Possibly the best rally driver of all time, Walter Röhrl’s very special blend of sublime talent, unswerving focus and brutal honesty ensured his title-winning years were less than serene… By John Davenport
It must be a great feeling to wake up as the new world champion — and have a five-year contract with Europe’s richest car company tucked away under your pillow. But not so great when said car company calls you later to say it’s just canned its rally programme.
This is precisely the scenario that confronted Walter Röhrl in December 1980: out-of-work world champion. Little did he, or anyone else, guess that he would be champion again just 22 months later.
Röhrl had won his first world title during his third full year with Fiat. His maiden outing in a 131 Abarth came at the end of 1977, when he finished third in the San Martino di Castrozza Rally, and the following year he joined the squad full-time, alongside Markku Alén, Sandro Munari and Maurizio Verini. Fiat secured the world championship in ’78 and, in the absence of a world drivers’ championship, Alén won the FIA Cup for Drivers.
There was a world drivers’ championship in 1979 — and it was won by Ford’s Björn Waldegård. Röhrl, meanwhile, suffered a bit of a disaster, second on the San Remo Rally being his best result, but both he and Fiat bounced back in ’80.
He opened the new season with a win in Monte Carlo, and added Portugal, Argentina and San Remo to his victory tally. He also finished second in New Zealand and Corsica, and became only the second world rally champion. None of his challengers were even close. Hardly surprising then that he should be approached by other teams for 1981.
Audi’s Walter Treser took him for a run in the prototype Quattro but, unlike main rival Hannu Mikkola, Röhrl was unimpressed by its understeer and thought it too complicated for the hurly-burly of rallying. In any case, he’d already been to see Erich Waxenberger at Mercedes.
“I knew Mercedes would have a shorter, lighter car for 1981, the 500SL rather than the 500SLC,” says Röhrl. “But when I visited him in Stuttgart, he showed me what they had planned for ’83: an even smaller car, four-wheel drive, a central engine and maybe 600hp. The design was complete in every detail. I could hardly wait for them to build it.”
So Röhrl signed a five-year contract with Professor Breitschwerdt, Waxenberger’s boss.
“We started testing the 500SL for Monte Carlo at the Col de Turini,” continues Röhrl. “It was dry Tarmac and I have to say that the car was really good. It was excellent uphill where we were 7sec faster than the Fiat had been, with only little development at that stage. But as there was no snow in France, we went to Austria to test the winter tyres. And there we had a very bad accident with a big lorry.
“The road was closed and we had a man in a car at the far end to make sure it was all clear. But this lorry driver came and said he only wanted to go a few hundred metres to pick up some logs. Our guy believed him and let him go. When we found the lorry it was turning round in the road — and we were doing 110mph. I slowed down a lot by ploughing through the snowbank, but the lorry wheel was right up to my door when we finally stopped.
“But the worst thing was that this test in the mountains was meant to be secret, yet German TV found out and arrived there just 20min after the accident. They did a really nice story about us testing at full speed on roads not properly closed, with pictures of the crashed car and all that!”
Röhrl shrugged off the crash as part and parcel of his chosen career; the Mercedes marketing men could not. They got jumpy, and when one of them rang him two weeks later, desperate for reassurance, he got a typically forthright answer from a man who cares little for PR platitudes or proprieties.
“He asked me if there was any risk that we would not win Monte Carlo with the 500SL,” remembers Röhrl. “I was a bit surprised by that and I told him honestly, if it was dry, I was sure we would be in the first five at the finish, but that if it snowed, we would not be in the first 10.” Honesty is not always the best policy. Just three days after Waxenberger had returned victorious from the Ivory Coast, Breitschwerdt went public: the project was shelved.
Mercedes offered Röhrl a job working for them, but he rightly felt a lot of his driving career was still ahead of him. It was far too late to find a major contract for 1981, though, and so he went with his friend Konrad Schmidt to Konigswiesen to spectate at the Janner Rally, traditional season-opener of the European Rally Championship.
“We talked about what he could do for that season,” says Schmidt. “My company had a contract to run Harald Demuth for Audi in the German series, and we had spare capacity to run another car for Walter. But which one?”
Audi was out of the question; Röhrl had turned them down to go to Mercedes and they were not yet ready to kiss and make up. So Schmidt talked with another friend, Manfred Jantke of Porsche. They wanted to promote the 924 and were launching a Carrera GTS version with a turbocharged 2.4-litre. To land Röhrl, the biggest name in German motorsport, would be a major coup.
The deal was done quickly. So fast that the man in charge of engine development at Porsche only got to know about it when Röhrl was interviewed on German TV. He nearly died of fright, for not one of his turbocharged four-cylinders had so far lasted more than a couple of hours before ventilating the roof of the dynamometer cell. Happily, Roland Kussmaul, later to develop the 911SCRS and 959 Paris-Dakar winner, took charge and quite soon SMS had a passable rally car at Röhrl’s disposal.
