Four minutes gained in 26 miles – Röhrl’s epic Portugal drive

One of the greatest single-stage drives in WRC history? Our Portugal week takes us to 1980 and a remarkable Röhrl achievement

800304P Roehrl-Aufschrieb 0119

The recollection of the conversation still gives me goosebumps. Talking to Walter Röhrl does that to you. Especially when you wind the clock back to 1980 and the Rallye de Portugal Vinho do Porto in early March.

Even though he’d been at Fiat for a few years, it still felt like Markku Alén’s team. And Portugal definitely felt like the Finn’s rally.

“He was Mr Portugal,” said Röhrl.

In the five years prior to 1980, Alén had won an impressive three times – with every one of those success coming at the wheel of an Abarth-tuned Fiat.

Despite Ford’s official withdrawal from rallying just months earlier, a brace of Rothmans-backed David Sutton-run RS1800s were just as potent a threat as ever, especially in the hands of Hannu Mikkola and Ari Vatanen. Vatanen led early on before going off the road. He recovered before crashing again later in the event. Worse still, he crashed on precisely the same Cabreira corner as Mikkola. The two Escorts – one on its wheels, one on its roof – were side-by-side in the trees. And out of the rally.

Bernard Darniche had delivered typically blistering pace to lead through the early asphalt stages, only for the headgasket to fail on his Lancia Stratos. All of that left the Fiats out front. Alén dropped time and lost the lead with a change of alternator and then suffered a broken driveshaft – a failure which directly impacted him leading team-mate Röhrl.

The service van was dispatched from its rendezvous point back to the end of the stage to find the stricken 131 and fix it. Unfortunately, it found the sister 131 on a blind corner and crashed head-on into the German’s #5 car.

“The wheels were not completely straight after this,” said Röhrl, “but we still had Arganil to come.”

The Arganil stage is a twisty 26-miler that runs high in the hills and is often prone to fog and weather coming. Running in early spring, the weather inland from the Atlantic coast could be changeable – as it was 40 years ago.

By now the Fiats were 10 minutes up on third-placed Guy Frequelin’s Talbot Sunbeam Lotus and the Italian team impressed upon both drivers the need to bring both cars to the finish. Alén was already a considerable distance behind the leader, but Röhrl knew his team-mate. And knew him well.

800304P Alen 3

“He was still pushing,” said Röhrl. “When we were practising for the rally, we knew the weather and we knew there was a chance the fog could come. I drove that stage five times on the recce. Normally, for the others it was two or three. But Arganil, I wanted to know it exactly.

“Before that leg started, the night before, I went to my bedroom in the hotel and I lay on my bed. I closed my eyes and started my stopwatch. In my mind I drove through this stage, every corner, every curve. When I came across the finish line, I pressed the stopwatch. The time I did on the stage was nearly the same.”

And the time he did on that stage was four minutes faster than anybody else. Four. Minutes. In 26 miles.

Occasionally on the Monte Carlo we’ve seen freak weather or an inspired tire choice deliver such a stage result, but never has anybody achieved such a feat on a European sprint-type event run in similar conditions.

“When you make the preparations like I did,” said Röhrl, “it gives you the courage to drive like that. I told my co-driver [Christian Geistdörfer] at the start: “Tighten your belts.” I wanted to beat everybody there.”

More than that…

“I wanted to make everybody hand in their driving licence at the finish.”

He did just that.

“That night,” he concludes, “I could see through the fog.”

Ultimately, he won Portugal by 14 minutes and celebrated his maiden world title just seven months later in Corsica.