“Rallying is the most interesting kind of motor sport that you can do. It’s a challenge. You need to have a lot of feel with the car and it is surely the most difficult kind of racing”
Walter Röhrl, May 2019
There are matches made in heaven, and matches made by the Squadra Corse Lancia. The 037 and the Walter Röhrl / Christian Geistöorfer couple are the kind of names that still resonate with full life force among all rally enthusiasts. The Zero and Mr.Röhrl come from an era that is long gone: when they were racing togheter in the 1983 season, cars from the Fiat group were dominating almost everywhere in international racing. As history books will tell you, Ferrari won three F1 constructor titles in ’75,’77 and ’79 while Lancia took 3 consecutive world rally constructor titles in ’74,’75 and ’76 with the Stratos and in two World Championship of Makes titles in ’80 and ’81 with its Gr.5 Beta Montecarlo Turbo, while Fiat scored three titles in ’77,’78 and ’80 with the 131 Abarth Rally. With the sole exception of Björn Waldegård’s win in 1979 with the Ford Escort 1800 RS, the 70ies rally scene was dominated by Lancia and Fiat. With the new Group B regulations coming into effect in 1982, the world of rallying was never to be the same again: where rally cars once were just heavily modified family saloons, they became full-force rally prototypes. Audi introduced the Quattro Coupé in March 1980, shocking the world with its innovative four wheel drive system and turbocharged engine. Struggling to be competitive, the engineers at Lancia and Abarth begun to develop a car which was competitive enough to tame the Audis in record time. Using many existing parts, chief engineer Sergio Limone created one of the most perfect and interesting rally cars ever, the 037. With a debut in 1982 at the Rally Costa Smeralda with Attilio Bettega and Maurizio Perissinot, the new car immediately showed a great potential, despite its flaws and two-wheel drive system. The “Zero” in its EVO 1 version, the first truly competitive variant debuted In 1983 as a top class contender. German driver Walter Röhrl joined the Cesare Fiorio’s Squadra Corse Lancia as a works driver: his precision and competitiveness completed the character of the 037, which allowed Lancia to win the 1983 Constructor’s championship just shy of 2 points from the four wheel drive Audis.
Walter Röhrl is quite a character. At first he seems to be the quintessential German driver, cold and always professional but ask him to tell you about the 037 and his eyes will sparkle with the same enthusiasm of a child. In a cold evening of May on the Monti Lessini, Mr. Röhrl himself gave Escape on Wheels an exclusive interview. Reuniting him with his former Lancia 037 with which he won the Monte Carlo rally, he sat down with us to talk about the time when, as a young driver, beat the Audis in the 1983 season.
When and how did your rallying career started?
It was in 1968… a friend of mine, who was racing against me in ski races proposed me the idea of participating to a rally race. I answered that I had no money to become a rally driver so he told me that he would arrange that I would have to participate in an event where I would have had nothing to pay. I accepted and our first event was the Rally Bavaria, a race valid for the German Championship which we’ve done in his Fiat 850 Coupé. Obviously, we retired because we had some issues with the car and that was it: I gave it a try and it was enough. However, a year later he proposed to go again and I accepted: in the next 3 years we competed in 5 rallies in a BMW 2002 Tii as privateers. After that, I got an offer from Ford to become a professional driver.
You always said that the Monte Carlo Rally was important to you.
Yeah. The Monte Carlo Rally has always been the rally I have heard of since the beginning. At Ford everyone I talked with always said that if you win the Montecarlo is like having the most exposure from the press and almost winning the Championship. I did my first Monte Carlo in 1973 and I realized that is the event where you need to be a perfect driver: you have to be fast on tarmac and snow and always drive very precisely. There is no room for error, as you’re racing between rocks and ditches and it’s easy to crash. I’ve had only one aim in my rally career and that was to win that rally: I never dreamt to be European or World champion, only the Montecarlo! It’s where you can show everyone you are the number 1. When I won there for the first time in 1980, it was the high point of my career and I felt that I reached the aim in my life and wanted to retire. Of course, after two weeks of discussion, my co-driver convinced me otherwise and we continued… I was lucky to win that Rally four times in four different cars.
What was your first contact with Fiat?
I think it was in 1973 at the Rally Moldau in Czechoslovakia. I was with Opel at that time and I remember beating Sandro Munari in his Fulvia HF by 60 minutes. He was shocked by my result and after the stage he came and asked me if I would have loved to drive his car after the race. The only problem was that I couldn’t go away from Opel as they had done so much for me: however as I later switched from the Ascona to the Kadett, things changed. The car kept braking down and I had enough: to show everyone that the Opel wasn’t good enough for rallying, I entered an event in San Martino di Castrozza with my own Porsche. Two days before the start Daniele Audetto came to me and said “will you destroy your nice Porsche on these rough roads? If you want I can give you a Fiat!”. I thought that it was a good idea, so the day before the race I did some practice in the muletto from Verini and I first got the impression of what a proper rally team, car and service were truly like. I immediately signed up for the 1978 season to drive for Fiat.
You said that working with Italians is always a great lifestyle experience.
Italians have very nice things… starting from clothing, which are always nice. If you go to eat, food is much more important here than in Germany: where we need to have food in ourselves, here you enjoy the food, which is important. When I was in Italy we were always flying in first class with Alitalia and everything was just perfect!
