The mid-week long read: local hero

24w ago


Beneath a light drizzle blown in from the Irish sea, a small cluster of classic rally cars has gathered in the disused docklands of Belfast’s Titanic quarter. Engines warm through, wipers beat a steady rhythm, spotlights pierce the morning gloom.

On one end of a row of heavily stickered Mantas, Chevettes and Escorts sits an elusive piece of Porsche’s racing history. This is an original 911 SC RS, one of the rally specials built in 1984 to pave the way for Porsche to enter the WRC. To meet Group B homologation, just 20 cars were made, five of which were handed over to Prodrive to be campaigned as part of the Rothmans partnership.

Adjusting his belts inside the stripped-out cockpit is none other than two-time World Rally champion Walter Röhrl. He pays close attention to the information being fed to him before pulling the door firmly shut, firing her up and heading without fuss or fanfare to the start line. The event is technically a non-competitive rally retrospective, allowing a selection of original cars to revisit the iconic stages of the Ulster Rally. But Röhrl already seems characteristically eager.

The remaining entrants form up behind the SC RS, among them an impressive number of privateer 911s including one of the Tuthill-prepared cars that took victory on the epic London to Sydney Marathon and the Cathal Curley RSR that won the inaugural rally here in 1976. Customer 911s enjoyed a clean sweep of the podium that year and won again in ’77, making Ulster something of a spiritual home-from-home for the air-cooled rally community.

Röhrl’s own history with the Ulster Rally dates back to July of 1984 when, at the pinnacle of an illustrious racing career, he was parachuted in by Audi to stress test the new short wheelbase Sport Quattro.

Ulster was a demanding event by any yardstick back then, with narrow, tree-lined roads leaving little margin for error and the ferocious bumps and unpredictable grip levels from rural Antrim’s careworn tarmac asking probing questions of any car or driver.

There solely for the purpose of testing, Röhrl professed no interest in winning the event. He promptly went on to do so anyway, and by a mighty four-minute margin with 20 fastest stages to his name. The feat became the stuff of rallying folklore.

Following Röhrl on the route today, you quickly get a sense of how terrifying these rapid, winding special stages must have been at full throttle, frequently in heavy rain and pitch darkness. Even in fairer conditions it is impossible to keep up with the former world champion, and the SC RS vanishes from view into the hills above Belfast.

An hour or so later, in the coastal village of Cushendun, Röhrl has brought traffic to a standstill. After 1984, his near-mythical status in Northern Island sees three generations of locals lining up to pay homage, with beaming octogenarians ushering their grandchildren forward for autographs and photos. The SC RS, meanwhile, is parked up on the main street with scarcely a sideways glance, sandwiched between an SUV and a delivery van.

“It’s a great day for me because I didn’t remember much from 34 years ago, but today I have time enough to enjoy the roads and the countryside. These are very special roads,” Röhrl remarks with a purposeful nod. “Very small, very bumpy. In fact I’ve been wondering how I did it so fast all those years ago and stayed in one piece.”

It’s an interesting time of life to be talking to the driver Niki Lauda famously referred to as ‘a genius on wheels.’ As he reflects on the dangerous days of Group B, the legend seems increasingly at odds with the man. “It would be nice to come back here in my old Porsche for a holiday,” he says quietly as we leave the crowd behind and head back to the RS. “This is more my thinking for the future now, to use my old cars and travel. To Ireland, to Scotland.”

But the racing driver within, or perhaps just the burden of reputation, will not let him go quite that easily. He nods towards the car with an explanatory shrug: “You can’t go that fast on these narrow roads, with cars coming the opposite way, but you know, if I go slow…well my co-drivers might as well go by themselves.”