"At the 'Ring with Röhrl" article taken from the October 1999 issue of UK magazine Car

Röhrl With It

There's only one way to appreciate a new fastest lap of the Nürburgring, and that's to join the record-breaking duo of Walter Röhrl and a Porsche GT3 for the ride of a lifetime. Story by Paul Gregory. Video footage by John Van Aitken

Short, sharp exhalations from his nose are the only sign: when this is over, Walter Röhrl's hands are sand dry.

Mine are sodden. My fingers are cramped from gripping the seat, my eyeballs gritty from being bugged open too long. But the sole betrayal of exertion I remember from Röhrl in the last eight minutes and 20 seconds - the time it took him to blast us around the 20.8km, original Nürburgring in a Porsche GT3 - are those staccato, boxer's snorts.

Which isn't to say that he was emotionless. In one of the humpbacked, blind corners the GT3's tail stepped well out, with an accompanying Wagnerian aria from all four tyres. Pressed hard into the bucket seat, legs locked straight and deep in the footwell, I laughed aloud and said something embarrassingly like 'woo-hoo'. Röhrl looked over, his face cracked into a grin, he laughed with me and said: 'In 30 years of driving, doing that is still very nice.'

After going with him while he lapped in eight minutes 20 seconds - with other cars and motorcycles on the track, you should note - it is simply impossible to question that. From your mouth to God's ears, Walter, and He'll certainly be able to hear the GT3's divine racket.

I did not appreciate speed, true speed, until I went along for that ride: until Röhrl had arrowed me around the 'Ring's vicious, bite-you-in-the-butt ribbon of disappearing apexes and savage volte faces, too expert with the course to slow down, and having too much fun - still - to want to. It could have been one of the worst experiences of my life. Röhrl offered no quarter, could obviously see no point in it if he couldn't go hell for leather. He averaged 93mph and reached 162mph.

But it was incredibly exhilarating: aside from the pure, fairground thrill of being thrown left to right at speed it was, for someone who loves driving, a lesson in the art. A lesson not strictly educational, in the sense that it isn't intended that you eventually emulate it - I couldn't - but that it teaches you what driving can be, confirms comprehensively that you are right to love it. And everyone likes to be proven right.

Walter Röhrl is Porsche's senior test driver and representative, who has the last say on whether each new model is fit to bear the treasured badge. He holds the production-car lap record for the original (Nordschleife), Nürburgring circuit, seven minutes 56 seconds, and he did it in the Porsche GT3. And on that point, let's clear something up. There have been some suggestions that Röhrl's record at the 'Ring could be threatened by the very fine, high-tech and rapid Nissan R34 GT-R. I put this to him, and it's obvious that he has also heard these whisperings.

'No way,' he says. 'He [Röhrl refers to every car as 'he'] is too heavy [210 kg up on the GT3] and does not have as much power [84 bhp less]. With just the standard road car, how could it happen? I read in a car magazine that a Skyline could beat my record, and I showed it to the Porsche engineers. They just said: "No, Walter, it loses on power and weight, this magazine piece does not know what it is talking about."' He smiles, 'I would like to take a Skyline around the track, sure. If they want to bring me one, I will see what I can do.' For himself, Röhrl is more interested in how the new Ferrari 360 Modena would fare. 'He should be really fast, here. He is also light and has the power.' And the man would know.

That settled, we get down to the real business. We've come to the 'Ring for a piece of the fastest man in a production car, and to find out what the GT3 is really made of. The idea was to spend long enough in the car with Röhrl to win a measure of his confidence, then cajole, goad and annoy him into putting on a bit of pace. None of that was necessary.

Röhrl had brought along a silver GT3, and I was a little surprised to see that the tyres were the normal P-Zeros, there were no helmets, and the seat belts were standard. I already knew that the Porsche had banished the usual bevy of acronymed to the hilt, electronic-traction hand-maidens from the GT3, with the exception of its singularly permissive ABS set-up. But, buckled in and ready, I turned to Röhrl and - hoping to prod his pride, his competitive spirit, a bit - said: 'So, do you think we can time this?'

He looked at me like I was crazy. Porsche's German PR man Jürgen Pippig leaned in through the window and replied for him: 'Paul, this is Walter Röhrl. Every lap is timed.' And indeed, he was in the process of setting his wrist-watch lap counter to zero. I had a good hint, then, of what I was in for. And I was scared.

