During his 14-year world rally career Walter Rohrl won an astonishing 420 rally stages, but these days he is perhaps better known these days for his circuit driving.
At the old Nürburgring, as a long-time tester, racer and ambassador for Porsche, his lap times provide the definitive guide to car performance - even now, at the age of 62.
Who, then, could have inspired such a man, someone whom even Niki Lauda (not known for his loose praise) calls a genius.
“It started with my brother, Michael,” says Walter. “Ten years older than me, he’d drive me everywhere. He was my idol; I was in awe of the guy. He had a Porsche 356 coupe and I was just this kid in the back. He was a very good skier and an outstanding driver, so that’s what I wanted to be.” Sadly, Michael did not live to see his protege’s success. “He died in a traffic accident. I was 18 and had just passed my driving test.”
The man who took up Walter’s cause was one Herbert Marecek. “We were skiers and every weekend we went ski racing and I always drove. And he’d say, ‘You must become a race driver. I never saw anyone with such a feel for a car.’ He pushed me for three years, in which I did five events – one in his own car, others in cars he borrowed. And after every event he’d write to the sports newspapers in Germany saying his friend was the best driver in the world and someone should give him a contract. After the fifth event I got a contract with Ford.”
“Everyone was afraid of Makinen,” says Rohrl. “He was a rough man – we all knew he had a whisky bottle in the car with him – but he was so fast and so wild. In 1978 we were rallying in Canada in Fiats. Makinen retired early so went to spectate instead. Afterwards he came up to me and said, ‘Only Finns are meant to be able to do rallying. But you were the best out there.’ It was the moment this boy from Bavaria felt accepted.
“Hannu was completely different – a proper gentleman and always quiet, but a real hero. I can remember back in 1972 watching him in a forest in Germany driving an Escort, and thinking what a privilege it was, just being able to stand there and watch Hannu Mikkola come past. It was the first time I’d seen him like that and I’ll never forget it.”
Five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of his and, some still say, any generation is Walter's next choice. “I wanted so much to be like him,” muses Walter. “What was incredible about Eddie was that he’d win the race before it started. He was so good that he knew that if he started, he would win. And more than anything, I wanted to be like that. Later on we became friends and for a long time I’d go cycling with him every year.”