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»Walter, how do you do that?«

One of the last rallies Walter Röhrl drove against the clock was the »Targa Tasmania« in 2000. In the world's longest and fastest road race, a journalist from ramp sat in the passenger seat of the Porsche 356 Carrera GT. He asked the two-time World Rally Champion many questions. One of the answers: »For me, driving a car begins where I steer the car with the gas pedal instead of the steering wheel. Everything else is just working.«

Text: Michael Petersen Photo: Perfect Pictures 06.06.2019 12 min

The rear of the silver Porsche 356, built in 1960, rises from a dilapidated shed high up in the Tasmanian Mountains. Next to the Porsche stands a soaking wet Walter Röhrl. »I've never been so cut off from the rest of the world before,« says the double world champion from Germany. At the roadside, the tall Walter Röhrl had squeezed himself under the small Porsche from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart for thirty minutes to get the shift linkage to engage a gear in the lashing rain - in vain. The linkage guide was broken, somewhere in the gearbox. The clearly leading team Walter Röhrl/Michael Petersen has nothing more to do with the decision of the Targa Tasmania. I'm asking: »Walter, do you think anyone will ever find us here?« Röhrl answers my question with a shrug. Then he growls: »If only everything weren't so damn cold and wet!«

the sun is shining in Melbourne before the start to the two and a half thousand kilometers and fifty-five special stages. »I hate finishing second,« Röhrl explains to the Australian journalists. And to me: »I had a co-driver once, and the announcement for the first turn wasn't right.« And? »I told him: Throw your book back and enjoy the scenery for the rest of the rally! I couldn't trust him anymore.« The pressure's rising, even if it's my third Targa Tasmania.

The first special stages are not going badly. Then »Latrobe«. Four fast kilometers along a lake. Just a slightly tricky passage. »At a fast right turn after 1.180 kilometers one of them fell into the creek«, I explain to Walter before the start. »Five, four, three, two, one,« yells the man on the left in front of us and raises the flag - the Porsche rushes forward. »One hundred eight left hundred fifty«, I call into the helmet microphone, later »seven right and four left sixty«. The multi-digit numbers mean the distances in meters to the next curve. The higher the single-digit numbers, the faster you drive: »eight« is usually more than one hundred and fifty kilometers per hour, while »one« is a hairpin bend. »Eight right by the river forty,« Röhrl hears. The Porsche drifts away slightly. I'm getting cocky. »Eight left eighty, done, no bathing, nine right and nine left hundred.« Damn, what I read and what I see when I look up doesn't match. Röhrl has long since noticed that he drives to his destination by sight.

The sweat between my shoulder blades runs hot down my neck. »Sorry, that sucked,« I notice. Röhrl says nothing; neither does the fact that I am a tourist from now on. After all. We're in the top group. After two days the lead is two seconds ahead of a much younger Porsche 911. Its driver bends friendly into the side window: »How fast does your old Porsche run?« Röhrl: »About two hundred and twenty.« The expression of the revered opponent darkens. He did not expect a forty-year-old Porsche to be so fast. I suppose his calculation was to hang us out on the fast parts... The small Porsche from the Stuttgart Museum offers the finest technology - with one limitation. »We can only bring the cars to the start the way they were built in the past,« explains Klaus Bischof, head of the museum and head of operations. »This means that the Porsche 356 Carrera GT must not be equipped with any technical highlights that did not exist forty years ago.« More than one hundred and seventy-five horsepower with a weight of only eight hundred and sixty kilograms is not bad. After some changes to the shock absorbers, Röhrl is satisfied with the handling of the Porsche.

The drum brakes, he likes less. After a few hard braking maneuvers, you can feel the wear and tear with your nose. »I have to hit the pedal like an ox. Brutal. My knee already hurts«, Röhrl complains. In fact, one of the drums doesn't look good after three days of competition. Mechanics from Porsche Australia remove a brake drum from an old timer in Melbourne overnight. The part is flown in by air freight and installed before the start in the morning.

Röhrl is worried that because of the brakes he has to slow down earlier than usual in modern racing cars. »If someone drives like that, I would have said as a spectator: the guy should stay at home«, he grumbles, »normally it's either full throttle or brake, I'm sure not going to roll towards a bend!« Everything is relative. Röhrl drives in a different world than normal racing drivers. Our lead is growing.

In the evening the drivers come to me and ask: »How does he do it?« Embarrassed, even recognized faces after the story of the level crossing on the special stage Lylydale. My former driver Peter Fitzgerald had warned me: »Watch out at the railroad crossing, it's brutal. If you're too fast, it'll rip out the front axle.« Before the start I inform Walter - and when the level crossing comes into view after a downhill passage at a speed of one hundred and sixty. It's a long time until Walter brakes. I'm cowering in the seat. Then a short kick on the pedal, I feel the car going sideways, it jumps over the tracks. They're long behind us when I'm still waiting for the violent blow. »Walter, what was that?«

I will receive exclusive explanations after each of the special stages. Röhrl: »If I brake hard and hit the rails with two wheels on at the same time with the car spring loaded, it'll crash.« Röhrl's recipe: »By going sideways and releasing the brake, one wheel after the other jumps over the obstacle, it doesn't hurt the car at all.« I see. After a while, he adds: »As you asked me so astonished, I first realized that not everyone does it like that. For me, anyway, that's normal.«