We were delayed for a while because of three separate accidents leaving debris and oil on the track. One of them was the work of the proud owner of a Ferrari Testarossa who had paid, richly, for Röhrl to drive him around the circuit for several laps, to tell him about what his car could do, and impart some fast-driving and skid-control fundamentals.
'Then he went out himself,' says Röhrl. 'He gets to the first corner, and boom, crash. He totals it. It only had 5000km on the clock.
'He said to me afterward: "I wasn't going fast!" Well it was obviously too fast for him.'

Exerting some sublte-but-firm influence (Röhrl is a national hero in Germany), we got out on to the track by ourselves, while the marshals were still giving it a final safety once-over, for an introductory lap. Röhrl takes it slow, pointing out the names of the corners and dips, insidiously lulling me into a tracing paper-thin sense of security.

'This is the best circuit I have ever seen,' Röhrl says as he drives. It's so exciting. I have driven somewhere between 2000 and 6000 laps and everytime it's different.
'Now I think it's too dangerous for racing, and today's Formula One cars are too low for much of it. With all the corners and the blind crests you must concentrate all the time.'

As he says this, we pass the place where Niki Lauda left the 'Ring and nearly died when his car turned into a Guy Fawkes centre-piece. 'Here, where Lauda went off, does not look like a tough piece of the circuit. But it is still tricky. Everywhere is tricky. Nowhere is better for finding out how good a road car is.'
'A big part of the reason why German cars like Porsches and BMWs have such good suspension and handling set-ups is down to them being tested here.'

We are given the all-clear by the marshalls, the other waiting cars and superbikes peel out on the track, and Röhrl turns the GT3 from simmer to boil. It's what we've been waiting for, and despite him having done this so many times before, I remain unsure about which of us was looking forward to that bit the most.

There's no warning. The distant rumble from the flat-six gathers itself, rears up and crashes into my lap. Leaves on the trees beside the track stretch and blur and suddenly I'm the Wookie in the Millennium Falcon. The fastest ever man around the Nordschleife in a production car is my Han Solo. This is why I'm here. We're off.

While actually doing it, the duration of the lap passed as a series of sensory snapshots: my brain was measuring time in the ebb and flow of adrenaline. I can return to freeze-frames of the side of Röhrl's face, a near-impassive mask of utter concentration, disturbed only by the occasional jaw-muscle twitch, small flarings of his nostrils for those snap exhalations, and, most tellingly, a bit of crinkling around his right eye - and anyone who has utterly nailed a corner, however fast, knows that that's how you smile when you're too intent to move your mouth.

But, of course, what he was making the car do provides the richest vein of impressions. Röhrl's extensive experience of the circuit meant that, at each and every co-ordinate of the lap, he knew exactly what the surface was going to do with the car, where the next corner was headed, and the next one, and the rise after that. Were the man a cruise missile-guidance system, there would be no more Chinese diplomats standing around in smoking pyjamas.

Knowledge is power, and Röhrl's familiarity was a surpassingly effective chip to the GT3's in-house 360bhp. We simply flew, the Porsche taking a perfect crow path between rumble strips, Röhrl's hands constantly moving at small corrections and counter-corrections, the motions less like wheel-sawing than rapid watch making. This was driving as chess, more planning and execution than reaction.

He frequently had to recalibrate his course to slot between motorbikes and skirt other cars on curves and straights: I imagined the Porsche appearing then exploding in their rear-vision mirrors like a John Woo bullet sequence. And always, once past the traffic, Röhrl homed back in on the True Way: the money line.

A lot of fast piloting looks like a battle, a war of will and skill with metal. But inside the GT3 it was a - very vigorous - game of doubles: the tyres were constantly keening, the nose on exit repeatedly seemed to point in completely the wrong direction until I saw (on one occasion when all wheels were spinning in fresh air, Röhrl having calmly announced: 'It's going a bit light'), that his memory map had us on precisely the right heading for what was revealed beyond the crest or shrouded hairpin.

When you appreciate how good are the hands that your life is in, the resulting confidence frees you to, if not relax, then certainly enjoy the ride: because of the driver, because of the car and because of the relationship between them. A double-back corner at the Nürburgring is the last place you want to be in the gooseberry role when that sort of relationship shows some cracks, but even the union of bacon and horrible white bread doesn't have the closeness, the symbiosis, of Röhrl and the GT3.

Because he signed it off, having asked for - and got - improvements to the shocks and springs after a series of circumnavigations of this very circuit, and he firmly believes that there is no better track car. 'He has a very good engine, and is very light. This makes him very good to steer, and the power, the balance in the chassis, and the torque for the climbing sections make it perfect for tracks like this.'
'Because of this, most of the people who buy them take them to tracks. That is what they should be doing.'

