Rally driver, fan favourite, legend: Walter Röhrl won the Rally Monte Carlo in 1982 with the Opel Ascona 400 – and the WRC title later that year. In total, the Regensburg native won the “Monte” four times – in four different cars.

“It Was an Unforgettable Time”

Mr Röhrl, happy 75thbirthday! At the same time, it’s 40 years since you won the world championship title in the Opel Ascona 400. What is your most vivid memory of the 1982 season?
Clearly, the Rally Monte Carlo – demanding and legendary at the same time. It was the start of the 1982 season. It was ‚Monte‘ January and luckily for us there was hardly any snow. Because our strongest competitor, Hannu Mikkola, was driving an Audi Quattro with four-wheel drive and at least 400 hp. Our Ascona had only rear-wheel drive and 260 hp. But Opel ‘der Zuverlässige’ (Opel the reliable) did the name proud. It went well for us. When I took the lead after the second stage, journalists rushed up to me and congratulated me on the victory. I just thought ‚What? The next abyss is already lurking, I only need to slide 30 centimetres and that’s it‘. The final leg with nine special stages still lay ahead of us. Ferdinand Piech, team boss at Audi at the time, had ordered the boost pressure of the turbocharger to be increased to the maximum in order to mobilise even more horsepower. So I had to set an example.

Which was…?
We chose the ‚Col de la Madone‘ as the point where we wanted to decide the rally in the French Maritime Alps for ourselves. Christian Geistdörfer and I had looked at the stretch meticulously in advance, I was 1000 per cent motivated. I put all my eggs in one basket and drove the ‚Madone‘ at the extreme limit. That broke Hannu’s fighting spirit. I took 28 seconds off him, afterwards he came to me and said: ‚Walter, you can slow down, we’ll settle for second place. You are better, I don’t begrudge you the victory‘.

Start with Opel: At the age of 26, Walter Röhrl became a professional driver in the cockpit of the Commodore GS/E.

1973 Opel Commodore GS/E Coupé  

In 1973 Walter Röhrl joins Opel, more precisely Irmscher. To do so, the then 26-year-old resigned from his permanent driving position at the Regensburg Episcopal Ordinariate – to instead compete for the first time in the Monte Carlo Rally with co-driver Jochen Berger in an Opel Commodore GS/E.

We know you have a photographic memory, but you really remember every detail…
It was simply a great, unforgettable time for me. The moments are etched on my memory: when we passed the summit of the ‚Col de Turini‘ mountain pass on the last night of the rally, that was madness: we practically flew up and you saw nothing but a bright wall of flashing lights. And down again we went. On icy roads through the ’night of the long knives‘, as the special stage was called – you don’t forget something like that. And besides, I was just there again.

What was the occasion?
I was on the grid at the 23rd AvD Histo-Monte. At every other bend, the pictures from 1982 ran through my head. Also the one of Jochi Kleint and Gunter Wanger in the second Ascona when they ended up in a ditch. We would have had a double victory in the final, but the two of them hit a pile of snow that the spectators had piled up and lost valuable time. Those were conditions! Black ice was lurking everywhere on the track. Since I always drove first, I was a kind of test pilot. It was madness. That’s why I rate the ‚Monte‘ victory with the Ascona even higher than the one in 1980.

1974 Opel Ascona SR

Also with Jochen Berger as co-driver at his side, Röhrl and the Opel team won 1974 the European Rally Championship title just one year later. The winning car was a works Opel Ascona A. The following year Röhrl won the first World Rally Championship for himself and Opel.

1975 Opel Manta GT/E

In 1975, Walter Röhrl was also active as a circuit racer: Opel Irmscher built an Opel Manta GT/E for the “24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps”, with which Röhrl and Rauno Aaltonen competed. They retired after 18 hours with engine damage.

You own an Opel GT, tuned by former Opel chief mechanic Herbert Fabian. When did you last take the car out of the garage?
I like to take the GT shopping. Because it’s the perfect mixture of driving fun and social acceptance. When you turn up in a GT, there’s no jealousy, only admiration. The most beautiful drive I had was four years ago. For the 50th birthday of the GT. We were in the field in a big convoy at the Hockenheimring. My co-pilot was the GT designer Erhard Schnell – he was a great person. It was a special day. At the end, I asked Mr Schnell to sign my GT. In the front, on the bonnet. I think that was the only time I asked for an autograph on a car. Usually it’s me who signs on sheet metal.

You also ended your active motorsport career in 1987 because you felt that rallying was no longer socially accepted. Do you follow current developments such as the ADAC Opel e-Rally Cup with the Corsa-e Rally, which is completely emissions-free?
It’s remarkable what they have achieved there. Charging is a particular difficulty. Of course, the stages have to be shorter now. The long stages that we used to drive are impossible electrically. But if that is the price for bringing rallying into the 21st century then it is the right way to go.

1976 Opel Kadett GT/E Coupé

With the Opel Kadett GT/E, only the Monte Carlo Rally went according to plan: the duo of Walter Röhrl and Jochen Berger finished fourth in the 1976 World Championship opener.

1982 Opel Ascona 400

In 1982 Walter Röhrl returned to Opel, his new co-driver was Christian Geistdörfer. The Opel engineering team under chief engineer Karl-Heinz Goldstein constructed the Opel Ascona B 400 rally car for the duo, which was considered one of the most reliable motorsport machines at the time. The duo Röhrl/Geistdörfer wins the legendary Rally Monte Carlo and wins the WRC title later in the year.

You still have a packed schedule. Will the day come when you, too, long for free time, leisure, doing nothing?
Sometimes yes. When I look at my calendar at the moment – every weekend from April to October is planned. And during the week it doesn’t look any better. Then I sometimes get a pang of ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ But as soon as I’m home for a fortnight, I get bored. It’s like so often in life: it’s the right balance that matters.

And on your birthday…
I’ll be on snowshoes again. I’ve already been out today too. Two hours, first tramping uphill and then downhill – glorious! If I don’t do sport every day, I get crabby, even though I’m not as fit as I used to be. That annoys me. But recently I was on my bike with friends – some of them only about 50 – and I still blew them off, not only downhill, but uphill too.

Mr Röhrl, thank you very much for the interview. We at Opel wish you a wonderful birthday and all the best!

March 2022

Interview: Tina Henze, Vehicle illustrations: Larson, Photos: Opel