatever’s thrown at it.

I may have failed to embrace his technique, but in trying I’ve gained vivid insight into the bond Waldegård must have had with the 911. From the snow of Sweden to the heat dust (and mud!) of Kenya, he never lost that winning touch. Few could claim to know Stuttgart’s quirky sports car better. I only wish that I’d had the opportunity to sit next to him and witness the magic firsthand.