I never met Björn Waldegård, but we spoke on the phone once. It was a memorable experience: everything you wish from your heroes.
“Luck plays a part in all of life,” Björn told me. “Not a great percentage, but it is there. Luck is not just your good luck, sometimes it is other people’s bad luck. How you prepare can lead to your luck.” Making one’s luck is the mark of a champion: the first-ever World Rally Champion.
Björn Waldegård and Porsche
Born into a farming family, Björn began winning rallies in his privately-run Volkswagen at the age of 19. Noting his ability, the Swedish Volkswagen importers put him in a professionally-built VW rally car, which he used to claim a few podiums.
Things hotted up when a Porsche 911 was purchased. Björn took second place on the 1967 Gulf London Rally and performed well elsewhere. 1968 brought a win on the Swedish Rally, almost half an hour ahead of second place. Monte Carlo brought a top ten finish: the following year, Björn won the race, and then won in Sweden again.
When the ST arrived at the start of 1970, Waldegård exploited its potential, repeating his wins from the previous year and adding the Alpine Rally. The list continues: let’s just say that he knew the 911.
Swedish Sixth Sense
More than the secret of 911 speed, Björn had a sixth sense of how much life was in a car. “A car is like a fuel tank,” he said. “You use its life up through the length of a rally. The perfect rally car falls apart as soon as you cross the finish line: nothing is left.”
Francis Tuthill once told me exactly the same thing about sitting next to Björn on a pre-Safari test in Morocco. “He has two sets of instruments: one set on the dashboard and one set in his head. His internal gauges clock up how much of the car he has used, where he can push and where he should hold off.” Francis co-drove for Björn on a rally one year – it may have been the Eifel Rally – and, while setting pace notes, Bjorn told Francis to mark one corner as “caution: keep to the inside”.
“I didn’t see it like that: it looked a fast corner to me,” said Francis. “But you always pay attention to Björn, so I did put it down on the notes. In the heat of the event I neglected to call it, but Björn was a wily old fox. Remembering the bend, he slowed down anyway and sure enough there was a group of cars off, stuck in the ditch on the outside. The road had frozen overnight and failed to thaw: he spotted it would on the recce. That was just what he was like: incredible intelligence and ability. Driving slowly was part of his secret.”
Laid Back, Straight Talking Björn
We have family in Sweden, so I have travelled all over that country. The Swedish are easy-going, straight talking people, and Björn was a perfect example. “I’m just a simple Swedish farmer”, is how he described himself to me, but we all know he was much more.
“When I retired, I thought my driving was over,” Björn told me. “But the energy of rally fans kept it alive. Soon historic rallies began to come up and my phone was ringing. But it was not manufacturers taking millions of pounds in promotional value from winning a rally, it was just rally fans, doing it for the passion. The events were no slower – Safari now is still just as fast as it was in 1970, and the roads are just as deadly. But when you know you are racing for passion, it is a very satisfying way to use a talent.”
Waldegård: Make Your Mark
We were working together on the Race4Change team, so I asked Björn about strategy: how would he approach the impending Safari? “Same as any Safari,” he said. “We will start by looking at the others: how ready they are, how hard they will start, how much confidence they have. Then we settle in and choose when to lay down our mark. And then we will see who is ready to rally.”
Lessons learned on Safari always transfer to life. Bjorn won the 2011 Safari in a Porsche 911: in total he won six Safari Rallies and the hearts and minds of rally fans everywhere. After an hour on the phone with him, I had a different perspective on my work. He was a great competitor and a true Porsche hero. I will miss typing his name, seeing more new pictures of that face and wondering what he is thinking.
RIP Björn Waldegård. Here’s to fast, flowing stages and the memories of genius.