An afternoon with Walter Röhrl

Vaishali Dinakaran  /
13 May 2015 12:28:44 IST

Did you know that 'god' lives in a tiny little village called Sankt Englmar in the heart of the Bavarian forest? That he might have ten Porsches tucked away from prying eyes in his basement garage, but drives a second-hand Audi so as to have some peace, quiet and anonymity? That he's an incredibly pleasant fellow to chat with, even if you have caught him during lunch? And that he'll be the first person to tell you that all the adulation and titles that have been bestowed upon him - 'rally god', 'rally driver of the millenium', 'greatest rally driver of all time' - are all rubbish".

It's all s**t!," Walter Rhrl exclaims. They think 'He is not a normal man!'"

Walter Rohrl (6)

Well, I'm sitting in his home, watching him tuck into some wurst and pretzel just like any other Bavarian would at that time of the day. Mrs Rhrl, after being suitably convinced that we have indeed already eaten and are perfectly fine with just a glass of Bavaria's finest spring water, brings us exactly that, her eyes widening at the sight of my notebook with a rather alarming number of questions jotted down. And as I plump the embroidered cushion on which to park my behind before starting on that same alarming list of questions, I can't help but think that while on his own insistence Walter Rhrl is indeed a normal man, it doesn't change the fact that he is also a very special man.

So imagine my surprise when the man who won Rallye Monte Carlo a grand total of four times says to me, I was only two or three times in my life going fast." It's a little hard to digest, but the way in which he says it, I can tell that Walter Rhrl truly does mean it. He continues in a matter of fact tone, It was when I was angry. The rest of the time, I was under control."

Gulp. So what makes Walter Rhrl angry?

Walter Rohrl (1)

Well, when he was a little boy it was the multitude of carrot top jokes that were cracked about his hair, something that irked young Walter enough to make him want to throw a few punches at the other kindergartners. But with time, though his red hair didn't fade, the streak of hot temper did, surfacing only on the very rare occasion, and leading to stories that contribute to Rhrl's legend.

Like Arganil in 1980 - a drive that has gone down in WRC and rallying history as something almost other worldly. Oh, he was angry at the beginning of Arganil all right. There was a proper battle raging on at Rally Portugal, between Rhrl and his team-mate Markku Alen. Meticulous man that he was, Rhrl had prepared thoroughly. While his usual method was to drive a stage, make notes and check it once, in the case of the foggy Arganil, he did it five times. He made special fog notes too, where he broke the usual 200 Left" into Fifty - stone - left. Fifty - tree - right." And he went over these notes in his mind repeatedly the night before the rally. He was prepared. Then fate intervened. With competition burning fiercely in them, Rhrl and co-driver Christian Geistdoffer were about to take the start of the stage, when things got a little more complicated. Their own Fiat team service truck crashed into them, leaving Walter with fumes coming out of his ears. There I was angry," he nods at me before saying that while he normally would refer to his co-driver as just plain 'Christian', in this particular case it was different. Rhrl stretches his arms out before him and assumes a steering position, and looking straight ahead grimly relives that memory from so long ago I said to him 'Mr Geistdoffer, tighten your belts. Now I will go in such a way that everybody gives away their licence.'" And he did. Rhrl won Arganil by 4 minutes and 59 seconds, with the rest of the world elite separated by 30 seconds. And then he proceeded to win the rally itself by over 15 minutes.

Walter Rohrl (5)Here he is in the Rothmans Opel Rally Team Ascona 400 en route his second WRC title

Funny though, that growing up, this same man wasn't the least bit inclined towards car racing. Had it not been for his friend Herbert Marecek, he'd have continued working with the Episcopal Ordinariate of Regensburg, driving from place to place, helping draw up land contracts with farmers. But his true passion lay in skiing, something he'd done since he was five, and something that he spent five long years studying to become an instructor of. And even when Herbert convinced him to begin taking part in rallies, Rhrl would keep insisting that his friend was crazy", and that the last stage that he'd driven was not fast", only to discover sometimes that it was fast and he'd just had no idea. In retrospect, he draws a parallel between skiing and car driving though, because in both cases, I was always fighting to find traction. I was trying to go a clean line. Not spectacular, just trying to go forward, not sideways. And maybe this was the only secret to my driving."

