Dialogues with Walter Röhrl
WALTER RÖHRL, BORN IN REGENSBURG, IS CONSIDERED ‘THE BEST RALLY DRIVER OF ALL TIMES’; AT LEAST, THAT’S WHAT A JURY OF 100 MOTORSPORTS EXPERTS SAID ONCE. BETWEEN 1973 AND 1987, HE WAS A WORKS DRIVER FOR DIFFERENT CAR MANUFACTURERS AND GRADUALLY BECAME AN IMPOSING FIGURE IN THE RALLY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS WHICH HE REPEATEDLY TOOK PART IN. Today he works for Porsche. We interviewed Walter Röhrl in Saalbach Hinterglemm on occasion of the Saalbach Classic to talk about how driving a car can be emotional, what Herbert von Karajan has got to do with all this, and that there are parallels between motor racing and art.
I had one goal in my life: I didn’t want to become European Champion nor World Champion, but I did want to win the Monte Carlo Rally.
Mr Röhrl, you shaped the history of motor sports and are considered the best rally driver of all times. Why did you choose rally?
I took up motor sports when I was young after one of my friends suggested I should become a driver. I had never entertained the thought before, you see, as I used to ski and row. ‘You’ve got the right instincts,’ he said, ‘a good feel for driving and your control over a car is perfect.’ I remember replying with, ‘Sure, because money grows on trees!’ He didn’t give up, and kept insisting, ‘If I can get you a car for free, would you drive?’ In the end, that’s what we did. I drove 5 rallies and actually received a job offer as a works driver.
And why didn’t you ever take up motor racing?
I received plenty of offers to become a motor racing driver, but it was just too crowded for me. I wanted to drive through forests at night and know if I was good. So I rejected all those ffers. When you’re sitting in a rally car that isn’t perfect, and drive a winter rally on ice and snow and it’s all downhill, only my skills matter. I can prove how fast I am thanks to them. riving around on a neverchanging circuit didn’t mean anything to me.
Good – your passion for rally driving is obvious, but isn’t Formula 1 the be-all and end-all in motor sports?
You’re referring to the money, aren’t you… (laughs). Let me start by saying how whenever I took up something in motor sports, money and making money never played a role. I’ve always said, ‘I couldn’t care less about money, I want to prove I’m the best.’ But also because the car itself is too important in Formula 1. Leading a team? I’m too mistrustful for that, as I tend to rely on my own skills and on nobody else.
Could you briefly describe the emotional highlight before kicking off and that high you experience when crossing the finishing line as a winner?
Only one thing matters before the start: you feel incredibly tense, you don’t think about anything else for even a second, you picture every bend day and night, what passages you simply can’t forget, if your technique is right. There’s a whole lot of suffering before the event, really. The possibilities of making a mistake are 100 times more likely with rally driving than on the racing track. On the latter, I have 12 bend, flags signalling various disturbances on the road, etc. When driving rally, I’m driving somewhere in the mountains, maybe in the middle of a storm at night, and can expect 30 cm of mud over the next hilltop. I had one goal in my life: I didn’t want to become European Champion nor World Champion, but I did want to win the Monte Carlo Rally. After the last night, you drive right down to the ocean, the sun rises and makes the sea sparkle and all you can think of is ‘I’ve reached the goal of my life!’ That was the first and last time I enjoyed one of my victories for a good 10 minutes. Normally, the buzz would fade soon after 2 minutes have passed.
You’ve been successful as a professional motor sports driver and all signs point to a happy and successful personal life, too. What role does ‘luck’ play in it all?
You have to be lucky, sure, but I don’t want to rely on luck. After every rally, I analyse the number of bends where something could have gone wrong. To just believe you can build your success on luck doesn’t work in rally driving, In my private life, I’d thought very carefully about who I wanted to share the rest of my life with. I’ve been with my wife for 50 years now. My rule of thumb is never to believe I’m something special even if I can do something special.
Have you ever come into contact with art?
Not really, unless you consider driving a car a form of art. Otherwise I would describe myself as an art philistine because I was too narrow-minded and lived my life wearing blinkers, only looking at one thing. I drove a lot with Herbert von Karajan because he liked to. But I never went to one of his concerts. If that doesn’t prove I’m an art philistine, then I don’t know what does! Then again, I actually like art – I can’t do much with, say, a Picasso, because it’s too abstract; however, if an artist paints a nice mountain, then I’ll be impressed by it.
