Wild Man Walter

What’s it like to ride with Porsche AG test driver Walter Röhrl in older Porsche machinery? Time to find out…

Photo: Walter Röhrl 1
November 4, 2007

It’s been said that, on gravel as well as on tarmac, Walter Röhrl was one of the fastest rally drivers of all time. But I wanted to find out for myself. So, quite unselfishly, I volunteered to sit shotgun to the Rally Pope — not once, but twice. Once on a closed rallycross track, once on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Instruc-tions to test driver Walter Röhrl: “Mix it up!” Result: I am sick. Forever.

I’ll willingly admit Röhrl is my hero from childhood. So when, one sunny day, my kind-hearted editor held up a “young man wanted” sign while at the same time expressing his desire that the volunteer should sample what it is like when Röhrl really gets going, everything was clear for me. I called Walter and explained that we wanted to do an article with him having a working title of “Mix it up with the Master.” Walter laughed and agreed immediately. His only condition was that there should be no driving on public roads.

Okay. So, when I told Walter that I was considering a rallycross track, he said: “Excellent. But after that we will also drive on the Nordschleife, during business hours — right in the middle of all the tourist drivers — so you will have the real comparison when all of the others try to drive fast, too.” At the time, that sounded like good entertainment to me.

After Röhrl’s employer, Porsche, couldn’t find an adequate car for my wild ride, German Wolf-Dieter Ihle was nice enough to help out with a real jewel. For my ride with the man from Regensburg, he offered up the keys to one of only three existing all-wheel-drive Porsche 953 works prototypes. In fact, it’s the same car Jacky Ickx drove in the Paris-Dakar in 1984. This car is the predecessor to the 959 and the only example in private hands. A car of unquantifiable value owned by someone who obviously isn’t easily worried, believes in the natural goodness of people, and most probably cools open wounds in a piranha tank. Or was there some static interference during our telephone call just at the moment when I mentioned the article was to be called “Wild Man Walter?”

Photo: Walter Röhrl 2

When, on the morning we all meet, Ihle starts the engine of his 953 for the first time, the onlookers have this silly, child-like smile on their faces. Including Walter Röhrl. Two thigh-thick open pipes control the exhaust stream, but calling them silencers would be a gross exaggeration. When Röhrl and Ihle go for a little training session, this long-legged missile flies past us, roaring beast-like. You just can’t ignore it. Not here, and not miles away.

The time has come. The flat six is warm, Walter is too, and I am clamped securely by safety belts next to The Master. With an apologetic smile, Walter says that, within Porsche, this car is called “Train.” Set up especially for stable and straight-running on fast stages in desert rallies, it’s very hard to push it sideways around the narrow corners of the rallycross track. I don’t know if his intention is to soothe me or to frighten me. Just 100 yards later, I am sure: it’s to scare the hell out of me.

Thanks to its AWD transmission, this “911” has such acceleration that we are much faster at the first turn-in point than I had imagined. We fly into it far faster than I can bear, too. Eyes closed and…already the next right-hand bend! Oh, good… Walter’s going to skip it. After all, we are too fast. Much too fast. That’s what Walter obviously thinks, too, and so he takes a left — towards a wall! That’s what I think. But Röhrl jerks the steering wheel to and fro, so that, finally, The Train comes around with its rear end, pawing with all fours, and shoots through the right-hand bend.

Well, the good news is that, from now on, I don’t have to think about when and where we’re drifting on this complex dirt course, since my thoughts are so much slower than Röhrl’s driving. Thus, I can relax. Or that’s what I think up to the point where I can feel Walter straightening in his seat, deciding in his own mind that now that the oil has the right temperature, we can get started. Oh dear…

Photo: Walter Röhrl 3

In the following minutes, I learn just how muscular an untrained writer is. Muscles I didn’t know existed cramp up. With all ten toes, I cling to my shoes, as if that would be of any help. Two horses standing relatively unaffected at the side of the track create my only point of relaxation, a point we pass every couple of minutes. Here, Walter takes his foot off the gas and rolls by at walking speed. An animal lover, he doesn’t want to distress the horses.

That doesn’t apply to me, though, as I find out at the end of the next straight. My pilot says he has decided that this long, right-hand bend might actually work at full speed. “Might” and “actually” aren’t the words I want to hear on matters concerning my physical inviolability. Outside, I close my eyes. Inside, I close my book of life. This is it, I think. When I open my eyes again, we’re already at the next bend. Well, well, that long right-hander did indeed “work” flat out. Presumably, Walter took a whole ’nuther line, but that’s probably an assumption his rivals made in the past.

In front of his little audience, Walter stops the 953 by executing a handbrake turn, complete with donut, leaving only a mighty cloud of dust. Silence. Deadlock. My breath gradually comes back to me, as if through a snorkel. Warily, I pull my fingernails out of the dashboard, one by one. It is over. When I slowly gain orientation and confidence again, I hear these ominous words of Walter Röhrl distantly, as if through cotton wool, indistinct, barely audible: “Okay, so what time do we meet at the Nordschleife today?”

My goodness, I suppressed all thought of that. The more horrible part of our trip is still to come! Side by side with Röhrl in the middle of would-be racers, tourist coaches, and motorbike kamikazes, three laps at the infamous North Loop of the old Nürburgring. With the speedometer needle showing exactly 70 km/h, I steer my MGA across the autobahn, heading for the second half of a personal dream that is rapidly becoming more of a nightmare. Temporarily, I discover the fascination of driving slowly. It’s nice. Really.

