Walter Röhrl’s 1982 season really didn’t go to plan. By the end of January, it was mission accomplished. What followed was not in a script he’d written for himself.
Were it to unfold today, the World Rally Championship battle of 40 years ago would be remembered as a classic battle between an Opel driver and an Audi driver. Two-wheel drive versus four. The past versus the future.
Back then it was far more direct. It was man versus woman. Woman versus man.
Walter against Michèle.
It became a personal battle and one where the 1980 world champion was only too happy to make his feelings entirely clear.
Röhrl told DirtFish: “At the time, I said I don’t want to be the first man who is losing in motorsport against a woman and that makes me so much pressure. They said I must win.
“The situation was that I was fighting with Michèle and all journalists and all newspapers made a big story about the fight between a woman and a man.
“Really, the first thing I have to say is that, in 1982, I was not planning to be world champion. The most important thing for me was to win Monte Carlo. I won that and I was satisfied. But then this battle came and I didn’t want to lose. I didn’t want to lose to a woman.”
Four decades to reflect left Walter in no doubt that he owed his rival an apology. In Portugal last week, he said sorry to the four-time WRC event winner.
“Today I feel sorry about this,” he added. “Really, it was nothing to be world champion, but it would be a very special thing for the future to have had a woman to be world champion.
“Did Michèle deserve it? I think we both did. Michèle was – and is – very special. I know her very well, she was my team-mate in Fiat and she has something in her… she is born to drive a four-wheel-driven car.
“She was really, really quick to be able to beat Stig [Blomqvist] and Hannu [Mikkola] sometimes; she has to be very, very special.
“Back then, it was a completely different time. You know, in 1982, it was a huge success for Audi to have Michèle. In Germany, we had newspapers which were full of rally sport and it was a big public relation for this sport. It was a fantastic thing which Michèle has done for this sport.”
In terms of the battle itself, Röhrl outscored Mouton by 12 points. It wouldn’t be unfair to say the pair of them made the best of a season where Mikkola could well have swept the board and taken the crown for himself. He finished third in the standings after six retirements in his Quattro.
Victory on the penultimate round of the season, the Ivory Coast, was enough for Röhrl to secure the title win his Opel Ascona 400. Mouton had led the event by an hour, but saw that advantage melt away when her Audi wouldn’t start on the final leg. Pushing to make time up, she rolled and crashed out of the event and the championship.
Talking to Röhrl, you get the feeling the 1982 season’s not one he looks back and smiles about.
He continued: “In 1982, it was a new technique with four-wheel drive versus the old technique [of two-wheel drive] and the new one was much quicker – but it was also full of technical problems.”
Vorsprung durch Technik – progress through technology – was not for him at the time. He would regularly request his Opel team set up next to its fellow German manufacturer in the service park so he could laugh at Audi’s problems. When he wasn’t doing that, he was offering the view that a monkey could win in a Quattro, such was its power and grip advantage.
Talking to Mikkola, Mouton and Blomqvist down the years that followed, none of them took offense. Walter’s comments were aimed at Audi, not its drivers. And anyway, he would be one of them soon enough.
Röhrl’s final reflection on 1982 and his second championship in three years sort of says it all.
“I had the old technique,” he said. “This was not so fast, but the reliability was perfect.
“That was the reason I won the title. The only reason.”
Already a legend, Röhrl’s stock and standing rose yet further following an evening of contrition in Portugal.