Rock N' Rohrl

Driving a racing 911 appears second nature to a multiple world champion, but Mark Hughes finds that there’s a sting in the tail at Hockenheim

For a twice World Rally Champion, someone who has routinely accepted the challenge of loose surfaces, unknown bends and crests, world-class competition and come out on top, Hockenheim in a Supercup Porsche 911 was probably a doddle. Particularly if, like Walter Rohrl, you have spent half your life blasting round this track, and you’d played a major part in developing the car whose wheel you were sat behind, journalist alongside watching your every move like a hawk. Yes, all those things are true, but it does not alter how impressive it all looked.

A Porsche 911, superlative driver’s tool though it is, can and does still bite if you mistreat it. Get on, or more crucially off, the power at the wrong lime and the forces of nature which dictate that something with all that weight at the back will spin like a top once a certain point is reached, take over. Yet here was Rohrl, blithely edging up to that limit with practised precision, looking for all the world like he’s taking the kids to school.

That barking flat-six urges us down the main straight with the speedo nudging the 200 kph (125 mph) mark, and there’s something spookily contradictory about how late yet how utterly smoothly he brakes. The technique is completely conventional – he never even hints at left-foot braking – but the beauty is in the detail. Not only do you barely notice the precise point at which he’s come on or got off the brakes, but each steering input is tiny, co-ordinated perfectly with what he’s doing with the throttle. In his hands the rear-engined 315 bhp Supercup car is a pussycat.

It turns in without drama, the cornering loads build up smoothly and on the exit there’s a bit of power oversteer. Down the short straight he sits motionless at the wheel, then a blur of movement from his right arm as he grabs another gear, but he’s perfectly still again so quickly you almost doubt that you’ve just seen him move. A tight second gear, off-camber corner follows, taking us onto the short circuit loop. He brakes late and turns in early, yet doesn’t need all the road on the exit.

Down the back straight and he’s lining it up for a worrying almost-flat-looking kink and it’s starting to drizzle. It slides all at once, all four wheels drifting through there as the exit merges with the entry to the slow right-hander that follows. Braking and bringing it back on fine at the same time you can just about feel the car starting to squirm, but no sooner is this sensation apparent and he eases the pressure on the brake pedal, getting it all lined up again perfectly. Coming out of there, the Porsche bucks on its springs, but gets all that power down, Rohrl edging up close to the Armco that is decorated with the paint and tyre marks of a myriad errant race cars.

The remainder of the lap through the stadium section, the long left-hand Sachskurve and the off-camber wiggles before joining the main straight once more is all similarly undramatic. Always you feel completely safe, and you need to be watching closely to appreciate that it’s only Rohrl’s superbly precise timing of throttle and steering with weight-transference braking that’s making the car look so friendly and easy. So much so that he doesn’t even need to use his rally driver’s car control.

Not that these cars are monsters, but they do require respect. A whole field of them act as a travelling support for the European Grands Prix -there’s a German championship too with rich amateurs mixing it with a few aspiring touring car drivers (Uwe Alzen graduated from here to Mercedes-Benz and now Opel ITC drives) and the odd star guest driver (these range from rock stars to F1 pilots).

The basis of the cars is the 3.8-litre Carrera RS road car with some minor engine tweaks, a stripped interior bringing weight down to 1120kg, and stiffer suspension.

“Please, have mercy,” the Porsche PR man says as I get ready to drive Rohrl’s car for an allocated four laps. He’s worried because he’s got a whole heap of other journalists to fit in there and no spare car because a German journalist wrote that off the previous day, getting into a tank-slapper as he entered the straight and reversing at high speed into the pit wall. I’ve got the PR man’s request to heed as I head out of the pits, but on the other hand I’ve got four laps in which to go quickly enough to get some sort of feedback. It’s a Porsche 911 and it’s a few years since I’ve seen this track. Not a good combination? Well, halfway through the first lap the heavens open, raining hard enough to need the wipers on full speed. And I’m still on slick tyres…

I complete a lap, but now the car feels twitchy as hell. Exciting and raw, a much more wayward beast than it had seemed in Rohrl’s sensitive hands. Coming onto the main straight it twitches into a small slide under power, but it’s nothing, quickly corrected with the steering. It’s a long way into fifth gear approaching Turn One after the pits and I brake early, turn in gently, trying to do it like Walter did. I get to the apex OK, get gently on the power for the exit. It goes into big oversteer, but for the moment it seems alright, happy sitting there on opposite lock and with constant throttle. Then I must have just got to that critical point because, all of a sudden, the momentum of the slide increases and we’re spinning wildly. I’m hard on the brakes, desperate not to hit anything, the PR man’s words ringing in my ears. Thank God for gravel traps.

This tame, well-behaved, purring animal that Rohrl had shown me had turned round and bitten…