Given the length and variety of Walter Rohrl’s career you might think he’d find it difficult selecting the worst of them all. In the end, he got the list down to just two. By David Motton
A career encompassing two World Rally Championships and numerous successes on the race track might leave Walter Rohrl struggling to name a ‘worst car’. But no driver is immune from those disasters which make triumph all the sweeter, and Walter has a few he’d rather forget. However, one surprising machine makes his shortlist.
For the 1984 rally season, Rohrl left Lancia to join the works Audi squad. The previous year, the Quattro had been the car to have, but in 1984 a new generation of purpose-built four-wheel drive machines put the original Quattro under pressure. Peugeot’s 205 T16 in particular brought into question the wisdom of continuing to compete with a car so closely related to a production model.
Audi responded with radical evolution of the original Quattro: the Sport. Lighter, shorter and more powerful than the original, the Sport Quattro should have re-established Audi’s superiority. It did not. “The Audi Sport Quattro was not a good car. When Audi told me about the short wheelbase, I was sure it was the wrong decision as I knew it would ruin the handling. But Hannu (Mikkola) tested the car and said, yes, he liked it. Really it was massively nervous. The balance of the car was terrible,” recalls Rohrl today. When reliability did not let it down, its behaviour saw the Sport disappear into the scenery with depressing regularity. After crashing out of the San Remo Rally, Walter branded the car dangerous.
In spite of its problems, the Sport’s first victory in the Ivory Coast Rally secured Stig Blomqvist the Drivers’ Championship and made Audi the most successful World Rally Championship team ever. Nonetheless, it was clear Audi had their work cut out if they wanted to turn the Sport into a regular winner. With the Evolution 2 version, the Ingolstadt team sought to address the short-wheelbase car’s problems. “The result was much better. We had a very talented suspension engineer working on the car, the weight was moved away from the front, and many wings and spoilers were added. The balance of the car in high-speed bends was totally changed, although the spoilers didn’t make much difference in tight corners.”
With the right tool, Rohrl duly got on with the job. Returning to the San Remo Rally, scene of the previous year’s debacle, Walter gave the Evolution 2 its only World Rally win by over six minutes from Timo Salonen’s T16. Could the Evo 2 have gone on to even better things? “I think so, it was a very good car. We could have been very competitive in 1986. But of course, after the accidents that was it.”
Following a crash in the 1986 San Remo Rally, in which the Ford RS200 of Joaquim Santos left the road and killed four spectators, Audi retired from rallying. When Henri Toivonen and Sergio Crest were killed in their Lancia S4 on the Rally of Corsica, the authorities stepped in to ban the Group B four-wheel drive supercars. Perhaps the Sport Quattro never did show its full potential.
Walter’s difficulties with Audi’s problem child pale into insignificance next to the ordeal suffered in his final choice. “Now I think about it, there is no doubt at all. The Opel Kadett GTE was the worst car I ever drove.”
At the opposite end of Rohrl’s career from the disappointing Sport, the Kadett nearly sank Rohrl’s ambitions as a World Rally Driver. “I was European Drivers’ Champion in 1974, and had won my first World Rally on the Acropolis in 1975, both in the Opel Ascona. So when I first saw the new Kadett, I was very optimistic. It was smaller and lighter than the Ascona, and I was convinced it would be even more successful. It was a proper, nice looking car.”
All seemed to be in place for Rohrl to make the transition from coming-man to championship challenger. But the mixture ended up badly underdone. we were supposed to have a new I6-valve engine for the Kadett, but it was not ready for the first rally at San Remo. So we continued with the old cross flow • engine. In the end it didn’t matter, because the car broke.” Rohrl endured a succession of gremlins until a failed propshaft joint eventually put him out.
A difficult debut could be forgiven, but the 1975 San Remo Rally established the pattern which almost all others followed. “We never made the car reliable. There were always problems. When we put the 16-valve engine in the car, we had to go back ro the old cross-flow engine, just to look after the transmission. So then we had maybe 160-170bhp – the Stratos had 270bhp.
“Underneath the problems was a great handling car. At that time, remember, rallies were not as they are today. One had to drive for 30 or 40 hours with little sleep. In such rallies, it’s not possible to concentrate as hard at the end of the event as in the first ten hours. The Kadett was so easy to handle, it was possible to drive quickly without mistakes even when tired.”
To make matters worse, while the factory based Euro-Handler team self-destructed their way through 1976, the efforts of national teams and privateers saw Opel placed second in the championship to Lancia. Why were private Opels chasing the Stratos at rallies the world over while the Russelsheim cars seemed destined never to finish? “For whatever reason, GM did not like motorsport at this time. It was difficult even to get permission to go rallying. The members of the board at Opel were never really behind the Euro-Handler team, so we never got out hands on the budget we needed to mount a proper challenge. Everything was always ‘half throttle’.
“Normal production engineers made the Kadett. They had no experience of competition, so they did not understand how to develop a strong, reliable rally car. Everything always looked good on paper. The engineers always told me things would be fine. I wanted to be given the car, to drive it, to test it. But there was never any budget to go testing.”
Rohrl stuck with the Euro-Handler team through 1976 and for most of ’77, despite continued interest in his services from other teams and manufacturers really did not want to leave Opel. They had given me my first chance to go professional. I had been with them three years, and we had enjoyed some very good times and had a lot of success. But I knew I had to move on if I wanted to win again.” Fourth place on the 1976 Monte Carlo Rally and outright victory in the (European Championship) 24 Hours of Ypres were rare highlights in a ignominious run of mechanical failures.
“I did not want to leave Opel, but it was the right decision. I still remembered the better times I had enjoyed at Opel so I was very happy to drive for them again in 1982 with the Ascona 400. The attitude in the team was very different to what it had been five years before. At last the Opel was properly developed, and I won the Drivers’ Championship.” Loyalty, finally, received its reward.