Honoring A Polish Rally Hero With Two Of His Restored Marlboro Fords
“While training, I set myself on three to four corners and try to drive faster and faster through them. At some point the car starts to break away flying out of the corner. I fight it and succeed. I’m not satisfied with that. Making it work isn’t a success for me. I purposely try to overdrive a car, to go faster and faster. Boundaries of what is possible are starting to disappear. Turns out we can outdo ourselves, be faster every time, what man can do isn’t defined. In the end, possibility turns into a reality, my skills improve and I push even more, to be faster, so the circle starts all over again.” -Marian Bublewicz
Marian “Bubel” Bublewicz was a businessman, loving husband, caring father, and a Polish motorsport hero of the 1990s. A seven-time Polish Rally Champion, he finished 2nd in the 1992 European Rally Championship standings. He was a driver who in 1993 joined the FIA’s 31 top rallying talents as a “priority list A.”
To get to the Gazmot Motorsport workshop I have to drive 100 kilometers, and on the way there I’m constantly reminded of what Marian Bublewicz had achieved in his his 43 years of life. I’d read books about him, looked up some press releases, seen numerous interviews, and the more research I did the more impressed I became. And though I was focused solely on him during my drive to Gazmot’s base in Żychlin, I still had some cars to test when I arrived. But I couldn’t think about them much, as cars for me were never much more than hunks of steel—I was always more interested in the experiences that came with them, meeting people and getting to know their amazing achievements.
About a week before the trip, on a Sunday visit to my parents’ for dinner, I mentioned that I’d be writing about Bublewicz. My mother immediately started telling me the story about how she’d passionately followed Bublewicz’s career. “Mom, I thought you didn’t like motorsport? How do you even know who he was?!” It struck me then that Marian was more than just a driver, he was a sportsman beloved by Poles who might otherwise not care about cars. And on that topic…
I meet Marek on one of the winter special stages of AutodromŁódź. It was extremely cold with slippery conditions and bad visibility. After a quick rundown I decided to change my car’s tire pressure. Problem was, I didn’t have any equipment to do so. A quick look around the car park reveals, among a field of very tired drivers, some hope. A Marlboro-livered Mercedes 207 service truck probably had a compressor, and next to it sat a Sierra Cosworth RS AWD in a matching graphics package. In between was a whole service team in period-correct white-and-bright-red Marlboro uniforms—it felt like being dropped into a ‘90s rally stage.
Obviously, I went straight over to them, hoping for some quick advice and a hand with my tires, but as it turned out I got much more. Besides lending their equipment, time, and knowledge, I met Marek, a member of the Bublewicz family. It took him many years to rebuild what I was looking at before me: Marlboro Rally Team Poland.
The original team was officially presented in March of 1991 in the Victoria Hotel in Warsaw. It was the first professional Polish rally team with Marlboro branding, during a time when Marlboro’s parent company, Philip Morris, also sponsored the likes of such great individuals as Ayrton Senna and Carlos Sainz. Besides cash flow, they gave the Polish team something more: a name known worldwide, something that no other Polish team had ever had before. The partnership with a tobacco brand, while great for the team, came with a wave of criticism. People thought Marian won in the Marlboro cars just because of the powers of big sponsor money rather than his talent, which, granted, was visible in the better equipment that he had. To be frank, though you won’t place 2nd in the European Rally Championship just by having a certain logo on your fleece pullover.
Gazmot Motorsport’s goal was to bring back the historic Marlboro Rally Team Poland. Everything had to be period correct, starting with the mechanics’ and drivers’ uniforms, through to the pair of Group A-spec rally cars and their service trucks from good old days. Marek always wanted to participate in rallies with the finished cars, telling me: “Neither me nor Marian would be happy with the rebuilt cars being just museum pieces, never used, for exhibition purpose only.”
Today in Marek’s team there are two Ford Sierra Cosworth RSes, one RWD, and one AWD, exactly the same as it was in the 1990s in the Bublewicz era. Both are fitted with 2.0L turbocharged engines built by Cosworth, each making just shy of 300 horsepower. What’s more, both cars are built using original components from Marian’s cars. The idea was to build them to commemorate Marian by participating in historical rallies, so it was only right to build them according to today’s standards in addition to using some original pieces—equipment such as a modern full racing roll cage was fitted, otherwise they wouldn’t be homologated and would never race today, which is more important than originality that comes at the cost of use.
Marian’s team was more than just bunch of people huddled together on a rally stage. It was a family with one goal in mind: winning. If mechanics were faced with the reality of staying up late night to fix cars for another day, they would do so willingly and without complaint. While all the other drivers rested, Marian trained. When other co-drivers had free time in the evenings, Marian’s co-drivers were repeating the routes over and over again. The team had levels of chemistry that were visible to the competition.
Krzysztof Hołowczyc, one of the most successful Polish rally drivers, was trained by Marian, and in his memories about Bublewicz he always stresses how energetic of a person he was, that this energy attracted people to him. His influence was such that it would drive everyone around him to fight with him for split seconds on stages, but Bublewicz was also a very kind and warm person. He knew his team was very engaged in the work they were doing, that they often had to neglect their families in order to do it. So, he came up with the idea that he would fund holidays for wives of team members during the rallies in Greece. While the men worked on the cars, the women sunbathed, and all seemed a bit more right with their worlds.
