The three Rohrl children grew up with their mother, and in time youngest son Walter found himself drawn towards the Church. He worked as a legal representative of the Bishop of Regensburg across the seven diocese of Bavaria – a job that often required him to drive quite rapidly between engagements.
Oldest brother Michael had bought an old Porsche 356 and encouraged his young brother’s keen interest in cars and driving. Sadly, Michael Rohrl died in a road accident, a devastating blow to the younger brother who idolised him, but soon a work colleague called Herbert Marecek pointed Walter towards rally driving, acting as sponsor and co-driver.
By 1970, Rohrl’s talents were becoming evident and he was offered a paid drive with Ford – albeit while still working for the Church. After his first season with the team, the youngster bowed to pressure from his mother and announced his retirement, but then thought better of it. In 1972 he really made his name by beating established stars like Hannu Mikkola and Jean-Pierre Nicolas on the 1972 Olympic Rally, at the wheel of an unfancied Ford Capri.
For 1973, Opel offered Rohrl a full-time drive and he bade farewell to the diocese, going on to finish second in the European Rally Championship in his first season and winning it in 1974. Yet throughout his career, the Church was never far away, no matter how far or how fast he drove. ‘I am very faithful,’ he later said.
‘I prayed a lot under the worst competitive pressure. Sometimes I feel guilty nowadays because I pray less. Because back then, when I needed help, I prayed more. It’s kind of shabby, I think. I used to have a language rule at the rallies: “You do not have to help me win. Just help me, that nothing happens to me.” So I prayed, when I stood on the [start line]. To demand a victory would have seemed rude to me.’
Combining racing with rallying in the mid-1970s took some direction out of Rohrl’s career until he was approached by former Lancia and Ferrari team boss Daniele Audetto to join his new squad at Fiat. Audetto teamed Rohrl with a laid-back and gregarious co-driver, Christian Geistdorfer, and the results culminated in them romping off with the 1980 World Rally Championship title.
So great was his satisfaction at winning the 1980 Monte Carlo Rally that Rohrl almost announced his retirement on the spot – then the novelty of a championship title beckoned so he stayed on. Fiat then withdrew at the end of the year, which left two German manufacturers vying for the Bavarian’s services in 1981: Mercedes-Benz and Audi.
Rohrl visited Ingolstadt twice, each time taking one of the prototype Quattros out for a test drive, exactly as Hannu Mikkola had done. As a local boy, the whole situation seemed perfect, yet after his second visit Rohrl went straight to Stuttgart. ‘All of the technical people, or leading technical people in Mercedes said “this thing will never work so don’t worry about that. We are doing the right thing and forget about Audi,’” Christian Geistdorfer recalled.
AMG, the competition arm of Mercedes-Benz, was planning a five-year campaign. Rohrl was promised a powerful 5-litre 500 SLC as his Group 4 car in 1981-82, after which Mercedes would build a lightweight four-wheel-drive car to Group B regulations. In the end, Rohrl chose to make his bed in Stuttgart.
Audi team principal Walter Treser was furious and vented his frustration in the German media. Rohrl meanwhile discovered that the board at Mercedes-Benz was less enthusiastic about the programme than might have been believed, after he suffered a testing crash when preparing for the Monte Carlo Rally. A delivery truck had been permitted to enter the section of closed roads he was using, resulting in a sizeable scandal.
In the fallout from that accident, one of the Mercedes board members telephoned Rohrl directly and asked if he was going to win the Monte Carlo Rally. The ever-truthful driver stated that if it snowed they might get lucky and finish in the top five, but without snow he couldn’t guarantee where they would be in the top 15. Facing the ignominy of being shown the way by a motley assortment of Fords, Renaults and Talbots, Mercedes cancelled its five-year programme almost overnight.
‘I already had a bad feeling about the Mercedes deal,’ Rohrl reflected. ‘I felt I was like everyone else, only looking for the money. So when the board decided to withdraw, it was like a relief for my conscience. And then I had a telephone call from Porsche, who said they had no money but asked if I would like to drive their car. It was the start of a big friendship.’
Rohrl had fun in 1981, but he had a job to do: beating Audi. To this end a marriage of inconvenience was agreed with Opel, the only team capable of giving him a works car for 1982. Team principal Tony Fall had landed a major sponsor for his team – the cigarette brand Rothmans – and spent a good deal of that money on getting the Bavarian into his cars. Fall was therefore less than amused to discover that his star driver was a committed non-smoker who refused to do any promotional work for Rothmans.