It made its debut on the Metz Rally in May. Though fastest on several stages, it suffered front suspension troubles and finished out of contention.
Röhrl reckons the engine was the best and worst part of the package: “It was quite strong, minimum 280bhp, but it was lacking torque. The usable range was between 4500-5800rpm. You found yourself driving to satisfy the needs of the engine rather than the demands of the road.”
During the course of the year, the car improved and Röhrl won four of the five German rallies he contested. But he was not in contention for the title as he had deliberately taken out an Austrian competition licence to prevent him taking points away from Porsche’s mainstream contender, Manfred Hero. Schmidt reckons that given another year of development, the Porsche could have been a real force in rallying — especially with Walter driving.
As well as rallying in 1981, Röhrl shared a 924 LM GTR with Jürgen Barth at Le Mans and finished seventh. He also won the Silverstone Six Hours with Harald Grohs and Dieter Schornstein in a private 935. Meanwhile, back at the factory, Kussmaul was working on a 911SC for Röhrl to rally.
He got this car for the San Remo — and simply flew. He led for eight stages, setting fastest time on all the Tarmac stages, amid an entry that included Mikkola’s Audi, Alén’s Fiat, Ari Vatanen’s Ford and Henri Toivonen’s Talbot. Once the rally reached the gravel stages, the Audis moved ahead, but Röhrl stayed in second, just a couple of minutes behind Michèle Mouton. Then, on the penultimate loose-surfaced stage, he retired with broken transmission.
“It was clear that when we came back to the asphalt I would easily have gone ahead. That was one of the hardest retirements in my whole career; I wanted so much to beat those Quattros. We had fantastic Pirellis, and the engine gave 286bhp, with power from 2000 to 8000rpm. Perfect. And at that time, too, I think my driving was quite good.”
So good that offers for 1982 were not slow in appearing. Among them was one from Opel, his alma mater, with whom he had won the European championship way back in 1974. His co-driver from that period, Jochen Berger, was now the operations manager for the team and they had the well-sorted Ascona 400 to go up against the Audis. The car had impressed Röhrl when he’d used one to make ice notes for Jochi Kleint on the 1981 Monte.
There was a further consideration for Röhrl: “I was a bit lacking in confidence despite the San Remo experience. I felt I needed a full programme of world championship rallies in order to get back into things. Perhaps this seems a bit crazy when you look back now.”
Opel’s Tony Fall came up with a good programme — every WRC event bar the 1000 Lakes — and Röhrl signed up for 1982. But the course of true love rarely runs smoothly. Fall may have got the best driver, but he also had to live with Röhrl’s highly personal way of looking at things.
“The problems started quite soon after I signed,” says Röhrl. “In January, the Rothmans people asked me to make a movie with them for three days. It was the week before Monte Carlo Rally and I had just returned from the recce, so I told them no. Instead, I was going into the Bavarian forest for four days of cross-country skiing so that I would be properly fit for the rally. From this moment there were problems between Rothmans, Tony and me.”
Problems there may have been, but Röhrl won the Monte. He went on to finish third in Sweden, New Zealand and San Remo, and second on the Safari, the Acropolis and in Brazil. Suddenly, he was in a position to win the title.
“To start with, I did not really have my focus on the championship. But with this situation with Michèle and all these press articles that were being written about us, I began to think I shall kill myself if I lose the title to this small girl!”
It now boiled down to the Ivory Coast Rally. Whichever of them won the event would win the title. Röhrl won the event. But even then there were problems within the team. He did not like the idea of going to Africa twice in a year…
“I informed Tony that I didn’t like to practise in a country like Ivory Coast. I stayed at home and Christian [Geistdörfer, his co-driver] went for three weeks, along with Bruno Berglund, to make notes. I said I would come one day before the rally and leave the day it finished.” None of which endeared him to the commercial needs of the team.
The final event of the year was the RAC. Opel wanted to maximise the value of three titles won — Röhrl (world), Tony Fassina (European) and Jimmy McRae (British) — and so Opel/Rothmans bigwigs gathered in York for a major PR bash on the eve of the rally. For Röhrl, though, cigarette promotion came much further down his priority list than a good night’s sleep. A voluble exchange between star driver and team manager followed, and though Röhrl got his sleep, he awoke to discover that Fall had sent for Kleint to replace him. No promotion, no RAC Rally, no contract.
Fall: “He had this strange idea that he was employed by Opel, and that whatever arrangement we had with Rothmans had nothing to do with him.”
One can sympathise with super-fit Röhrl’s stance, but the following year he drove for a team backed by another product in which he did not indulge, but which did not seem to be such a problem. Indeed, he won the Monte for a third time in 1983 driving a Martini-backed Lancia Rallye 037 — and for a fourth time in ’84, driving one of those understeery, too-complicated Audis.
But talent like his rarely comes without a contradiction or two. Or three.