Walter Rohrl (7)"I am not a man who lives in the past," Rohrl says, which is why the only sign of his motorsport career is a collection of photos in the stairwell leading to his basement garage

But things really changed for him at the Olympic Rally in 1972. He remembers the rally start where he saw Hannu Mikkola and was in awe of being there alongside a rally driver he admired. Then, after the first stage, he was faster than that driver he admired. I can't believe it. I thought something must be wrong!" But after being faster than him all through the rally, two more thoughts popped into his mind. The first - I started to think maybe my friend is right - I am not so bad!" The second - If I take it now really seriously, it should be possible to be the best in the world."

And then followed the many long years of hard work. Not one to go to the disco, or go to the pub for a beer, or lead an extravagant lifestyle in any way, Rhrl did everything he could to make sure he got better at the sport he had chosen. In bed at 10, up at 7am, and then 12 hours of practice. If it was foggy outside he'd go skiing to improve his balance, because he says this could directly be applied to driving in the fog. Everything I did, I was always thinking, will it help me be better than the next guy."

Walter Rohrl (8)Rhrl was nice enough to pose in front of his Porsche Cayman GT4, that will be launched later this year. The perks of being a Porsche tester!

It's a rather egotistical world, this needing to be the best at something though? Rhrl nods seriously. Of course and that is the next thing. Any sportsman who wants to be world champion needs to be an egoist." And he says that the person who had to bear the brunt of this the most was his wife, to whom he said Listen, first comes rallying. Then, for a long time there's nothing. And after that, you." But he quickly adds, Today it is different. Now she gets back what I have done 40 years ago."

It was at the Olympic Rally too that he realised he truly enjoyed the sport of rally driving. He tries to describe exactly what it was about rally driving that attracted him so much. His eyes get all twinkly. He smiles and stretches his hands out before him, rubbing his thumb over his fingers as if trying to physically grasp the idea, Rally driving is for me car driving. There's something... It's so much more... You know..." Well, evidently words can fail even Walter Rohrl. But maybe he sums it up best when he says, Speed doesn't interest me. It is just the idea of perfection." And even though this comes from the mouth of a man who repeatedly broke the lap record at the Nurburgring, I believe him. Everything that Walter Rhrl does, he seems to do with a clear mind, having decided exactly why he is doing it and what he wants out of it. No more, no less.

Walter_Rohrl_2The Rohrl and Geistdoffer combination was almost unbeatable in the 1980s and they'd have won more titles had it not been for Rhrl's insistence on doing just a select few rallies a year

And what is it, then, that Walter Rhrl wanted out of competitive rally driving? No, it wasn't really to be world champion he says, because his definition of 'the best in the world' was not synonymous with 'world champion'. I have to tell you I had only one aim in my life. I want to win one time the Monte Carlo Rally. I was never dreaming to be world champion." It all began when he saw his first Monte Carlo Rally in 1970 and saw that the stages went up, down, were tarmac in parts, but covered in snow in others, and that it went on for long 40 hours. I thought the man who is winning the event - he must be the best one!" Which is why his first win at Monte Carlo remains his most memorable. If I didn't win a rally, I was sick for two weeks. And if I won, I was happy for three minutes. But after Monte Carlo, I would wake up even after three days and feel 'Oh yeah! You have won Monte Carlo! You have reached your aim in life.'" And he smiles as if he's still experiencing those very emotions.

Walter Rohrl (4)But winning Monte Carlo in four different makes of car - there he is with champagne bottle in hand in 1982 - is something he counts as special

And having won Monte Carlo and the title in 1980, Rhrl decided to quit it all. Until his co-driver, rather understandably, told him that he was stark raving mad and that it was too soon to give up. Seeing as he still really did like turning a steering wheel, not in anger, but with a movement so precise that his car would turn exactly the way he wanted, he decided to continue. He tells me he enjoyed the feeling of being one with his car, that every little input he gave it would cause it to behave in precisely the way he intended it to. But there would eventually surface the desire for a second title also caused by that streak of anger. You see Rohrl hadn't signed with Audi for the 1981 season, choosing to go with Mercedes instead. And when Mercedes pulled out of motorsport at the beginning of the season he found himself without a drive. The rather irate Audi team who had already signed on other drivers began issuing press releases that said, We don't need Walter Rhrl. We don't need the best driver in the world, because we have the best car in the world." And that set him off! I said 'I'll show you whether or not you need Mr Rhrl'."And he took especial pleasure in beating them to the title in the Opel in 1982. In the years that followed though, he gave himself over to supporting the team, so long as he had a fair shot at Monte Carlo. He chose not to compete in the final rally of 1983, gifting the title to his team-mate Mikkola something he doesn't regret at all. I said 'Hannu enjoy it! You are world champion, I am happy, it is beautiful!'" In fact the world title mattered so little to him that he hasn't got those championship trophies. I have no victory columns from these days because I was never going to Paris to collect them," he chuckles. I was very strange in these days. If I hadn't been so good, the journalists would kill me!," he laughs.

