The Sound and the Fury

Walter Röhrl 

In the ’80s, I was confident that our local back roads would sort out Röhrl. 

As a wide-eyed teenager, I was privileged to hear and see the rallies down the narrow back roads near our house in rural Co. Tyrone in the 1980s. One of the advantages (for people like me) of growing up living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by “bad” (i.e., good for rallying) roads, meant that you had a ringside seat at major car rallies.

Röhrl did the Ulster Rally in 1984; and he and the big quattro was a game-changer moment. He blitzed the worst that Ulster’s roads could throw at him.  Suddenly, all those RWD Fords and Opels were history.  The quattro was something else, and so was the tall, ascetic German who drove with an urgency that bordered on insanity.  It’s as well they pay him for driving; as he’d do it anyway.  He and his wife decided not to have children; as he felt he could only devote himself to driving.  Nutter, you might say; but there’s never been anyone quite like Walter.  

Famously ascetic, a non-drinker, a downhill skiing coach, an expert horseman, and a keen mountain biker, in a drivers’ poll in 2000, Walter was voted the “Driver of the Century”. Initially, Audi sent Röhrl to the Ulster Rally, simply to test their car. (Other drivers were using the lesser LWB quattro, but this was the first outing for the real quattro.) Walter officially was here just for “testing“. Naturally, the TV interviewer asked did that mean he’d be backing off the pace as little. The very idea of ever going less than flat out of course appals Walter, who is at pains to reassure the interviewer that he will be driving even more like a maniac than usual – flat out all the way, or, as he puts it, “always, always flat“:

In a sport where winning overall by a few seconds is impressive, Walter ended up over 4 minutes clear of the No 2 driver. Most of the field were over half an hour behind him. He was pulling out a lead of over 2 seconds per mile. The local rally boys had never seen or heard anything like it. As one local headline of the period put it: “A big German hammer to crack a wee Ulster nut!“:

It is that near-religious devotion to the gods of speed that so endears his fans to Walter. He never plays the %s. Flat to the mat all the time …

In 2007, Michael Schumacher, test-driving for Ferrari, was testing the new Ferrari 599GTB at the Nurburgring.  He was on it, hurling the new Fezza round the track.  To his astonishment, he noticed another 599, an identical car, closing on him.

He was Schumacher; at the height of his powers!  Who the hell was this?

To his disbelief, the mystery 599 then overtook him and pulled out a lead on him.

Puzzled, Schumacher followed the other car to the pits, just to see who it was.

And who was it?

Walter Röhrl (who else). Even though he was now officially a pensioner, Walter was still Porsche’s head test driver, the man they selected over all the young bucks to carry out the really high-speed stuff. Porsche had asked him to road test a standard Ferrai 599, just so they could benchmark their own cars against it. And Michael obviously drove for Ferrari in F1.

Apparently, Schumacher said something like: “Now I see it’s you who has passed me, that’s OK with me“.

In reality though, he was furious and went back to his mechanics and got them to pull the car apart to see what was “wrong” with their “shite” car … and speculated that Porsche must have worked some magic on the 599’s chassis.  In reality, both 599s were bog standard.

Pretty hard to take I imagine.  You’re the greatest driver ever – and an old rally guy has just dusted you.

As they say: “Schnell. Schneller. Röhrl.”

Here, Walter has a chuckle about the time he smoked Schumacher at the Nürburgring:

I think you can’t beat driving on snow for crack – provided your car is old, light, narrow-tyred and with a proper handbrake (to help you steer).  I float about gently on snow and generally enjoy the sensation of the car constantly moving about.  I’m slow on snow, but I get there and, unlike most nervous ninny drivers in Ireland or Britain, I very much enjoy it.

And then you see how to really do snow – this clip from 1986 is a short test run on the Col’, Walter with no helmet, talking in an almost-bored manner to his team, relaying information back:

Check how loose and relaxed his posture is and check how much beans he’s giving the car.  Then, to your surprise, you realise the hoor is on snow, on a road with a major drop off the right hand side.  Walter der Eisverkäufer!  And you think – if he can be that confident and aggressive on snow, dry road driving must have been a stroll in the park.

Here’s Walter again, during his Gruppe B days with the quattro.  Check out the footwork:

Arguably the greatest wheel-man who has ever lived.

