What goes through a mountaineers mind when he suddenly faces a Yeti in the Himalayas? Since this weekend numerous winter sports fans know exactly what such a meeting feels like. A visit to the 35th Senior Two-man Bobsleigh European Cup in Innsbruck offered a similar experience with a real legend lining up – the Opel bob, project name “LP 13”. 35 years ago the engineers in Rüsselsheim design the bob for the Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid. But, in the end, it was not used and became a legend.
„Lots of younger fans no longer really believed that this speedster really exists,” said multiple junior world champion and European cup winner Peter Hinz. “They thought that bob veterans had made up the story.” Now everybody knows: The legend is alive – and is still really fast on its runners. 49-year-old Peter Hinz has always known that the “lightning bob” is not just a mythical creature. One of the six bobs made by Opel at the time was on display in the headquarters of the German Bob and Luge Federation in Berchtesgaden. The main hailing from the Odenwald area builds bobs himself. Therefore, he has always been fascinated by it and piloting one through the ice channel became a lifelong dream – one that he has been able to fulfil now.
What makes the Opel bob so unique? The question should actually be asked differently: What doesn’t?
EVERYTHING STARTED WITH PASSION FOR WINTER SPORTS
The story starts in 1977. Initially, the Opel designers are only given the task of applying special paintwork and wording to the vehicles and bobs owned by the German Bob Federation. Some of the designers are real winter sports fans and start talking shop with the athletes. The idea of creating a new Opel bob is born. When the Federation send out a corresponding tender, they decide to bid and they actually secure the deal.
Opel engineers determine the ideal shape in the wind tunnel, design an especially aero-dynamic Plexiglas screen over the cockpit, add springs and dampers to the runners – which nobody has ever done before – invent a completely new “button steering” and an inflatable airbag in the back that fills with compressed air when the brakeman jumps in.
LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG: THE SHORT LIFE OF THE WONDER BOB
Initial tests in Königssee are unbelievable and tabloid „Bild” already hails the Opel creation as the “Wonder bob”. The four-man bob is 0.65 seconds quicker per run than its predecessor, the two-man version 1.35 seconds faster – an eternity in this sport. Even in the late 70s and early 80s hundredths of a second could be the difference between a gold medal or no medal. However, in order to guarantee a level playing field the German Federation only allows conventional bobs during qualifying for the Olympic Games. This means that the teams that make the cut for Lake Placid have to get used to the new sled. In the end, there is not enough time because the pilots cannot get used to the innovative steering. “Too risky,” said four-man pilot Georg Grossmann.
“These pieces of equipment were well ahead of their time – too far ahead unfortunately,” explained the four-time Olympic gold medalist André Lange when expected the Opel on ice.
INFLUENCES STILL VISIBLE TODAY
A tale from the 1980s, dug up by Uwe Mertin, manager Opel Heritage, demonstrates just how influential the bob was. The flight from Lake Placid with the Opel bobs aboard was “accidentally” diverted to Berlin-Schönefeld and spent two days on the soil of the former German Democratic Republic. The Stasi, the East German secret police, were most probably responsible. Obviously, bob developers from the other side of the Berlin Wall had enough time to study the wonder bob in detail while it was on the ground.
The bob was retired in 1983 but there is no doubt that it still influences bob building until this very day.
16TH PLACE FOR 49-YEAR-OLD IN 35-YEAR-OLD BOB
And Peter Hinz? He couldn’t wait to put the legend to the test with his brakeman Johann Jäger. Racing in Innsbruck means 1,270 meters of ice channel, speeds of up to 120 km/h through 14 corners and a spiral and a total vertical drop of 124 meters.
Hinz and the “lightning bob“ proved that a 49-year-old human and a 35-year-old bob can make a great partnership. The Opel bob clocked a time of 55.36 seconds – only 2.13 seconds slower than the winning. As hundredths still determine the outcome in this discipline, Hinz could celebrate 16th place.
“Our bob can still compete,” said Uwe Mertin. But that wasn’t the main thing for him after the Innsbruck comeback. “It was great to see how much attention the Opel on runners received – from young athletes and veterans of the sport.” However, that is not surprising when a Yeti suddenly appears before your eyes.
Mr Hinz, how does it feel to have fulfilled a lifelong dream?
Brilliant. To pilot the Opel bob was one of two lifelong dreams that I managed to fulfil inside a week. Eight days ago I was allowed to ride on a natural ice track in Garmisch. That is something I also always wanted to do.
You only had five training days to get to know the Opel bob. Could you have done better with more time to prepare?
Of course. You also have to consider that there was a push bar missing at the front and the undercarriage was almost the same as 35 years ago. We could have finished two or three places higher if we had made some adjustments.
Was you first ride in the Opel bob also your last?
Definitely not. I want to come back next year. But first I have had to promise two former Olympic gold medalists that they can have a go too. I hope I will get another chance myself.