With typical modesty, Walter Röhrl’s story starts with a generous nod to someone else. It was Herbert Marecek, he concedes, who first suggested that the manner in which he attacked an icy alpine pass en route to a day’s skiing might be better invested in competition. A total lack of funds was immediately cited as the principle hurdle, but Röhrl’s long-time friend and ski partner was undeterred: ‘If I come up with a car and it doesn’t cost anything – would you drive it?’ How could he say no?
A resourceful and determined Marecek borrowed cars from friends and dealerships, enabling Röhrl to cut his teeth in small local rallies. Then, in 1970, in an extraordinary gesture of both faith and friendship, Marecek sold his father’s stocks for 15,000 Deutschmarks and used the proceeds to buy a well-worn Safari-spec 911.
At this point the gloves were off and the pair entered the Rally Bavaria, part of the official European Championship. Röhrl was way out in front, in what was only his fifth ever rally, when mechanical gremlins intervened. But by this point, with further clamour from a tireless Marecek, the media had begun to notice, and a major manufacturer made first contact. Röhrl won the next round of the European championship, catapulting him into the top 20 drivers in the FIA. Suddenly pastime was fulltime, and he had the enviable task of jacking in the day job and breaking the news to his mother.
In an era where much less was understood about a driver’s needs and requirements outside of the car, Röhrl already had an edge. A lifelong love of cycling ensured he was improbably fit; through the 1980s and 1990s Röhrl was averaging somewhere between 5,000-6,000 miles a year on racing bicycles. Out of office hours, he would compete in marathons and hill climbs where his times were seldom far short of course records. Summer holidays were spent in the company of former Tour de France riders, touring the Alps. On numerous occasions he out performed his professional companions in the mountains, a testament not only to preternatural fitness but also mental strength.
Super-fit Röhrl counted cycling heroes including Eddy Merckx and Victor Van Schil among his friends and would happily spend up to 6,000 miles a year in the saddle during the 1980s and 90s.
His passion for skiing also afforded him an unusual affinity and finesse with speed. While under contract he was banned from skiing, with a warning that any breach would revoke his salary. He always went anyway, as uninterested then by fame and fortune as he remains to this day. And what Röhrl learned on the slopes he was able to apply to the rally stage. ‘I wanted to move as naturally on skis as on my own feet. And that’s also how I wanted to drive. I wanted the car to respond precisely the way I wanted, even to the slightest touch of my little finger. I could never be satisfied with anything less.’
At the start of his career Röhrl had his sights set on but one thing. The Monte. While many drivers dreamed of a World Championship, his sole focus was that most historic and iconic of rallies. ‘I often said if I won in Monte Carlo, I’d retire. I didn’t drive to make money. I just wanted to find out whether I was a dreamer – or truly the best. That was my motivation.’
The moment came sooner than expected, in late January 1980, at the wheel of a Fiat 131 Abarth, beating his next closest rival by a monstrous ten minutes. ‘I was elated for three days straight. There was nothing in my life that could go wrong after that – I had accomplished everything that I had set out to do. And I actually did want to stop after that.’
Taking glory at the 1980 Monte. 'I had accomplished everything that I had set out to do,' says Röhrl.
Luckily, Röhrl’s legendary humility extended, even at that heady moment, to heeding the advice of his friends and peers. ‘My co-driver Christian Geistdörfer said, “What’s going on? You’ve finally hit your stride and now you want to stop?” My wife was of the same opinion. “No way,” she said, “you love driving! If you stop you won’t know what to do with yourself.”
Resolutely uninterested in the limelight or the lucrative sponsorship deals, Röhrl had to push himself to continue. ‘Yes, I wanted to enter rallies, but I didn’t want all the commotion focused on me. But I realised that was unavoidable and just told myself to keep going. Which was the right thing to do.’
It would not all be plain sailing, however, and that determination would prove critical. In 1981 Röhrl managed to convince Porsche to enter a 911 into the San Remo rally, but he needed a win to reassure the factory that this was the right way to be investing in motorsport. Car and driver dominated the early asphalt stages, building a sizeable lead. But they knew this would be eroded on later gravel stages where the all-wheel drive competition would have the advantage. ‘We had calculated that if the all-wheel vehicles weren’t more than four minutes ahead after these two days, we’d still pull it off because there was another night to go on asphalt. After the last off-road stage we were only behind by two minutes and ten seconds. So everything looked great – until a semi-axle broke off. That was the most bitter breakdown in my entire career. It hit me so hard that I was sick for the next four weeks.’
Röhrl describes the time a semi-axle broke off his 911, costing him victory in the 1981 San Remo rally, as 'the most bitter breakdown in my entire career'.
Röhrl bounced back of course, and his extraordinary career trajectory continued. The following year he would take what many consider his most impressive championship title, in a rear-wheel drove Opel against the era-defining Audi Quattros.
That single-mindedness in a car, however, has never overwritten his ability to enjoy every aspect of life, to be approachable, and flexible. He cites the story of Herbert Von Karajan, principal conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic for 35 years and life-long Porsche aficionado. Karajan had requested a meeting with Röhrl, who obliged by driving out to his Austrian home, where the conductor immediately took him out again, for a drive in the mountains.
After a few minutes the reason for Karajan’s invitation became clear, as he asked if Röhrl would teach him how to left-foot brake. ‘I told him that in order to do that we have to drive at the limit of what’s physically possible, which means really fast. Karajan responded, “There’s no traffic, so why don’t you drive fast? When we come to a left-hand curve, I’ll tell you if anything’s coming.” And then he actually leaned way over the dashboard to the front windshield before left-hand curves, and yelled each time, “All clear, all clear!” And when it was over he said, “I’ll practice a little and then give you another call.”
These odd little anecdotes are scattered through Röhrl’s illustrious but unassuming past, his influence and impression on so many other figures in motorsport and beyond a welcome constant. Even after he stopped competing in rallies in 1987 his expertise was regularly called upon, in sports car racing, endurance and development driving.
One of our favourite stories from this period perfectly illustrates his diffident brilliance. In 1988 he was dropped into a Trans-Am race in Niagara Falls, to fill in for an overstretched Hans Joachim-Stuck. A bumpy street circuit with concrete walls, there was no run off and the entire field were reluctant to push their cars to the limits. But Röhrl’s rallying background meant that this was his default. ‘In training I posted the best time by 2.6 seconds. The Americans said, ‘Pure luck! Did you see that? He was just a hand’s-breadth away from hitting the wall. He won’t last five laps tomorrow!’
The next day temperatures exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit with one hundred percent humidity. The race lasted for over three hours and Röhrl lapped the entire field, including the second-place finisher Scott Pruett. Yet another astonishing, underreported achievement by the drivers’ driver. Röhrl’s simple summary of the weekend says it all: ‘They had all underestimated the precision you need in rally driving. That was my kind of race.’
The tribe caught up with Walter a few days before his 70th birthday, in minus 20°, on a frozen Finnish lake. We are delighted to say that he shows no signs of slowing down, and made a little film to prove it. Keep your eyes peeled for a perfect demonstration of the pendulum effect, in a 911 Turbo no less, by our favourite sideways Septuagenarian.
*An eight-week exhibition, Genius on Wheels, all about the life and cars of Herr Röhrl, opens at the Porsche Museum in Zuffenhausen on Tuesday, March 14.