Per-Inge Walfridsson - Volvo's Super Swede

In these days of racing-car specification rally cars a regular anomaly on the leader boards has been the sight of a big, heavy, unwieldy Volvo 142, thanks to the incredible skills of the elfin, blonde-headed Swede, Per-Inge Walfridsson. Almost inevitably sideways through the forests, undeterred by snow, ice or loose stones, Walfridsson swings the big Volvos around from seat and pedals elevated to suit his 5 ft. frame. His ability is such that in the last RAC Rally he put the works-prepared Volvo into sixth place overall behind such illustrious drivers as Mäkinen, Blomqvist, Munari, Waldegárd and Röhrl mounted in some of the cream of suitable rally

Though this “little man in a big car” has become almost a legend among the British rallying fraternity, little seems to be known about him, largely because little has been written about him!

We managed to corner him for a half-hour chat during a joint Volvo/DAF winter testing session for journalists in Finland. Now that Volvo have acquired control of the Dutch manufacturer, this Volvo-contracted driver will be competing in Dafs as well as Volvos, no doubt with the same exhuberance and success with what at face value appears unsuitable machine,. To demonstrate his new double allegiance, Walfridsson showed his skills to a few of us through the snowy forests with a DAF Marathon 1300 estate, but more of that elsewhere.

Walfridsson first took the British international rallying scene by the ears in the 1972 Scottish Rally, when he had slid his way up to seventh position in his own Volvo 142 after twenty-four hours when the Volvo’s sump carne off worst in an altercation with a bridge. Unbelievably to many he had finished amongst the fastest five on most of the quick, dry, stony Scottish stages, before retiring. To prove that this was no flash in the pan he re-appeared in a works-backed Group 2 Volvo 142 for the 1973 International Welsh Rally and finished second overall behind the maestro of the British forests, Roger Clark, in a works Group 5 Escort. There were many who said that only the delays caused by a spasm of six punctures prevented the cumbersome Volvo leading the Escort home on its home ground. A broken axle ended his run in the 1973 Scottish, but he returned with a vengeance for the 1973 RAC Rally to finish fourth overall despite gearbox trouble. A seized engine put him out of the 1974 Welsh, but his luck was better on the last RAC Rally.

Walfridsson admits that Scandinavian rally drivers have a distinct advantage over their opponents because of the opportunities to practise on the prevalent rough forest roads in summer and on the snow and ice in winter. His own career follows classic Scandinavian lines in which practice from an early age has led to perfection.

The area around his home at Torsby, in Vãrmland, 300 km. north of Gothenberg, is a rally driver’s paradise and at the age of 12, and in subsequent winters, young Walfridsson started his development by borrowing a tractor from his father, a haulage and plant hire contractor who, more significantly, is also the local Volvo dealer, clearing a circuit on a nearby frozen lake and practising to his heart’s content with his parents’ Volvo. When he wasn’t sliding four wheels around the ice, he was learning the rudiments of mechanical skill and the secrets of different types of slippery surfaces on a series of motorcycles (he had his first when he was 10) including OES, Harley-Davidson, Munaric, Husqvarna and Royal Enfield. The local motor club was the womb for this embryo rally driver; as soon as he was allowed to, at the age of fifteen, he marshalled and timed on rally special stages.

Patiently he waited for his eighteenth birthday, the legal driving age in Sweden, and soon afterwards, in January 1969, he competed in his first local rally with his mother’s shopping (and absolutely standard) Volvo 142. The continuation of the elf’s fairy tale would have been a win in this first event: he didn’t win, as it happens, but he didn’t disgrace himself either and immediately prepared the car properly for rallying.

Mother must have had a very generous nature, at least until the inevitable happened and the 142 landed on its roof – a complete write-off. She had to buy a new car, without the help of insurance because the accident had happened on a rally, and so too did Per, a 122S.

When he wasn’t driving or preparing cars Per was studying civil engineering at college. But the call of rallying was stronger than the art of roadbuilding, so once his final exams were behind him he became a semi-professional rally driver with his own 122 – “semi” because he spent the time between rallies driving huge trucks for father. We wonder if the Scanias spent as much time sideways as the Volvos!

His early forays in Swedish Championship events included one seventh place overall, but finishing rallies was not one of Per’s stronger points at this time. He recalls his first notable success as third overall in it Southern Norway rally in 1971 behind Stig Blomqvist (“The best rally driver in the World on snow and ice,” says Per) and Per Eklund. Al the end of that year, the young Walfridsson turned the tables, winning the East Rally in Norway ahead of Per Eklund, a result he repeated in the 1972 Autumn Rally in Norway.

