Walter Rohrl: The Master of the Monte

Walter Rohrl

The recipe for a successful career in motor sports in the 21st century seems to be equal parts money, hyped self-promotion and talent. Auto racing wasn’t always like that. There was a time when drivers competed for love of the sport and to satisfy their need for speed. But there were a few individuals who raced for more complex reasons. Two-time World Rally Champion, and four-time conqueror of the Monte Carlo Rally, Walter Rohrl, is a driver who strove for the least attainable of driving goals - perfection.

I was once fortunate enough to spend an evening with Walter Rohrl in a restaurant overlooking Monte Carlo. I was keen to learn his thoughts about rallying today and about his life as a good will ambassador for Porsche AG. I discovered a complex man, a sportsman, and a true gentleman.

A Modest Start: In his youth Rohrl was a competitive skier. A serious foot injury prevented him from pursuing downhill racing as a career. His friend, Herbert Marecek, a regular passenger on trips to and from the slopes, told Rohrl that he thought he had the skills to become a rally driver. So, in 1968, he and his friend made their rallying debut in the Bavarian Rally. This was his first event and he was flogging a grossly under-powered Fiat 850. His pace on the course was the second fastest of 250 teams. (Unfortunately, his time did not count because, due to their inexperience, they missed a checkpoint control.) I asked how he accounted for being so fast right out of the box. He said, “I really didn’t know why I was so fast. That part really didn’t interest me. I simply did with the car what I did with skis.”

Motivation: I asked what about rallying drew him make it his career? “I liked rallying because there were no spectators!” he said, smiling an infectious smile. In his wonderful book, “Walter Rohrl Diary”, he said, “[back then] People weren’t interested in rallying and so we were left in peace. It was a wonderful era.” Rohrl said, “I did not want to be famous… I wanted to be perfect. The best chance is to do rallies in the night time out in the forest where there are no people and that is enough motivation for me.” With a smile he added, “I’m a little bit crazy.” However he seemed deadly serious about wanting to achieve perfection. When pressed to elaborate. Rohrl explained, “I wanted to see if I could do it. It was my motivation… to see if I was a dreamer or really good.” If I want the car sliding and I say now you stop here, it must stop here. That was the motivator; it was not speed, not money, not to be famous, just to make it perfect. It was the motivation to do it.” I asked if he had ever achieved perfection and without hesitation he said, “I have done rallies of 5,000 kilometers and at the end I say I have a feeling 2 corners, 2 bends were not perfect.” He paused and added, “And I remember the two corners!”

The Monte: As he began to experience success, Rohrl realized that the jewel in the crown was the Monte Carlo Rally. He said, “Victory at the Monte meant more to me than anything in the sport.” His reasoning being, “[At the Monte], snow, ice, dirt, asphalt, cliffs, daylight, dusk, night—everything! If you can succeed here, you can succeed anywhere.” And succeed he did, winning the event four times with four different cars. Winning the Monte Carlo Rally, known for its difficult and sometimes dangerous driving conditions, became the challenge that would motivate Rohrl to eventually become the Master of the Monte.

Thinking Man’s Driver: But a good driver must also always look after the car. Logic tells you that if you break something through carelessness or by being overly aggressive, you will never be a winner. Rohrl liked to believe he was a thinking driver. He felt that was crucial to success and mentioned that the mechanics would look under his teammates’ cars, knowing that they all drove the same route, and Rohrl’s car would often have little or no damage. Rohrl felt that he knew how to pace himself so that he could win without breaking the car. He explained, “I guess I [would] get the feeling on the stages before about the speed. I said, OK I know how fast I was going and I beat them by one minute. If I take it easy then I still will be several seconds faster. I get a good feeling about this.”

However, exceptions do prove the rule. Walter Rohrl told me about a time when he lost his concentration. That was back in 1978 and the result was a big shunt that he still feels bad about today. He recalled, “On the San Remo Rally. It was raining and I was leading by seven and one half minutes when I had gearbox problems. I was wondering on the stage where we might change the box without losing time.” Needless to say, lost in thought, he came upon a slow curve at a fast speed and went off the road, flying through the air and landing on the roof of a house! He was so self-critical that he thought about packing it all in right then and there. When he finally got to the end of the stage, he told his boss, “Tell the journalists that Rohrl is the biggest loser in the world.” And he admitted that for the next month he was completely despondent. He summed the experience this way:”I am a man with two contrary sides,” he said. “Too much self-confidence one day. Too much self doubt the next day. It was a good mixture.”

His thoughts on the WRC today: “Television has changed the sport completely,” The fact that these were not the same kind of events he ran, thirty years ago also upsets him. “Today they are mini races, too short,” adding, “they are 100% risk.” The drivers have to be flat out from the first stage or they will not be in contention. Also, the cars are amazingly well built and can take insane amounts of punishment without breaking. Not having to work at preserving the car takes some of the “thinking” out of the equation.