If you’re a foreign driver in Italy you see that everything is much more relaxed and heartfelt: I remember mechanics crying when I had to retire, while in Germany no one cared very much for it! There’s usually much more emotion in the whole team.
How did you get contracted with Lancia?
First they asked me if I wanted to drive the Beta Montecarlo with Riccardo Patrese in the 1979 world endurance championship. I wasn’t a fan of circuit driving but I knew it would have helped me in perfecting my skills, so I went. You know, in the end in a circuit you have many chances to take the same corner, while in rallying it’s a matter of feeling: either you have it or you don’t, you can’t learn it. In 1981 and ’82 I left Fiat as I got some nice offers from Mercedes and Audi but I was crying a little to come back to Italy. Luckily for me, I got a call from Cesare Fiorio to ask me if I wanted to race in the 1983 season with the new 037. I went immediately and said to him the following thing: “the only thing that I care about is winning at Monte Carlo. I did not care to be a world champion but I will help Lancia win the Constructors Title”. Everything went perfectly: I won the Monte with more than 7 minutes over Marku Alen and at the end of the season I was behind the champion by only 1 point and Lancia was World Champion. 1983 was the best year of my life!
Tell us about the 037. Which were the first sensations that you had behind the wheel?
I sat for the first time in one at Campo Volo, right in front of the Lancia factory in Turin: in my first kilometre with her I remember thinking “this is my car”. I have always been a driver who tried not to steer the car very much and in the 037 required minimal movements and was just as precise as a formula car. It needed to be driven very smoothly and very cleanly and it never understeered: it was just perfect from moment one it was like it was made for me. I remember that some of my friends told me that as I am very tall it was going to get hurt very badly in case of a crash because the car was very light but I replied by saying “do not worry, I am not planning to have an accident, with a car like this there’s no reason for me not going off the road”. From the first minute the 037 was my car and the one that I still love to this day.
How was your 1983 Montecarlo rally?
We were lucky as there was not very much snow. The Lancia team was able to change the tires in the middle of the rally, which was never done before. I remember that there were sections of 20 kms uphill where we needed spiked tires and then there was another going dowhill of dry tarmac so we had to plan our strategy very well and we were able to do so brilliantly.
Which was your motivation to drive against Audi?
To me, driving a two wheel drive car against the Audi Quattros was a special motivation. I was always trying to put pressure on them as I knew that they were faster on gravel roads. Nontheless, I was able to beat them at gravel-only rallies as I won at Acropolis and New Zeland, exploiting their mistakes.
How was your relationship with Christian Geisdörfer during your time together?
We worked together for 11 years and we never had one problem ever. We couldn’t be so far apart: after we finished working, he would go party and I would go cycling or walking. We never had any problems: he was never out of notes and was always very clear. I think that Rallying is a team sport and you always need to have the right men to do it properly.
This Zero is the car which you won the Montecarlo in. How does it feel to be back in it?
The reason why I’ve done this trip to Italy was just to have a chance to come back of 35 years in my life. Today I feel younger because sitting in this car and hearing this noise and changing the gears is exactly as I remember. It was very emotional to see and drive her once more.
How did it feel to drive a Group B rally car back in those years?
It was easy to make mistakes but it was also easy to win by a huge margin. If you lifted mid-corner, the turbo needed some seconds before it begun producing boost again. if you sum that in a 10 or 20 kilometre special stage, it represents a huge time difference at the end.
Also back then you had to shift manually and there was also night driving: it was in this conditions that you saw the ability of the driver. Nowadays with paddles everyone shifts at the same speed and with no longer racing in the night in modern rallying, there’s no way of seeing who has the most concentration after 30 hours spent in the car. I am sure that if we were slower in the corners than today’s cars, we went much faster in the straights. Driving a Group B car at speed was very difficult as it felt like having lots of power let loose.
You once said that you do not want to win with 10 seconds of advantage over your opponent, but with 10 minutes.
Of course, because If I win with 10 seconds I can never say that I am better than my opponent. 10 minutes is quite a lot of time so… If I do so I might think that I am actually better than who’s behind me! This was always my motivation for being in front of the next one.
What is driving to you?
You know, people might think that as a former ski racer and rally car driver that I am a speed junkie. I am not. Speed is nothing for me. Only driving perfection counts for me.
What do you think of modern cars? Do you think that we’re maybe losing some emotion?
I think that one day we’ll have to stop this fight in producing faster and faster cars. I do not think that electric cars, as much as they are good for the city, will cut it for people like me, who can cover up to 1000 km in a day! In the end, we need to hear the sound, the emotion, we need that special motivation to drive a car. Something that we also need is to make cars lighter: they’re getting so heavy! A light car with the right amount of power is so much nicer than a heavy car with lots of horsepower. If you look today, new cars have the same weight as the model they replace: now we have to make cars lighter, also to help fuel consumption and tires wear.
So…shall we go for a drive then?
As we squeezed into the cockpit and put on the belts, he just seems in his element. As the typical 2-stroke like sound of the 037 fills the cabin as he just drives like it was 1983. Clean, precise and surgical, a true pleasure to watch and to experience.