“Genius on wheels.”
– Niki Lauda –
Double world rally champion and four time winner of the Monte Carlo Rally, Walter Röhrl is without doubt one of the best drivers in the history of motorsport. In Italy he was elected “Rally Driver of the Century”. A jury of 100 motorsport experts from all over the world voted him “Best Rally Driver of all Time”. Rally driver colleagues in France declared him “Driver of the Millennium”. Even triple world champion Grand Prix driver Niki Lauda has described him as a “genius on wheels”; but it is not only Röhrl’s skill behind the wheel that has made him a legend.
Röhrl claimed his first major title, the 1974 European Rally Championship, driving a works Opel Ascona A. The following year he scored the first world rally victory for himself and Opel on the grueling Acropolis Rally, before moving south of the Alps to join Fiat, where he won the World Rally Championship for the first time in 1980. He then made his way back to Opel in 1982, snatching his second world championship crown away from Audi’s Michelle Mouton.
Apart from his sheer speed, Röhrl also stood out from his rivals through his perfectionism. While other drivers hung around talking or smoking at a service area, he would remain in his rally car studying the pace notes for the next stage. He would analyze his driving for mistakes after every rally, not wanting to leave anything to chance; and he learned left-foot braking, which was the key to mastering the Audi Quattro, by practicing at night on snow in the Bavarian Forest.
Thanks to rowing and skiing (he might have become a professional skier if he had not taken up motor sport), Röhrl was extremely fit – another advantage over the competition that helped him to concentrate at the highest level over the longest stages.
“My motivation was to show that I can win in any car.”
– Walter Röhrl –
But even perfectionists make mistakes and crashing out of the 1979 San Remo Rally was Röhrl’s darkest day. “The only crash in my career that was my fault,” he said in an interview with Spox.com in 2015; “I was leading in the rain by seven and a half minutes, I never had such a big lead before. But instead of concentrating on the pace notes I was thinking about changing the gearbox. Walking the four kilometers back to the service area all I could think about was committing suicide.”
Röhrl simply wanted to prove that he was the best rally driver in the world. His life’s ambition was to win the Monte Carlo Rally, which he achieved four times in four different cars. In the book “Opel Motorsport mit Tradition”, he said: “My motivation was to show that I can win in any car.” Neither money nor the world championship, which he won twice in 1980 and 1982, were as important.
“A very special blend of sublime talent, unswerving focus
and brutal honesty.”
– Motor Sport, 2002 –
Röhrl is famous for not mincing his words. “All these titles like ‘best driver of all time’, ‘driver of the millennium’; that kind of bullshit means nothing to me,” he says. He even describes himself as “undiplomatic, outspoken and stubborn.” In 1982 for example, while fighting Audi’s Michelle Mouton for the world championship (which he eventually won in the works Opel Ascona 400), he said “It would be a disaster to be beaten by a girl.” While his enthusiasm for PR during his active career could be measured out by the teaspoonful, Röhrl is famous today for his approachability towards fans, even when they turn up unannounced outside his home in Bavaria.
As a race and rally driver, Walter Röhrl is idolized by fans the world over. As an uncompromising sportsman, he enjoys the highest respect of his peers. As a prominent inhabitant of the world of motorsport, he is that rarest of species – a normal person, unafraid to voice his opinion. Perhaps he is best summed up by one of his contemporaries; writing in the British magazine “Motor Sport” in 2002, the former rally co-driver and director of motorsport at British Leyland, John Davenport portrayed Röhrl as a potent mix: “A very special blend of sublime talent, unswerving focus and brutal honesty.”
Since retiring from active competition (apart from some historic rallies), Röhrl has kept his hand in as a brand ambassador and test driver for Porsche. He plans to celebrate his 70th birthday in the same way as the last ten – ski-touring in Austria.
As for the future, Walter Röhrl hopes to take some of the oldtimers from his collection on longer tours of Europe, such as to Scotland or Italy, and he would also like to continue participating in certain historic rallies. “There is this French guy who has got a nicely restored Opel Ascona 400,” muses Röhrl, “he keeps inviting me to drive it. Maybe I should accept, it could be a good car for the ‘Histo-Monte’!”