Rally drivers are best, reckons outspoken Walter Röhrl. His loose tongue often ruffled a few feathers, but it was his skills on a loose surface that scared F1 World Champions…
You won Monte Carlo in four very different cars. Was that your favourite rally? — Phil Bates, Bexley Heath
When I was young, I dreamt of winning Monte Carlo once, I never dreamt of being World Champion. There were many other nice rallies like New Zealand or San Remo, but if I have to choose just one, then it would be Monte Carlo.
You drove DTM, World Sportscars, IMSA and Trans-Am. Which did you prefer? Enduros or sprints? — Melissa Bones, Notting Hill
The nicest race car I drove was the Trans-Am Audi 200 that I raced in 1988. It was quite easy to drive, powerful with 630bhp, had good brakes and, for a 4WD car, it had no understeer: it was very precise on turn-in and was just fantastic to drive. Normally I preferred long-distance racing as it is a bit closer to what you find in rally driving, but I really enjoyed Trans-Am. They were basically sprints, normally about one and a half hours long, but the race at Niagara Falls was the most interesting: two and a half hours long, 40 degrees outside, 100 per cent humidity, lots of accidents. I lapped everyone except Scott Pruett in second place.
You once told Fiat “if Sandro Munari is driving one more time I won’t be.” What made it so bad between you? — Ross Ainscow, Amlwch, Anglesey
I like Sandro very much. He is a very nice guy. This remark was made because on the Safari Rally in 1979 I was recceing with Markku Alén and we were both in near-standard Fiat 131s from the local dealer. We would get up very early in the morning and drive so slowly with these cars so as not to break them, and then about midday — whoosh! — Sandro would pass us in a works car at full speed. I was very upset with the ‘prima donna’, but now we are good friends.
Was it more satisfying giving Audi a bloody nose with the Opel in the 1982 WRC than winning rallies with the Quattro two years later ? — Les Bush, Bath
Yes it was. When I signed for Mercedes at the end of 1980 I also had an offer from Audi and their manager, Walter Treser, was very angry that I did not accept it. He did lots of interviews with bad comments about me so when I went back to the World Championship in 1982 my principal motivation was to beat the Audis and stop them being World Champion. For them to be beaten by me in an Opel with old technology was awful.
In your era of rallying, do you think you were the best driver, or was there one of your rivals who you looked up to ? — Damian Cullinane, Wareham, Dorset
In the beginning Hannu Mikkola was my idol. Also Timo Mäkinen was someone I admired very much. I always worked hard to be the best when I was driving, but I never thought of myself as the best. I always felt — knew even — that I could do better. I was my own biggest critic. I would say to myself that I had the best car, good luck, whatever, to explain any success.
Was it a big disappointment when Mercedes decided not to do the 1981 season? — Julie Blissett, Manchester
No, not really. I had one aim — to win Monte Carlo — and I had done that in 1980. I was ready to continue but not really for money or fame. I already had a bad feeling about the Mercedes deal. I felt I was like everyone else, only looking for the money. So when the board decided to withdraw it was like a relief for my conscience. And then I had a telephone call from Porsche who said they had no money but asked would I like to drive their car. It was the start of a big friendship.
Jackie Stewart said that anyone who claimed to like the old Nürburgring was a “liar”. As a ‘Ring regular, what do you think? — Simon Davis, St Albans, Hertfordshire
During the past four years I’ve been developing the Porsche Carrera GT and I’ve found for the first time that the Nordschliefe is not always fun. The GT is too fast. If I test a 911 then it is fantastic on that track, but now I understand what Jackie meant. He was talking about Formula One. He is right. It is too crazy, even for me.
How much of Pikes Peak did you actually commit to memory? — Martin Baker, Crawley
It was a new world in every way for me. What I did was to drive it with my wife Monika and we made pace notes, which I then memorised — not the road, you understand, the notes. And this worked really well. Ari Vatanen had seen the road maybe 50 times and still could not be sure of the corners.
Can you clarify exactly what you said about Michèle Mouton when you were title rivals in 1982? — Phil Pyne, Cambridge
I am always in trouble for saying what I think. But this time I’m innocent! Before the Acropolis — which she won — I took Werner Grissmann, the famous downhill skier, up a gravel road with hairpins in the Opel and he asked could anything be quicker. I said “a monkey in a Quattro,” meaning that the Quattro had so much power and traction that anyone could drive it quicker than the Opel up that hill. But, as often happens, it got around that I had compared Michèle to a monkey. She deserved her victories: it was only my good luck that I beat her to the title.
You drove with up-and-coming drivers at Lancia: Patrese, Alboreto and Cheever. Could any of them have made good rally drivers?
I think not. I remember I once took Riccardo in a Stratos on a special stage and afterwards he said, “With all these trees and things, you are absolutely crazy.” And I could see that I was able to learn circuits much quicker than them, to come to a good lap time with not so much prior knowledge. This is the big difference between rally and race drivers — and thus it is difficult for them to do stages.
What was your favourite rally car? And was the Sport Quattro E2 very difficult? — Kevin Ludlow, New Zealand
From the pure driving view it was the Lancia 037. It was a car made for my style of driving — I don’t like to steer. I believe the only secret in driving is to steer as little as possible. This was the way to drive the 037. In an Audi, if you didn’t turn the steering wheel one whole turn then it didn’t even react. Of course in power and traction the Audi was the best but it was hard to drive with the understeer and I had to teach myself left-foot braking.
Did you ever have a go in a single-seater or were you too tall? — Rashed Chowdhury, Telford
Just once in 1980 when a German newspaper wanted to get two World Champions from rallying and F1 to drive each other’s cars. For two days they tried to fit me in Emerson Fittipaldi’s car and then I did maybe 10 laps at Silverstone, my head sticking out well above the rollbar. It was not so bad. I got to within five seconds of Emerson’s time but when we went into a forest with the Fiat 131 I was 30sec faster in just five kilometres. Emerson went with me in the car first — it was the RAC car that had the co-driver sitting in the back — and he told me that he would wave if I was going too fast. I only got into third gear and he was waving like mad… I saw him at the DTM Masters event at the Norisring in July and he still remembers that ride.