In 1971 too he had one of his few non-Volvo drives, winning a local rally in mid-Sweden with a Swedish Dealer Team Opel Ascona. Another foray with a “foreign” car was less successful: his Toyota broke before the first special stage in the 1973 Total Rally in South Africa. Volvo-mounted in last year’s Total, he was challenging for the lead on the last leg when the engine overheated.

But results do not reflect the true ability of Per-Inge Walfridsson: his achievements in putting an outclassed, under-powered, overweight rally car into the top placings are at least the equal of driving a competitive car into first place. Experts often wonder how quick this twenty-four-year-old would be in a competitive Escort, Alpine or Stratos. Our own GP described something of the problems facing Walfridsson in his RAC Rally report in our January issue: “In lighter, more powerful cars it is possible to keep just a little distance from the ragged edge, but in such it car as a Volvo it is vital to maintain as much momentum as possible all the time, using the brakes as little as possible. Walfridsson has become a master of anticipation in this respect and has thus earned a reputation as a spectacular and exciting driver to watch as well as a skilful one.” Elsewhere he succinctly summed up Walfridsson’s mastery: “This little chap makes the big, unwieldy, Volvo 142 handle like a Dinky toy!”

Walfridsson himself shrugs it all off: Driving the car I do not realise its disadvantages. I have to drive it more or less flat out on the steering and the brakes and keep the throttle right down.”

But surely the size of the Volvo must be a problem on narrow forest stages? In his lilting, almost fluent English, learnt practically from scratch during six-months working for Volvo GB in 1973, he replies: “It is no problem at all, but the DAF is easier. When I am driving a DAF all the roads is like a motorway!”

Obviously the size of the DAF is more appropriate to him and the forests than the Volvo and also, “The DAF is a very easy car to drive because of the gearbox – you always have the right gear out of a bend.” Like all the Scandinavian rally drivers and now, following their example, many rally drivers from elsewhere in the world, Walfridsson practises the art of left foot braking, setting up the car on the brakes with the throttle still applied. With the two-pedal automatic DAF he finds that left-foot braking is even easier and more natural. “Maybe because of the transmission there should be more power in the DAF; on snow and ice it is enough but there is too little power for the summer roads. For that reason I shall continue to drive a Volvo in summer, but the DAF is wonderful on ice and snow, so that will be my winter car.”

His 110-115 b.h.p. DAF 1300 Marathon is being prepared alongside his Volvo 142 in the Volvo competitions department, run by Gunnar Andersson. “They just had some people from Holland in the beginning to teach them about the DAF.” Why not the new two-door Volvo 242 (not available in England) instead of the 142? “We have not yet developed it for rallying,” he says, but we suspect that the weight penalty of the safety-body may be too much even for Walfridsson to overcome.

Walfridsson’s Volvo/DAF contract binds him solely for Swedish Championship events, all the 1975 rounds of which he will be doing in either make (he finished second overall in 1973 and third last year, though he contested only three of the six 1974 qualifying rounds, finishing second in them all), along with the Swedish Rally, a World Championship qualifier. Additionally he will compete in local Swedish events. But, contract or not, his Volvo/DAF allegiance will remain for British events, amongst which he will definitely contest the RAC Rally, probably in a Volvo, and maybe the Welsh. Interestingly, a deal is currently being discussed for a possible Renault Alpine or R17 drive in the Safari Rally, a rally in which he has long had an ambition to compete. The Monte Carlo Rally too remains an ambition even in its present watered-down status, “But the 4000 km. run-in section is a waste of time – you have to cover the distance of the entire RAC Rally before you start rallying properly!”

His favourite rally? Undoubtedly Britain’s RAC Rally, “Because it is a rally which has a long distance and is very tiring and because I get most success in this rally. The ratio of the roads to forests is just right – a good balance – the English forests are very similar to those in Sweden and the organisation is very good.”

Walfridsson believes in choosing local co-drivers who are used to particular terrains and events. So in England he has an excellent liaison with John Jensen from Kent, while in Scandinavia he continues to use his first co-driver and neighbour from Torsby, Kjell Nilsson. In Africa a local Safari specialist will be co-opted into the hot seat.

He feels that the tyre situation in rallying is becoming as ridiculous as it had become in Formula 1: “The best thing would be if the regulations stipulated just one type of tyre – a different type for each type of conditions – so that we didn’t have to spend lots of money just trying tyres to see which is the best. If the tyres are restricted, success would be down to the ability of the driver instead of to the right availability and choice of tyre.”

This quick little Swede has one other ambition: to compete in a fast tarmac rally like the Circuit of Ireland, for which the Volvo is too heavy and underpowered. Has anybody got an entry plus Stratos, Carrera or Alpine spare for the end of this month? – C.R.