In Swedish, “björn” means “bear”.
And in many ways that suited Björn Waldegård, whose physique – especially in his later years – was a stark contrast to the whippet-like stance that typifies the ideal for modern racing (or rally) drivers.
But there were many contrasting things about the very first world rally champion. How somebody so quietly spoken and mild-mannered could turn into a single-minded demon behind the wheel, for instance. Or how somebody close to 50 (as he was back then) could beat drivers less than half his age to win the 1990 Safari Rally. Or even how a man who hailed from the frozen north could out-drive asphalt legend Sandro Munari on the twisty mountain roads above Sanremo, at the end of their famous duel on the 1976 event.
Both were driving a factory Lancia Stratos, with team boss Cesare Fiorio so desperate for Munari to win on home territory that he held up Waldegård on the start line of the final stage. Björn went on to win anyway, one of the most celebrated episodes of his career.
He was born to a farming family in Rimbo, Sweden, and owned a farm for much of his life, although he never worked the land. Instead, he maintained that the biggest advantage of a farm was having lots of space, so it was always possible to have parties and accommodate friends. That gives you an idea of the man’s measure.
Rallying was Waldegård’s life. He scored his first international win on the 1969 Monte Carlo Rally, in a Porsche 911 and, fittingly enough, his last major victory – the 2011 East African Safari Classic – was also in a Porsche, although he is most closely associated with Toyota.
Right up until recently he had committed to attending the Rallyday show at Castle Combe on September 20, where he would have demonstrated a Toyota Twin Cam: he had long been synonymous with the Japanese marque. In the end his health declined rapidly and he succumbed to cancer at home on August 29, aged 70.
It was with Toyota that he claimed six of his 16 WRC wins, another six coming at the wheel of a Ford Escort – the car he used to win the inaugural World Rally Championship for drivers, beating Hannu Mikkola by just a point in 1979. In an interview 30 years later, Waldegård remembered: “At the time I didn’t feel much at all. But when you realised, a couple of days afterwards, that ‘I am world champion’ it felt quite big, I must say. Especially beating Hannu, because we respected each other enormously.”
It was a more gentlemanly era of motor sport, which Waldegård epitomised perfectly. The drivers were in it for love rather than money. There wasn’t even an awards ceremony after Waldegård won the title. Instead a small gift was posted to his home in Sweden. “I don’t even remember what it was,” he said, “so it obviously wasn’t special…”
Of his other four WRC wins, three came at the wheel of the Lancia Stratos and one with the enormous Mercedes 500 SLC.
The versatility he showed on different surfaces was reflected in the cars he drove, which also included a Ferrari 308 GTB, a Volkswagen Beetle and a BMW 2002.
Africa was perhaps his happiest hunting ground, with four wins on the Safari and three on the Ivory Coast to his name. But his relationship with Africa goes far beyond what people saw on the stages. Without fanfare or ceremony, Waldegård would turn up with bags of old clothes that belonged to him or his children, giving them away to people who needed them most.
One of those children was Mathias Waldegård, who co-drove his father to victory on the 2011 East African Safari: that memorable final triumph. Despite being a profoundly warm person, Waldegard was never one for excessive displays of emotion.
This rally was somehow different though. “To win with your son makes it very special; something I always wanted to do,” the Swede explained afterwards, voice slightly cracked.
Like most things he aimed for, he managed to achieve it. Anthony Peacock