We are increasingly talking about his ability to move a vehicle within the narrow limits of physics. »You can only drive that fast if you prepare your head for weeks,« says Röhrl during a liaison section. »Even during a speedy test drive on the Nürburgring I can't drive with so much effort. That's why only those who sit next to me in the car in competition experience such a ride.« Röhrl is silent for a while. Then I hear: »Even the body is changing. At home I never have to pee for the second time an hour after getting up.«

Tasmania is sparsely populated, very thin. More than half a million people live on an area as large as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg combined. Many villages are connected by excellent asphalt roads. They will simply be closed for the rally. People enjoy a little variety. And they have time. For hours they sit on folding chairs, blankets or even bonnets of their cars parked on the roadside to watch and wave at the rally.

It strikes me that Walter Röhrl perceives more than others. When I pick up a stack of photos from local photographers the day after the race, he says before taking a look: »Too bad there's no drifts on it.« I ask the astonished question: »How do you know that?» Answer: »I've seen photographers only stand in tight corners.« I believe his word when he says: »In the past, you could have stood anywhere on a special stage, I would have seen you at full speed.« A city circuit with exactly twenty-two completely different curves is something we are allowed to ride slowly. When it goes against the clock, I don't need to read anything: Röhrl knows the 4.7 kilometers by heart.

Walter Röhrl became world champion with Fiat and Opel. He won the Monte Carlo Rally with Fiat, Opel, Lancia and Audi. In the World Sportscar Championship he shamed the later Formula 1 runners-up Michele Alboreto and Riccardo Patrese when he drove times after five laps that those circuit specialists only reached after fifty practice laps. Never was a teammate faster than him. »That would have broken me, I would have stopped immediately,« he tells me in Tasmania. In those professional years he sat three hundred thousand kilometers on three hundred days behind the wheel.

The »Sideling»: for many the most beautiful special stage of the Targa Tasmania. Fifteen kilometers, first uphill, then a long straight, then back down the ridge. It's wet at launch. I can see how the audience enthusiastically leaps up as Röhrl comes all the way around the corners. In a downhill passage, he's doing it so wild, the car spins. Swearing in the helmet: »The steering angle, like a truck! It wasn't enough to control the drift.« Two short pushbacks; then the Porsche plunges down to the finish line. Despite the mishap: clear best time.

Walter, how do you do that? »The nose of the car must be aligned before the curve to where it should point after the curve. Then just off the gas, the car breaks out. With fast gas bursts I throw the car around the bend. The steering wheel remains largely immobile.« End of explanation. Or is it? A little smile can be seen: »For me, driving a car begins where I steer the car with the gas pedal instead of the steering wheel. Everything else is just working.«

On the evening of the fifth competition day the lead is big. »No more catching up with Röhrl«, comment the newspapers in the capital. The final sporting decision promises to be Cethana, thirty-eight kilometers across two mountain ridges. It's raining cats and dogs. A marshal calls us at the start for the special stage: »Eight cars off the road. Nothing serious happened. Oil at kilometers sixteen and twenty-nine.«

The windshield wipers can't handle the tides. From the inside, the glass is fogging up. With one hand Röhrl wipes the window from the inside, the viewers probably think that the man is waving. With the other hand, he shifts, steers, uses the windscreen wipers. When Walter goes downhill in the fourth, I know we're doing more than a hundred and eighty. No mistake now with the curve announcement - the thought only shoots briefly through my head. We overtake eight opponents on the track. Again, a very clear best time.

Another analysis at the transport stage. Question: »Walter, in a left-hand bend near the slope, you braked and accelerated once at the same time. Why?« Explanation: »I have noticed that the Porsche begins to push over the front wheels. So, I tapped the brake with the tip of my foot while my heel stayed on the gas. This allows the car to bounce slightly at the front, giving the front wheels more grip. With the heel I lifted the throttle briefly, so that the rear becomes unstable by the load change and pushes to the outside. Then I caught it with finely dosed gas. We'd just have lost time by braking harder.« Question: »And how fast were we there?« Short answer: »About a hundred and sixty.« A few kilometers later, he says: »You know, this all must be intuitive. Once you figure out what to do, it's too late.«

We're out of reach. »Now the trembling begins, whether the car holds up,« says Walter. Later that afternoon on a very fast test suddenly the exclamation: »It's over, it's over!« Idle. No gear can be engaged anymore. The gear lever rotates without resistance like a cooking spoon in the soup.

One hour Röhrl freezes behind the steering wheel in wet clothes as the Porsche is towed to the finish of the stage. Although everything is lost, Klaus Bischof and his colleagues Hermann Rüttger and Warwick McKenzie remove the engine and gearbox at night in a parking garage. They weld the defective part and reassemble the Porsche. »A fatigue break that has nothing to do with the driving style«, Klaus Bischof says.

A good two hours late, we go into the last day. Another record time. But more than an improvement from place 118 to place 109 is not possible. But we're at the finish line. »Thanks for the lift, Walter!« A warm smile. And then the words: »You're welcome.«