Is the GT3 wasted, then, if not at least occasionally sicced on speed-unlimited wiggly bits? He's emphatic: 'Definitely. If people just want something to drive about in and go fast in a straight line, they should go for the Turbo.' The Porsche Turbo, natch.

We rumble in to the car park at the end of the run. I know that it will take a little while before I can get out of the car, because my legs won't hold me. Silently, I show Röhrl my slick palms (he laughs, opens his moisture-free hand next to mine and says: 'And I am the driver!'), I can feel the dampness in the small of my back, the prickling on my scalp has only just started to recede.

Others, standing by their bikes with the top half of their leathers hanging from their waists, or on the balcony of the Nordschleife bar, look down through the windscreen at Walter's Latest Passenger. They see that, while shaken, I am in the best of ways stirred - and smiling. I am told later that others have not found the experience so palatable and made it pointless by asking Röhrl to slow down, or - worse - not done so and dashed the asphalt with their discomfort.

As I stand off to the side, a German woman who had earlier been interviewing Röhrl for a newspaper asks me 'what did you think?', and when I reply that I loved it she nods. 'Yes, it's very nice.' Which might sound like damnation by faint praise, but you didn't see her eyes when she said it. I know she didn't puke.

My central nervous system reports that I've had a lifetime's worth of stimulation, other bits tell me that the whole thing passed in a flash. Röhrl's watch says it took eight minutes and 20 seconds. Five hundred seconds of the fastest, most skillful driving - dodging and veering around the outside and inside of a dozen different cars and bikes - that I have ever experienced, and probably ever will.

I want to thank Röhrl, and do.
'Do you ever get bored of driving like this?' I ask. 'Is there any time when someone wants you to drive them fast and you really don't feel like it, don't really enjoy it?'
'Never.' And I hear the underline. 'To do this, every time is a thrill.'

I'm so glad he said that.

Go-more Mr Nice Guy

Without a wheel, he looks more like a deputy principle than a crack supercar test driver. He talks easily, using his hands a lot - when discussing cornering or steering you can almost smell the Momo hide - and has the sort of clear blue eye contact that could easily pick out someone chewing in assembly from 800 yards.

Which is a clue: that appraising gaze is too cool for school - fold Walter Röhrl's 1.96m into a car and it's immediately drawn to the road. As he drives, the gimlet stare scans its surface like a supermarket bar-code, unerringly converting input into my favourite bits of physics: velocity, acceleration and resistance.

Thankfully, with Röhrl this doesn't translate into cold automationism or a wrap-around-shaded super ego requiring an aircraft-warning beacon. No, other than 'brilliant driver', the simplest description of Röhrl is 'very nice man': when video jockey John Van Aitken and I caught a lift with him, Röhrl hitched his chair forward a couple of notches, saying to Van Aitken: 'Maybe you don't have enough leg room.'

And while slaloming through superbikes and slower traffic (ie everyone else) on our fast 'Ring lap (see main piece), Röhrl always waved his thanks, and in some cases even looked back and smiled it, when they moved aside. Your first reaction is fright, as his hand is leaving the wheel while the 360bhp GT3 is rapidly drifting through a right-hand switchback. Then you think: Be my Dad. Please.

At 52 (he celebrated his 50th driving a 911 in the San Remo Rally in southern France), the Bavarian has 30 years' driving behind him - most of it in rally cars. He won World Championships in 1980 and 1982, was European Champion in 1974 and a four-time winner of the Monte Carlo Rally (1980 and 82-84). Just a few hours at the Nürburgring prove the impression he has made - people are always after him for opinions, autographs, advice. He obliges them all, patiently and with grace.

Röhrl is also something of an oracle for the professional driving fraternity. By the time you read this, he'll have spent a weekend at the 'Ring teaching an up-and-coming Australian rally champion the right way to flog a Subaru Impreza Turbo on tarmac.

Röhrl says that he prefers rallying to other motorsports - and he has had lucrative opportunities to switch codes - because he prefers to be alone.

This is evident from the passenger seat. Solitude is the logical ally of his sort of 900-candlepower concentration: I got the feeling I barely intruded into his consciousness when he was taking me around at the Nürburgring (apart from those times when I was saying 'this is fantastic', and 'YEAHHH!!!'), so a somewhat more self-contained individual, say a rally navigator, would barely ripple its surface.

My outbursts didn't seem to irritate him, but I've little doubt that in his mental archives, the 'Comments' column next to this particular lap will read: Eight minutes 20, quite fast, slowed by other traffic, lost seconds due to lapses in passenger reserve.