Rallying for Audi was satisfying, but he always had a soft corner for Porsche, for when he was little, his brother told him, "Save your money and buy a good car. And a good car is a Porsche."

And this isn't the first instance of his honesty. He would famously climb out of the car and tell journalists that his car was s**t" if that indeed was the case. He once told the head of Rothmans, who were then a sponsor, I will tell everybody that they should not smoke. And second, I will tell them that they should not smoke. And third I will tell them that they should not smoke!". And he didn't spare himself either. When he made a mistake at Rally San Remo that saw him go off road and land upside down on top of the roof of a house in his Fiat 131 Abarth, the Fiat team wanted to tell journalists that it had been a patch of oil that had caused the crash and not driver error. But Rhrl insisted to team boss Daniele Audetto Listen, we tell the journalists that Mr Rhrl is the biggest vaffanculo in the world." It was a combination then, of the famous Rhrl honesty and the equally famous, but rare, Rhrl temper. As a matter of explanation he tells me, Vaffanculo is something in Italy, a very bad word, you know."

By the time it was 1987 though, when the WRC went from Group B to Group A, Rhrl decided to quit only to find that his motorsport career was far from over. He drove in sportscar endurance races, sometimes frustrating his team-mates with the ease with which he managed everything. When his team-mate Hans Stck once complained that the car oversteered too much he told him Listen Hans, I have something round (the steering wheel) in my car, and when the car oversteers too much, I just turn it in the opposite direction." And he did take special pleasure in putting racecar drivers in their place. The only enjoyable thing was to show race drivers that somebody is better than you. If he is coming then you are second," he laughs. But racing never really did appeal to him. In rally driving you are alone with your watch and the best one will win. In racing, it is not the best one who will win, maybe the most brutal will win."

Walter Rohrl (2)Rhrl's win at Pikes Peak also contributed to his legend. He drove the mountain eight times in a rental car with his wife jotting down pacenotes, and then he went and broke the record there too!

The watch that governed his every move in rallying, also governs every one of Walter Rhrl's moves today. He taps his wrist and says, All my life this is so important. Everything must be counted." After all he's now 68 and still a test driver for Porsche. Thirty years ago if you tell me that Porsche has a test driver, he is 68 years old and he wants to do a record at the Nurburgring, I would say, 'This man, he should think when the day is coming he is dead. Not to make a record!'" But make records he does. And just like he hasn't slowed down in a car, he hasn't slowed down on a bicycle either (the first time I phoned his house he was out bicycling, and close to two hours later he was still out bicycling!), nor on skis. Sometimes I look at my watch and see 'Argh two minutes slower than last year, you have to do more to keep it up!' And this need for consistency in my brain, I cannot change!," he says.

But maybe that's exactly what keeps Walter Rhrl so sharp - this ability to compete with himself, for personal satisfaction and not for trophies of any sort. Back when he dreamt of winning Rallye Monte Carlo, he told himself, Show me that you are not just a dreamer - go out and do it!" And he did it. With the help of a little luck perhaps? Well, to survive 40 years of motorsport, you need luck, but like he says, You cannot build your life on luck." 'A combination of destiny and will power too?,' I ask. That my friend pushed me to be a rally driver, that was destiny, but the rest was my in my own hands. That I met him though was schicksal...kismet," Rhrl says.

And what was the biggest life lesson that motorsport taught him, then? That if you work, it should be successful." Words that aren't just applicable to motorsport, or competition, the sort of sound advice a wizened elder would give an impressionable youngster.

So what has talking to Walter Rohrl taught me? Well, that the man has the ability to tear down the myth that surrounds him and give you reasons for why he managed to achieve the things that he did. And a lot of it is down to sheer hard work and determination to do a darned good job of whatever it was that he was doing. That he has a zest for life that belies his age. And that this desire to not be a star and have his feet firmly planted on the ground was probably the best life decision he ever could have made.

As we're driving out of Sankt Englmar, I find myself absent-mindedly fiddling with a green Ritter Sport chocolate wrapper from the box of chocolates Rhrl offered us before we left. I see once again that living room of his, with no sign of his motorsport achievements anywhere - he had to go upstairs to fish out a Rallye Monte Carlo trophy for me to photograph - and I hear once again his words playing through my head. I am a normal man. Okay, I go a little faster than the rest, but it is nothing which is important."

Images by Vaishali Dinakaran

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