Remembering Bjorn Waldegaard
Bjorn Waldegaard passing by in a 911 is a memory to treasure
I can still remember it, pinned in HD to the noticeboard of my brain.
It was an unseasonably hot and sunny day in the south west of Ireland, not far from the small village where I was born and raised (don’t worry — this doesn’t turn into a Hovis ad…). The sun was gently cooking the waving grass at the foot of Moll’s Gap, a mountain pass through the rocks that lead down to Killarney, the centre of County Kerry’s twin industries of tourism and motorsport. It was a May bank holiday, and far away to the east and south, in San Marino, tragic events were unfolding that I wouldn’t learn about until late that night, back at the hotel. For now, I was focused on the box of timing gear sitting in my lap, and staring at the faint white line painted across the tarmac in front of me, aiming to press the STOP button on the clock precisely as the nose of a flying rally car passed across it.
It was the 1994 Rally Of The Lakes, a true classic of Irish tarmac rallying, which every year shoos the tour coaches and dawdling rentacars off the roads of picturesque Kerry, and lets the rally aces rip up and down in their fire-breathing machines. I’d already seen the likes of the legendary Bertie Fisher pass by at Mach One in his Subaru, but here was the car for which I was waiting.
It came downhill, from behind the rocks and glacial scree that litter the hillsides of Moll’s Gap. Dark red, with a simple white number sticker on its door, bereft of the bright gaudiness sponsors. A Porsche 911, an original, its flat-six bark echoing off the landscape as the driver adjusted his trajectory with a finely judged application of lock and flashed across the white line in front of me. Click. A tiny roll of receipt paper printed out the time and I used the radio to call in the figures to rally HQ.
With that small act, I had just done something I thought not possible. I had adjudicated, however slightly, on the work of a master. In the passenger seat of that Porsche was the car’s owner, Irish motor racing stalwart Beatty Crawford. At the wheel was the Swede who became the first ever World Rally Champion. Bjorn Waldegaard.
Waldegaard was a genial, soft-spoken man, far too chunky of frame, you would think these days, to be a professional racing driver. Appropriately, he won his first major international rally, the 1969 Monte Carlo, at the wheel of a Porsche 911, and took his last win in a similar car, in the East African Safari Classic in 2011. A regular visitor to Goodwood and other historic festivals, he sadly passed away, following a battle with cancer, in 2014, at the age of 70.
Which means he was merely 50 when he flashed past me in the Crawford Porsche, and you could easily have thought that surely he should have still been at the sharp end of the field, not noodling around in historics (although he was leading that class by the traditional country mile…). 50 these days is not too great an age for a professional racing driver, but in 1994 perhaps it did seem a little old — only Mario Andretti seemed to be still in the front lines at that age. Mind you, Waldegaard had won his last championship event, the Safari Rally, just four years’ prior. Whatever the reasons, I’d say he stopped too soon.
That last win came with Toyota, a brand with with Waldegaard became almost synonymous, taking six out of his total 16 WRC wins. Africa too was a happy place for Waldegaard, his experience of his cold Swedish home somehow translating perfectly to the dust and heat of Kenya. He won the Safari or East African Rally three times, the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire three times too, not to mention victories on other events as tough as the Acropolis (twice), and two victories at home in Sweden.
Toyota and Porsche brought him fame, but Ford brought him his championship, the first ever global title for rally drivers, which Waldegaard lifted in 1979, beating Finnish team-mate, and 1983 champion, Hannu Mikkola, both at the wheel of Ford’s legendary MkII Escort RS1800. Speaking, years later, to Motor Sport magazine, Waldegaard revealed the relaxed side to winning a world title in those days, saying “at the time I didn’t feel much at all. But when you realised, a couple of days afterwards, that ‘I am world champion’ it felt quite big, I must say. Especially beating Hannu, because we respected each other enormously.”
Waldegaard excelled in pretty much everything he ever drove, taking three wins at the wheel of the daunting Lancia Stratos, even when team-mate to the great Sandro Munari who made that particular car his own. A big, heavy, Mercedes-Benz 500SLC might not sound like an ideal rally car, but Waldegaard made that work too, taking his 1980 Rallye Côte d’Ivoire win at the wheel of one.
But I’ll always think of him at the wheel of a 911. That perfect early-seventies Porsche shape, picked out in dark red, flashing down a Kerry mountainside in front of the eyes of an awe-struck 18-year old with a stopwatch in his hand.
Waldegaard said later how much he loved the 911, how when he first drove one he felt that it gave him wings. He was certainly flying when he came past me…
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