Joey Dunlop

Mesmerising old 1983 footage of vintage Joey around the Isle of Man on the V4 Honda:

– pushing 200mph in places, walls, trees, leaning over, no run offs, medics or gravel traps, some parts are dark under the trees – it has an almost dream-like quality and you have to remind yourself that this is not a playstation game.  Makes me smile to hear Joey’s matter-of-fact description of how you have to be “careful” – as if the concept of “being careful” and wheelying over yumps at 200mph were somehow compatible(!)  Check also Joey’s Antrim accent shining though on the way he says “quick” – click to full size to get the best “on board” effect.

A local UTV documentary on Joey revealed just how highly the Honda top brass thought of him. Some of Joey’s own DIY modifications so impressed the Honda engineers that they introduced them on the production bikes.

Joey was never very comfortable around anyone wearing a tie (didn’t trust them shiny boys), so the very polite Honda people had a habit of taking off their ties before meeting Joey.

Joey’s training methods with his brother Robert on Castlerock beach involved an old Marina van, one of the lads lying across the bonnet and the other doing handbrake turns at speed to practise “falling

After being mis-quoted early in his career, Joey was wary of a certain type of journalist – “tell them boys nothing” was his advice to a contemporary.

His DIY charity trips to Romania were typical of the man – quiet, practical – load up the truck and go deliver it.

In a divided community, Joey transcended both politics and sport.  A genius, a legend and an absolute gentleman.

Ari Vatanen

Known to all petrol-heads as the man who invented left-foot braking, Vatanen, like so many of his country-people, exemplified the old motorsport saying: “if you want to win, hire a Finn”.

Check out this clip from the 1983 Isle of Man, serious staging from Ari – check for the wobbly moment half way through when Ari rescues a major crash when his car has a blow-out going over a cattle grid – when the co driver exclaims “dear God!” – not many atheists in rallying:

Stefan Roser

No available pics of Stefan, the Yellowbird will have to do

So much car stuff on you tube is staged rubbish from imbecilic frat-boy show offs.  But this grainy, un-hyped and un-doctored clip from the early 1980s, of Stefan Roser in the (very unshaven) Ruf-tuned “Yellowbird” 911 (top speed 211mph) is the real deal.  The rule for older 911s is counter-steer like hell continually and no matter what happens, never lift – I’ve been round the Nurburgring Nordschleife in a V10 M5 and I’d say most drivers attempting this unrelenting velocity would have crashed at least 20 or 25 times during this lap and literally would have been dead long before it was over:

Michèle Mouton

WRC winner and winner at Pikes Peak – the latter still makes me smile – Pikes Peak, bastion of alpha-male US motorsport.  Then along comes a French woman in a funny German car and kicks all their asses:

They talk about female “role models” among the various brain-dead oompa-loompa slebs; but oh that today we had more women in popular culture possessed of the talent and integrity of Mouton.  

Here’s another great photo of a group of petrol-head legends – Mouton, with Walter demonstrating something (Hannu Mikkola to the left; Christian Geistdörfer to the right) at, I think, the 1981 San Remo – but when Walter retired with mechanical problems, Mouton won the race.  Mikkola was in p4 I think.

And here’s a great clip of Mouton, now retired, being interviewed by a journalist as she does some light-hearted practice for an upcoming classic.  Some pensioner:

And here she is reminding us how much we need noise in motorsport – top woman:

She is of course correct.  

Your noise is my symphony:

I remember the wistful sound of race bikes on a hot dry mountain road in Andalucia, somewhere between Ronda and El Chorro, the wolf-pack crescendo echoing off the rocks.  Me with the hire car stopped, out listening, rapt.  My better half thinking my head was away : )

I remember one morning outside our holiday gaff near Èze, S France, very early, at dawn, along the rural part of the Avenue des Diables Bleus, the urgent baritone roar of a GT3 911 being driven at imprisonable pace, micro wheel chirps at every bone-dry corner, being lost in admiration at the blurred violence of his progress past our gate.  Better than morning coffee! That guy, whoever he was, was no ordinary driver.  Perhaps Delecour, or one of the F1 guys who live in nearby Monaco?  Made my morning : )

I remember Notting Hill, London, out walking with the family, the roar of superbikes approaching from behind along the Bayswater Road; then, looking round, startled, not superbikes, but in fact an Audi R8 and a Lamborghini Huracan, stopping, by good luck, engines grumbling, at the lights just beside us.  I looked in at the lead Lambo driver, winked, thumbs up and pointed quickly at the road ahead.  He grinned back, nodded, and he and the R8 guy behind fish-tailed off like escapees, bouncing off the rev limiters, the sonic shock waves rippling through our chest cavities.  The kids were enthralled, and chattered excitedly for ages, the big kid with them inwardly no different.  