When interviewing artists, we always discover that they go through stages of depression, doubt, and fear, to then finally rise and dive into a pool of creativity. What’s it like when driving a car?
I always swung between self-doubt and megalomania – those feelings fuelled me. When I won, I used to say, ‘Well, you got lucky. That was an easy win.’ Then came the niggling doubts: was I really as good as I claimed to be? So before the start of a race I would think, ‘Just you watch it, you slowpokes, you’ll be eating dust soon enough!’ and then proceeded to win with a good 10-minute advantage over the second placed driver.
Art pops up everywhere. For example, the 911 can also be interpreted as a work of art of the car industry. What fascinates you about the cult history of the Porsche 911?
It has to be its continuity – those cars have been around for 50 years and we still acknowledge the genius of such an idea. The main shape and traits are still recognisable in this work of art from 1965. That’s the whole point. We then have the technology, the outstanding traction, an optimal handling and a highlyefficient engine – there is no other car whose technology I trust so much as a Porsche. The 911 was always a role model for every other car.
You and Porsche create a twofold synergy: performance and technical knowhow, emotions and cult. How should we interpret this ‘love for Porsche’?
My brother is responsible for that foundation stone. He was 10 years my senior and, when he was 21, he got his first Porsche. During the weekends, I always sat at the back of his 356 Porsche when he took his girlfriend out for a drive. I always used to say, ‘Remember one thing, and remember it well: only buy a car when you can afford a smart one. And that car is a Porsche.’ I first worked for Porsche in 1981 and represented Le Mans and the German Rally Team. In 1992, I stopped working for Audi and, when I came back to Porsche in 1992/93, Mr Wiedeking was President of Porsche. I told him, ‘I’m not sure if you can put up with me? Not because of the money, but because of what I say. I’m awkward and speak the truth.’ ‘That’s exactly why I want you! Because you improve the credibility of my company,’ was all he replied.
With which sports car did you experience the biggest success?
My first Monte Carlo Rally is, obviously, connected to a car. It wasn’t a beauty, rather small, actually. The Fiat 131. But this car was technically sound and has, obviously, stuck in my head. If we refer to the shape of the cars, then there were two models I fondly remember, the 911 from 1981 and the Lancia 037 from 1983. Those were genuine, twoseater motor racing cars – I had great experiences while driving them.
Classic cars are models subject to an increase in value and have registered better sales than some works of art over the course of the last years. Are you a car collector?
Luckily enough, I bought my cars when they cost a quarter of what they cost today. I have no interest whatsoever in making them a business asset. Passion for cars is what made me buy them. It’s sad how cars are sold as assets and speculated upon, because the real enthusiasts can’t afford them anymore. To me, a classic car is simply a cultural asset, as it takes me back to when I was younger. If I sit in one of those cars, I’ll believe I’m 30 years younger because I drove that car 30 years ago. Back then, it was the person behind the steering wheel who made the difference. I drove the car. Today, I’m being driven by the car.
There is a lot of febrile work and testing going on for different e-race cars. Will motor sports generally change in the future?
Yes, I believe it will change. However, we won’t be able to speak of motor racing if drivers have to stop after 20 to 30 minutes to change the car because of an empty battery. That has me in stitches! What’s more, the world is being told a big fat lie: environmentally friendly? As if! When buying an e-car today, you have to realise that, from the moment you buy it to its disposal, it’s 1.6 times more hazardous than a regular car. I believe the way we’re developing these e-cars is wrong. They’re perfect for the city. But for people like me, who drive between 1,000 and 1,500 km day in, day out, such cars are unthinkable. In Germany, around 1,000 cars stop at a petrol station every day: where would you park 1,000 cars to recharge them? Nobody has thought about that. Everyone is proud for having a mere two recharging docks. Incidentally, Porsche is planning an e-car, the Mission E, which should be rolled out on the market at the end of the decade. Currently, Porsche has an extensive range of hybrid models. At the start I was sceptical about them, however, the development of the 918 Spyder convinced me. But I do consider e-mobility with a lot more scepticism than many politicians.