When Rally Sanremo made Röhrl a movie star

Helmut Deimel's films are known for documenting rally cars at speed - and rolling over houses

Before we leave DirtFish Italy Week, there’s one more story which has to be told. Have you watched Riding Balls of Fire or The Evolution of Rallying or, in fact, any of the staggering Group B footage filmed through the 1980s?

Good. Then you’ll know who Helmut Deimel is. Helmut Deimel is to rally filmmaking what Reinhard Klein is to rally photography. He’s the benchmark. The best of the best.

Deimel was the man hanging out of helicopters, chasing 205 T16s or a Delta S4 at more than 100mph, screaming into the wind as he landed another fifth-gear drift plum in the centre of the frame. And he remains the go-to guy to relive the dreams – and nightmares – of a different generation.

One of Deimel’s primary channels for his creativity, art and ability is Walter Röhrl. And never were the two more connected than after Rally Sanremo in 1978.

Röhrl rarely crashed rally cars. But on that event, he did the job properly with a factory Fiat 131 Abarth. Locked in an early scrap with fellow Fiat driver Sandro Munari, the German looked to be easing clear until the second run through the Quazzo stage, when he was caught out by a hairpin.

Caught out’s not quite right. He was aware it was there, but he was slightly pre-occupied with a gearbox which had jammed in fourth.

Deimel Röhrl Film shoot 2009-002

Photo: McKlein

Deimel remembers the explanation: “He pulled on the handbrake to try to go off backwards. The rear of the car hit a bank and you know what happened then?

“It rolled. And fell onto the roof of a house.”

Fell onto the roof of a house. How fabulously matter of fact.

Actually, more of a barn than a house.

“Daniele Audetto (Fiat motorsport chief) went into the stage to find the car,” continued Deimel. “He asked to Christian [Geistdörfer, Röhrl’s co-driver]: ‘Is everything alright? What happened?’ I think Daniele was happy to say there had been a fault with the car, but Walter didn’t want to do that. He made a mistake and that’s what he wanted to tell the interviews.

“You know Walter is so different, he really has a gift when he comes to the interview. He’s a dream for the reporter and he’s a dream for me as a filmmaker. He gives such precise information. He told exactly what happened in the accident. It was incredible.”

Making a film about Röhrl’s career, (Röhrls Katze, or Röhrl’s Cat in English), Deimel got to the 1978 Rally Sanremo and decided not just to run with a straight interview.

He talked more with Walter, found a barn in Austria and decided to recreate the crash for the film.

“I found in Germany an Italian car dealer,” said Deimel, “and he had a cheap version of the 131. Of course, it wasn’t an Abarth, but it did have [flared wheel] arches. It cost me 1500 German Marks (around €750). A friend of mine fetched the car from Stuttgart on a trailer for me, we painted it white and another friend produced all the stickers. When it was finished, it looked fantastic. I was sure it wouldn’t move, the engine wasn’t in good condition. But it started and moved a few metres.”

It wasn’t required to run. Just to roll.

“We had everything set up,” said Deimel. “We changed some small details. In Walter’s crash, originally, there were not people around, but in the film we put some people in the house. We rolled it away from the road and then when it came to the house, we held it by a crane over the top and dropped it. We didn’t need to throw it or roll it or anything like that, we could just roll it over [the house].”

The finished product was one of the talking points of the film.

“It was fantastic,” said Deimel. “I was happy with this.”

Thirty-four years later, Finn Juho Hänninen recreated Röhrl’s moment for himself, when he rolled his Škoda Fabia S2000 out of the 2012 Rally Sanremo and landed on somebody else’s roof.

If you prefer the original 1978 release over Hänninen’s sequel though you can grab Röhrls Katze here.

Deimel Röhrl Film shoot 2009-016

Photo: McKlein