I remember, growing up on our farm, at various times,  the sound of the rally in the distance.  A demonic opera, sound coming at you in waves, rising, falling.  And, cutting through the chorus, the noise of the short quattro.  That demented, Minotaur bellowing, punctuated with frantic wastegate chirping and machine-gun rattles, as stones peppered the bodywork.  It made the hairs on your neck stand up.  On one such occasion, instantly dropping all chores (as my Dad shook his head resignedly at the follies of car-obsessed youth), my brother and I sprinted towards the sound.  Sonic devotees …

Stefan Bellof

Nurburgring lap records are two-a-penny. Every manufacturer, especially Japanese ones, seems to have some caveated version of a Nordschleife lap record.  Basically, anything under 8 seconds is very quick.  
Of course, all these years of desperate big-budget attempts to shave a few seconds here and there for some production class ‎record (usually secretly running bespoke race rubber and funny petrol, but that’s another, murkier, story), there only ever was one true record – the insane 6m11s record set by the late, great Stefan ‘sideways’ Bellof in 1983 in the Porsche nine fifty-six.
For over 35 years, nobody has gotten within an ass’ roar of Bellof. 
Until 29 June 2018, when Porsche itself, in the nine nineteen hybrid, knocked nearly a minute off Bellof’s time.  
If you’ve ever been round the Nurburgring, you’ll appreciate ‎the unfathomable nature of that 5m 19s time – and just how surreally-scary that sort of double-ton pace would have been through Flugplatz!  I looked at the footage. Car seems to have a sequential box with cut gears and the suspension is so extreme he avoids all kerbing, even through Karussell, where the driver is usually glad of the kerbing.   About double the power Bellof had and obviously different-league aero, but still an astonishing feat.
In the raw courage stakes though, there’s still only one winner for me.  It’d be interesting to see how many of those boys would get close to Bellof’s insane time, if they had no electronic traction aids, no modern rubber and no modern aero …  
Michael Schumacher

The complete professional, with an unbelievable competitive spirit, and the most successful F1 driver of all time.  Which pretty much says it all, really.  Let’s hope we see Michael back on his feet reasonably soon.  And best of luck also to Mick Jr in his racing career.
Juan Manuel Fangio

El Chueco! Arguably, his performance as a 46 year old at the 1957 Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was the most outrageous comeback of all time.  Fangio popularised shuffle steering and feathering the wheel, whereby you don’t apply a constant radius, but take the corner in a series of small “bites”, turning in slightly and then straightening away from the curve and then immediately repeating etc.  The benefit is that you can carry more speed – the micro-straightening regains traction and then you immediately attack the turn again. Cf throttle feathering, where you continually adjust the inertial mass of the car in fast sweeping bends.  That is, in a front drive car on a fast long corner, lift off and the car will tuck in towards the centre of the road; apply and the car will move towards the apex.  You can essentially steer the car on motorway curves with little or no inputs from the steering wheel. Channeling your inner Fangio : ) There is a statue to the great man in the centre of Monaco, much beloved of tourists.

Ayrton Senna

I was in St. Andrews in Scotland in 1994 when I heard the bad news.  People stood around, staring at TV screens, in disbelief. Senna had that aura of invincibility that you also associated with Joey Dunlop. A probable future Brazilian president; honoured with a 3-day state funeral.  See the <extract from the book about his funeral>. He reportedly was a formidable commercial negotiator and as uncompromising off the track as he was on it.  An outrageous talent, Senna was even better in the wet – soaking tracks and spray allow the true artists to display their abnormal levels of finesse and courage.  Intense, driven, honourable and often difficult; famously, after he moved to England, he split up with his then girlfriend who reportedly was fed up with his refusal to socialise.  Apparently, he preferred to stay in and read the bible … His tussles with his fellow-genius, the laid-back Prost, were the stuff of legend – see the excellent documentary, <Senna>; and here is a snippet of the master at work, in an era when there was no power steering, and minimal suspension (ignore the “Video unavailable” message, just click below to “Watch on YouTube”):

James Hunt

And then you have a bloke who almost certainly didn’t waste too much time reading the bible : )  Hunt was a swashbuckling exemplar of the irreverent decade that was the 1970s. A posh playboy and party animal whose champagne-filled nights and boudoir antics just before races gave rise to the “sex – the breakfast of champions” – adage; James nonetheless was a fantastic natural talent and a ferocious competitor. And there’s never been anyone like him in F1 ever since.

Alain Prost

A genius racer and every bit Senna’s match on the track.  Nicknamed “the Professor” for his thoughtful, dispassionate and analytical racing style.  Easy on his cars and on himself.  

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