Going for it: Several times, Rohrl said that when he needed to he would “go for it”. I asked him, what he meant by, “going for it?” Rohrl smiled, “I was trying to get the feeling that the car is going forward. I don’t lose time by going sideways. I was always fighting for traction. I would try to go a clean line like a racetrack. If I would go sideways, I would feel pain! It was always pressure.”

When the going got tough, Rohrl really got going—especially, believe it or not, in fog. In his book about the 1980 Rally of Portugal he writes. “At the start of the Arganil [stage], I decided that this was where we would finish the battle. Off we went into the dense fog. I concentrated and just followed Christian’s pace notes as the road was virtually invisible. The stage ran through my mind like a silent movie. It was unreal.” He and his co-driver had practiced the route, written detailed pace notes and then Rohrl would re-run the legs in his hotel room with a stopwatch until he knew it, “practically by heart.” The end result was a crushing lead of several minutes over his teammates in identical cars.

The final word on traction: After years of driving rear-wheel drive cars, Rohrl switched to the Audi all-wheel-drive team for 1984. He wanted to be able to compare himself to, Stig Blomqvist, the best Quattro driver in the world. Rohrl’s first experience with the Quattro was not a marriage made in heaven. He had to learn to left foot brake. But in his first rally, at the end of a straight, the road turned right and his car didn’t. Finally, after riding with Blomqvist on a test track and then practicing all night in a snowstorm, Rohrl had an “ah ha!” moment. “The pressure on the break has to remain constant,” he said, “while the driver plays with the throttle to get the car to go where he wants. That was the secret!”

Through the early part of the 1984 Monte, Stig was ahead of Rohrl and built his lead through every stage. This surprised Rohrl and he began to question whether he had the ability to drive quickly with this new technology. Then Rohrl learned that at the service stops, Blomqvist was switching from the team tire—the one that Rohrl was using—to a narrower snow tire. From that point on, he used the same tires and l proceeded to beat him for eleven consecutive stages, winning the rally by over a minute and over twenty four minutes ahead of the first rear wheel drive car. Rohrl said, “For years and years I had been fighting for traction, against sliding and wheel spin. Now these problems were almost all solved with four-wheel drive.”

And that fact is what brought me to the passenger seat of a silver 2005, Porsche Carrera 4 with a man who may be the greatest rally driver of all time.

Rohrl at the wheel: Monaco is surrounded by high mountains laced with narrow two-way roads. It was up these mountains that I drove, heading toward a special section, closed by the local police, and reserved for a once in a lifetime experience. What else would describe a chance to sit in the co-pilot seat while Walter Rohrl displayed his amazing talents at the wheel of the world’s greatest sports cars? Up, up I motored, into what I thought was a fog bank, but realized at a turnout were actually low flying clouds.

Walter Rohrl

Once at the top, I waited for my chance with the Master of the Monte by hiking up the hill to watch him drift his Porsche Carrera 4 through a very tight hairpin. I looked to see if he was able to put the car in the same spot every time. After 10 runs, I was convinced that he’s closer than mere mortals can detect with the naked eye. Then it was my turn. As soon as I was strapped in, we shot up the mountain, accelerating toward the first hairpin at a speed I thought would surely launch us into the cold, crisp French mountain air. But at the last instance, Rohrl was hard on the binders, snick snicking a downshift, and twisting a quick tug at the wheel. The tail of our Porsche was clawing the ground for traction and just that quickly we were climbing again, the wall of rocks over his shoulder a blur in my peripheral vision. Half way up the road, we were enveloped in a dense fog. Having made this run over a dozen times today, Rohrl was prepared. Instead of slowing down, he gave the Carrera 4 the stick and (it could be an illusion, but I doubt it) we’re now going up the hill faster than before but, did I mention, we’re just about totally blind. Fortunately, the fog prevented me from seeing eternity out my right side window. And as good as the ride up the mountain was, the downhill run was better, the Porsche’s 300 plus horses aided in equal parts by Issac Newton and Rohrl’s superlative talents. While I think smooth is an overused word when describing how a real professional driver handles a car, I bet if you were to look up smooth in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found Walter Rohrl’s picture.

Final thoughts: Rallying at the highest level of the sport is both dangerous and difficult. Walter Rohrl entered that world, not to become famous (although he did) or to become rich, (I certainly hope he did) but to pursue perfection. His natural ability and developed skills proved to be his greatest assets and his self-doubt his greatest torment. And while he could have easily won more championships, they were not important to him. In the final analysis, he accomplished all the things he set out to do, and did them mostly on his own terms. How many people can say that about their lives? And now, he has found a good home sharing his expertise with one of the world’s greatest car companies - Porsche.