It is with much sadness that I have to write about the passing of Björn Waldegård: a rallying hero who garnered incredible results throughout his career, and, above all, was the first driver to be crowned World Rally Champion.
I first met Björn in 1991, aged 17 and having just passed my driving test the previous week. I drove the Porsche rally car he was to drive to Jyvaskyla for the start of the historic 1000 Lakes Rally. He jumped in and we drove the car along the high street so he could test the seat position. Even this was an enormous privilege.
I then looked after the car he drove the following year in Killarney – which he won!
I was undeniably the luckiest guy in the world to co-drive for him in Ypres during 1996. I was violently ill with travel sickness on the first stage. It was foggy and Björn, his lovely wife Anita and I had been in the middle of a Chinese dinner when we were called mid-meal from the table to the start, which had been brought forward an hour.
After gallantly trying to read the notes, which he had written and I had transcribed on the recce, between travel sickness episodes, he finally told me to shut up. At the first service he walked me to the back of the service van and ensured that I emptied anything else that was left in my stomach! We went on to win the rally comfortably, but as we started the final stage he turned to me and said: “Now I will show you how to drive a Porsche properly.” He did, and it was the best few kilometres I had ever witnessed.
Following Ypres, our team was hugely privileged to provide the great man’s cars on many fantastic events. I quickly learned that whatever he said was correct. One never had to question Björn: if he said there was a problem, there was one. His experience behind the wheel was unsurpassed and this was clear whenever and wherever he drove a car. He was a wonderful test driver and we remain indebted to him for his input on all things Porsche.
Björn’s driving style was entirely unique. I have been lucky to sit alongside many world rally champions and WRC winners in our cars and none understood the front of a 911 better than Björn. He just knew where the front-end was and what it was going to do; the secret to an early 911. He didn’t need to left-foot brake, so his driving style was incredibly positive and efficient.
Safari 2011 bolstered Björn’s reputation as the best European Safari Rally driver ever. Famous for his Safari exploits, he told me he had spent more than three years of his life driving there, all of which I am sure he cherished. I rather upset him the previous year when, en-route to the airport after a Moroccan event, I enquired whether he thought he could still win the Safari Rally. He was adamant that this was a question I should not have asked. He was right of course!
We arranged a pre-event suspension test in Marrakesh, six months prior to the rally, and I flew out for the second and third day of the test. My primary reason for attending was to evaluate Björn’s assurances that he could win. I wanted to sit in a car with him, to make sure that nothing had changed. Landing in Morocco at 10am, two hours later I was with him in our car, driving full speed down a 40- kilometre test stage. When we had finished the test stage, I got out of the car, drove straight to the airport and caught the first flight back home to England. I had no reason to stay: it was clear that Björn remained unbeatable down a blind road in Africa. As the 2011 event approached, we were in Mombasa when I called Björn to catch up. He told me he had been ill but was fine: I later discovered he’d contracted septicemia, and had been in hospital in intensive care for the previous week.
A few days later, Björn arrived in Kenya. He was worryingly pale. Dad and I actually had conversations about finding a replacement driver. As I had already shaken the car down, we tested the following day. Björn did a 20-kilometre loop and pronounced the car perfect: nothing more needed. We went to the Vipingo Ridge Golf Club and, as was normal, Björn had a cold beer.
Björn and his son Mathias started the event and, day-by-day, Björn got stronger, always there or thereabouts in terms of stage time; occasionally setting a blisteringly fast time through a section where he felt it was safe. “Just to remind them the old man is still here,” as he put it.
Wherever we would go in Kenya, Björn enjoyed extraordinary respect and reverence. He was very well-known throughout the country. On one occasion, a man appeared from a roadside bush and approached us bowing, with the words: “Is this the boy that has turned into a man?” He referred to Björn as ‘Simba’, clearly remembering Björn from an earlier period, when he’d passed through on one of his many Safaris.
While Björn was leading the 2011 Safari Rally an uncharacteristic moment of indecision lead to a nasty accident on a stage with an abandoned truck. When the car arrived into service, Björn was clearly very shocked, partly due to the loss of position, but principally for putting his son Mathias at risk.
An extraordinary turn of events meant that within an hour, the car was back together having had part of the roll-cage changed. Waldegård father and son promptly set the fastest time on the following section. By the end of the next day, they regained a lead that would not be relinquished, leading to the first-ever Porsche win on Safari, 40 years after Björn had first attempted the feat.
His hard-earned victory in one of our cars remains one of my career and personal highlights, and would not have occurred without the best European Safari Rally driver of all time at the wheel. Björn and Mathias were an incredibly strong combination, and I am so pleased they enjoyed many special times together in a rally car.
Björn returned to Kenya with us in 2013, but an early accident forced his retirement. We joked that he was still young and that the experience would only make him wiser for his future career; no doubt Björn had pencilled Safari Rally 2015 into his calendar! Privately, I considered Björn as my rallying grandfather. Having taught me the secrets of pace notes in Ypres, we spent hours discussing the techniques for getting the best from a Porsche, a car once notorious for being tricky to drive. Björn’s Porsche speed changed all of that. He knew more than anyone how to make the car work and I am convinced that he has passed a small amount of this on to me, for which I will ever be grateful.
He was a large, proud and extremely genuine man, an absolute gentleman. Quiet and reserved, as are many Swedes, a great public speaker and, as his record makes painfully obvious, one of the most gifted men ever to get behind the wheel of a rally car. I owe him more than I can express and the effect he has had on my life will continue forever.