‘I did not speak for three minutes in eleven months with Tony Fall,’ Rohrl later said. ‘It did not exist for me.’
The only thing that did exist to him was a conviction to exact revenge for the humiliating furore that had taken place a year earlier. ‘When I signed for Mercedes at the end of 1980 I also had an offer from Audi and their manager, Walter Treser, was very angry that I did not accept it,’ Rohrl said.
‘He did lots of interviews with bad comments about me so when I went back to the world championship in 1982 my principal motivation was to beat the Audis and stop them being world champion. For them to be beaten by me in an Opel with old technology was awful.’
The 1982 season was a true nail-biter as Opel’s cantankerous star went head-to-head with the darling of the World Rally Championship, Michele Mouton. With the drivers’ title settled in his favour, Rohrl rather grudgingly set off for the RAC Rally to help Opel claim the manufacturers’ prize. Before the rally started, however, it was announced that he would join Lancia for 1983 and Tony Fall decided that enough was enough – he sent his new champion home with another very public rebuke. To this day he cares little for Opel and never even collected his champion’s trophy.
Rohrl’s season with Lancia did not bring a third world championship – mainly because he didn’t want one. Titles did not interest him, only being the fastest rally driver on the greatest rallies in the world, and Lancia team principal Cesare Fiorio was happy to indulge him if it helped win the manufacturers’ prize. Thanks to Rohrl’s inspired victories in Monte Carlo and the Acropolis, Audi was denied the title that it so dearly craved – and then finally an olive branch was extended from the very top in Ingolstadt.
‘Audi board member Dr Sonnenborn was a critical influence in making me switch to Audi,’ Rohrl said. ‘As I understood it, he had been given an order by Piech: “Bring in Rohrl. Driving with him is much cheaper than driving against him.’”
With Lancia, Rohrl had listed a handful of rallies in which he was interested in driving. With Audi, he nailed it down to just one rally and for one reason: Stig Blomqvist.
‘Stig was the only one I’d never competed against in the same car. All the rest – Mikkola, Waldegard, Alen, Vatanen – I had been in the same car at the same time. I wanted to know, because everyone said Stig was the fastest man with four-wheel drive, the fastest on snow. It was a big motivation for me. I said to Audi, I will help you and one of your pilots to be world champion. But in Monte Carlo I want to show who is chief!’
It seemed remarkable to his teammates that a man who had been forced to dig so deep in order to prevent them from winning championships was now quite content not to pick the lower-hanging fruit for himself. ‘He was very good and very quick and very, very professional because he knew what he was doing and he really tried everything and he was… okay… he was a bit different,’ reflected Blomqvist.
Where Rohrl’s interest lay at Audi was in the development of better Quattros. Both the Audi Sport quattro and the Audi Sport quattro S1 were the focal point of his time: trying to make these skittish, wildly over-powered cars into contenders against the perfectly weighted new generation of Group B thoroughbreds like the Peugeot 205 T16.
Working in isolation from the rest of the rally world, Rohrl was content communing with the laws of traction and polar inertia… it came much easier to him than the frat-house antics of his fellow drivers.
‘If we had a special stage and there was a delay, everybody would get out of the cars and talk together,’ he reflected. ‘I would sit in the car, Christian would be reading his notes, and I never talked to anyone… They were thinking I didn’t like them, but it was just my opinion of how to be professional. Nothing else… It was funny because I liked all of them, I had no problems with anybody.’
Walter Rohrl’s mesmerising victory by six-and-a-half minutes in the 1985 Sanremo Rally was to be the last for an Audi Quattro in the world championship – and it was all down to his obstinate determination to turn the gargantuan power and colossal investment into a winner.
He would do it all again two years later in the epic Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (see Chapter 4), in another highly personal battle with Peugeot. Then he turned his back on rallying and joined Audi’s squad in circuit racing in Trans-Am, IMSA and the DTM before re-joining Porsche to take part at Le Mans and to develop its road cars, finally retiring at the age of 70.
In 2019, Rohrl became the first rally driver to be inducted into the FIA’s Hall of Fame – it is an accolade that this singularly brilliant man richly deserved.