Photo: Walter Röhrl 4

At the Nürburgring, we face a momentary delay, which doesn’t do my already weak condition any good. A Porsche customer demands that his Carrera GT, fresh from a factory reconditioning, should be tested by Walter himself. This gives me the chance to observe from the outside what awaits me. When Röhrl re-emerges onto the home stretch, catapulting the 612-horse projectile sideways at 200 km/h, two people curse their so-called good ideas. My planned ride with Walter at the Nordschleife suddenly grows snarling teeth, and, on seeing the pale skin of the Carrera GT’s owner, he would clearly have preferred to rely on a graying technician in a white coat for the test drive.

Never mind, we’ve got to keep going. We aren’t chickens, are we? For a car, we have — since Porsche couldn’t find a car in its collection for Röhrl this time, either — a private Porsche. It is a 1965 911 owned by Bernhard Pfültzer. Even though he has two races scheduled for himself at the Oldtimer Grand Prix in the following two days, he’s another one of those cool-as-a-cucumber types, the kind who trusts in the goodness that exists in a human being — provided his name is Walter Röhrl.

Climb in, fasten belts, and up we go to the toll booth with Walter’s “Compliment-ary Ticket for Tourist.” How cute. Tourist. Hah — if they only knew! Three laps lay before us. The first is to get the 911 up to temperature. The second is to really let it fly. It’s comforting to recall Pfültzer’s words: “In training, we need around nine minutes, ten seconds for the lap, but Walter certainly will go with this car under nine minutes.” And, to hear those words coming from the mouth of a man who knows the Nordschleife well and has stood many times on its podium. But he seems to understand Röhrl, too. Hmpf.

Slowly, we gain speed. Cutting every curb, centrifugal forces are building up, the line always different than the one I would have imagined. Shortly before reaching the Pflanzgarten, Walter lets up. A Subaru Whatever Triple Evo in camouflage ahead is too slow. “I don’t want him to weasel in front of us at the Pflanz-garten,” says Röhrl, because we agreed before that our photographers would wait for us right there. 500 yards before we reach the agreed point, Walter puts his right foot down and pushes the pedal to the floorboards, full attack. Just as we are coming across the jump at the Pflanz-garten, we see the Subaru alarmingly turning into the right-hand bend…

Photo: Walter Röhrl 5

Obviously, it is the absolute limit for this driver, but no more than a slight hindrance for us. In the middle of the bend, Röhrl moves to the left and passes the Subaru around the outside. Looking out from my passenger’s window, I can tell from a little dust particle that the driver’s door on the Subaru must have already had some paintwork. To put it in other words, it was a very close thing. And, naturally, we will get amazing pictures! That’s what I thought. But the photographers were so astonished by the speed at which we moved out to overtake the Subaru, they went straight into the prone position so as to be safe from flying parts from the “certain” accident. 

At Döttinger Höhe, Walter asks a question that, for me at least, marks his exceptional talent in an indelible fashion: “Do we want to doddle along like this for the rest of the day, or shall we start driving a fast lap?” Oops. Both the Subaru driver and I are still scratching our heads, and this guy is talking about a fast lap? Worst of all, I hear a voice like mine say “Yes,” then add, “fine with me.” Not smart.

Silent quivering on my part follows, as I can’t find the words to describe what happens next. Lines through corners that seemed pretty spectacular to me only a couple of minutes earlier are now something totally different. The camera I was able to hold up now and then has vanished forever into the footwell. My brain is running emergency programming.

The key scene of this lap takes place in the Karussel. From behind, a very fast BMW Z4 approaches. Our Porsche isn’t cut out for extremely high speed, so that this capable driver in a more modern, more powerful car makes it not just into our rearview mirror, but comes alongside. Neck and neck, we near Karussel. One thing is sure and that is only one car at a time can use the steep turn of this “wall of death.” The other must slow and give way. Or that’s what I thought, anyway.

The Z4 whooshes into the Karussel, and I hear, with disbelief, my companion say: “We are going to catch him around the top.” Around the top means that while the potent BMW takes Karussel using the “wall” without lifting, Röhrl puts the old 911 on the flat surface of the track outside the Karussel with its front pointing at the Z4, and, as if attracted to it like a swinging compass needle, stays alongside the other car at a steady angle! Peering through the windshield, I look directly into the face of the Z4’s passenger, and he at mine. When we — how I simply don’t know — come out of the bend and romp into the straight, the BMW crew raise their hands, cheer, clap, and give us a thumbs-up. They have never have experienced anything quite like that. Me neither.

At the end of a journey through unknown galaxies of driving, I realize that, despite the rather fresh outside temperature, my shirt is soaking wet. We come to a stop, I get out, and I feel miserable. And then he talks to me again. Proclaims Röhrl: “You will never, ever cross the Nordschleife as fast again in your whole life.” I will sign to agree to that immediately, but only after my hand stops trembling…

Also from Issue 160

  • Ruf 3400K coupe: A 400-hp Cayman
  • Steelie Screamer: Early 911 Hot Rod
  • 911 SC-based 953 Rally Replica
  • Skip Hudson’s 356 Speedster
  • Inside Penske Racing’s Premises
  • 997 GT2 Preview
  • Great White: A 680-hp 996 GT2
  • Market Update: 914 and 914-66
  • Porsche Icon: 917/30
  • Project 914 3.6: Fiberglass Bumpers
  • Installing Wheel Spacers Properly
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