Saturday, 30 August 2014

Obituary: Björn Waldegård

Björn Waldegård, who died yesterday, was rallying's first World Champion, and probably the most complete driver ever to lift the crown.

During his long career Waldegård won on tarmac and gravel, in Europe and in Africa, in conventional and unconventional cars and with two wheel drive and four.

These days, with the format of all international rallies being very similar, it's not unusual for a top driver to win everything. But in the past the difference between a short pace note event like the Swedish, a African endurance event like the Safari and blind rally like RAC was huge and Waldegård was unique in winning them all.

The Porsche Years

He first exploded onto the rallying scene when, aged only 25, he won the most famous rally in the world in a Porsche 911. Inexperience, and a language barrier, nearly cost the reigning Swedish Rally Champion his first Monte Carlo victory as he misunderstood a request by the mechanics for  "no brakes" and pressed the pedal, ejecting his calipers onto the ground. Fortunately the Stuttgart mechanics were able to repair the car and he led home a Porsche 1-2. Just to prove it wasn't a one-off he won again in 1970.

Unfortunately Porsche decided not to make the 911 the world beater it could have been, and instead left the field open for Lancia to make the Stratos the world's first supercar. Waldegård took to rallycross, but with the Lancia team built around Italian ace Sandro Munari, a driver who was less comfortable on the tricky northern European rounds, they signed up Waldegård as back up.

The Lancia Years

Driving the best car in the world, Waldegård had no problem winning his home round in 1975, but then rather unexpectedly he won in Italy as well.

On the RAC Waldegård was flying. Literally. After 16 stages he had set 6 fastest times and was comfortably in the lead before he then flew too high on a yump in Pickering and broke a drive shaft. Mechanics changed it on the stage (that was legal then) but at a cost of one hour of delay and all of his rear bodywork.

.... and after.
Waldegård continued in the event and continued to set fastest times, but he'd been OTL and was also running without brake lights, rear lights and a rear number plate.

He should have got his revenge the next year, but it all went wrong in San Remo. Waldegard had ended the penultimate stage four seconds ahead of Munari. As it wouldn't do for the top Italian rally driver to be beaten on home soil Waldegard was instructed to let his team mate win. Waldegard came to the start of the last stage and was waved away. The car didn't move for four seconds. With everything square he then blasted off at full speed to win the stage, by four seconds.

Lancia were not impressed and sacked him on the spot. Ford signed him immediately and started cobbling a car together for the RAC. He finished third, just ahead of Munari, and told the press he'd have won the event in a Stratos.

The Ford Years


Acropolis 1977
Waldegård's years with Ford were to be the most successful of his career.

In 1977 the blue oval made a determined effort to win the World Championship for Makes and, although the Ford "lawnmower" was beaten by the Fiat steamroller, the best driver of the year was undoubtedly Waldegård. He won the three toughest rallies of the year; the Safari, the Acropolis and the RAC. Had there been a World Championship for Drivers then he'd have won it.

Ford mostly sat out the 1978 season, but Waldegård still managed a win on the Swedish and second to team mate Hannu Mikkola on the RAC. For '79 Ford would be going all out for the championship, and with Fiat outgunned Waldegård and Mikkola who would be dicing to see who became the first ever World Champion driver.

Monte Carlo 1979
Waldegård's year didn't start well with French spectators placing rocks on the road in front of him to give victory to local hero Bernard Darniche's Stratos. However at least he did better than Hannu, who was nicked by the local plod whilst leading and given a five minute penalty.

Waldegård was second again in Sweden, beaten by Blomqvists Saab 99 Turbo, and again in Portugal where Mikkola snuck a win. The season was developing into a tortoise and hare contest between the two Scandanavians, and as an added twist both were contracted to Mercedes for the African events. In the end Mikkola also won in New Zealand, Quebec and Great Britain, but it was Waldegård who became the inaugural World Champion thanks to wins in Greece and Canada and consistent finishes over the rest of the season.

The Toyota Years

A disastrous ninth on the RAC marked the end of the road for Waldegård and the old rear wheel drive Escort, and after a disappointing year with Fiat and Mercedes, he signed for Toyota, the team with which he was to spend the next twelve years.

He started off well by briefly getting the previously off-the-pace Celica into the lead on the 1980 RAC then, after an unremarkable 1981 season, he brought the new style car home first on the 1982 New Zealand rally. It was a surprising win, for in the era of the Audi Quattro and the Lancia Rally the old normally aspirated, rear wheel drive car seemed antiquated.

1982 also saw him back in a Stratos, for a one-off drive in the Esgair Dafydd TV Rallysprint.

Ivory Coast 1983
Toyota then homologated the Group B turbo version of the Celica which, although off the pace in Europe, made Africa its own. Waldegård won in the Ivory Coast with it in 1983, on the Safari in 1984 and then won both rallies in 1986.

That car died with Group B and it was a while before Toyota had a car that was both fast enough, and tough enough, to win in Africa again. When they did, with the Celica GT-4 in 1990, it was again Waldegård who was at the wheel. By this time he was 46 and the oldest driver to win a World Rally, a record he is likely to keep a while yet. He retired from front line motorsport in 1992 when he broke his arm in an accident, once again in Africa, and once again in a Toyota.

Waldegård continued to drive though and I last saw him in action at the 2009 Chatsworth Rally Show, celebrating 30 years since his World Title, and putting a Mark Two Escort through its paces. It was 33 years since I'd first seen him in on New Brighton sea front in his first Ford drive.

A true legend, he will be missed.