Marian loved his fans too, and he always found some time to sign autographs and take pictures. Even when the stages in the car didn’t go as he’d planned, he stayed and waited for all the people that came to see him, always smiling. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone. He never shouted, and he made sure that his team thought for themselves.
I cram myself into the narrow racing bucket. I think I must have put on a little weight. Marian would probably be disgusted with my overall shape and posture, he ran a lot, trained all the time. The interior of the car is extremely humid and hot once I’m inside, and as I slowly click in the five-point harness, I think to myself, as usual: does it hurt a lot in a crotch if you have an accident?
Marek fiddles a bit with the doors, then slams them shut, closing me in like a fish in a tin can. All of a sudden there is only silence, then I hear knocking on the roof, the signal for me to go. I oblige, push the red button that says “start/stop” on it, and I bring the car slowly onto the forest rally stage ahead of me. A couple of minutes earlier I went down the route as a passenger to familiarize myself, and it helps but barely. First, second, then third. The gearbox is precise with very short travel between the gears. Razor sharp. I get to 100km/h, 120, feeling like I’m barely touching the accelerator pedal as the all-wheel drive Sierra plows smoothly through the gravel.
Corner coming up. I remember that the pedal in the middle is not something to take your time on and I slam on the brakes and go down a few gears. I get to the paved road with a shrine on the side in mere minutes, the spot where I’m supposed to turn around. I search for the reverse gear for a while as I’d forgotten to ask how to engage it earlier. I get it eventually and go back down the same route in reverse, this time a bit braver.
Eternally counter steering resembles driving a hovercraft. The car throws itself from the left to the right. I forget that tomorrow I have a business meeting that I have to iron my shirt and polish my shoes for. It all fades away, my brain goes into standby mode on everything else. It’s only me and the legend of Marian Bublewicz, and the stories you have a hard time forgetting. In one of his interviews for Playboy he said that driving fast is like sex for him, calming. I go faster. Famous are the stories of how he trained late in the evenings, racing himself on public roads through forests and villages with the help of friends who would close down side roads so no one would interrupt the attempts.
I’m currently on that kind of makeshift rally stage. Nothing but yellow dust, gravel, dirt, and trees, forgotten looking. I drift through the road like a boat in water, not knowing if this is the moment I’m still in control of a car, or if the car is now in control of me. My ears are filled with the various noises produced by the turbocharged Cosworth motor spitting fire from the exhaust more often than most. I hear stones bouncing around under the car, I love that sound. I can feel that there’s not much between me and the ground, and often I can feel bits of the it too.
I go around the course a few times and then stop in the same place I started, the interior instantly filling with the dust chasing us down the road. I unbuckle my seat belts and get out, realizing for the first time that I’m drenched in sweat and my hands are shaking. That was something else.
One Last Rally
February 20th 1993, Lower Silesia Rally, near the Polish-Czech border. Seven of the last nine Lower Silesian Rallies were won by Bublewicz. With car number 1 he goes for the fifth stage. He’s driving a car borrowed from Belgian driver Patrick Snijers, his Ford Sierra AWD with even power distribution between the axles. It happened this way because the Belgian crashed Marian’s Sierra AWD a couple of weeks before that on a special stage somewhere in the Middle East. The issue was that Bublewicz loved rear-wheel drive cars, and in his Sierra’s AWD differential settings he had 36% of the power sent to the front and 64% to the back rather than an even split. Drivers that were following him were starting to finish the stage, but Marian was still nowhere to be seen. What had happened to him? He was destined to win this stage.
The second kilometer of the fifth stage. One corner, one tree. The Sierra wraps around it like a Coca-Cola can. His co-driver escapes without any problems, but Marian has less luck. He is trapped inside the crushed car. People gather around trying to get him out. Despite the accident Marian is still conscious, he is still giving people orders about how to help him out of the car in the best way. Emergency services have to cut him out using bare hands and axes, the lack of serious equipment costs them time. Finally, they release Marian from the wreckage. Being transported to the medical car he refuses to get help with getting his helmet off, he does it himself to give the sign that he is still here. He even waves to the crowd.
The medical car goes straight to the hospital, and Marian straight to the operating table. Suddenly the blood for the transfusion runs out. There is no more in the hospital. Krzysztof Czepan, Marian’s cousin, his right hand, chief of service and hte man inseparable from the Marlboro Rally Team, recalls the moment when Marian got to the hospital. Andrzej Martynkin, one of the journalists that was on the hospital floor, drove a borrowed car to the nearest city to a hospital to get blood for Marian. When he got back, the hospital staff realized they had no machine to heat up the blood for the transfusion, so Czepan with the Marboro Team personnel, heat up the blood packs under their suits. The internal damage was too much though, and the once shining star slowly fades away in the small hospital operating theatre. “I have luck and I hope it’ll never abandon me,” Marian would often repeat in his racing days. And it seemed as much, especially after he hit a boulder on the side of the road with his Mazda 323 and rolled it over eight times. He got to the hospital with a broken skull then, but he came back. Unfortunately, the Lower Silesia Rally had to be his last one.
Mikołaj “Miko” Marczyk is a rally driver for the factory Skoda Polska Motorsport team, an ex-factory driver for Subaru, and the Polish Rally Champion in Group N for 2017. Miko is my dear friend from high school, a very talented rally driver. I don’t know why we became such good friends, having so many differences between us, but we’ve remained as such for many years, often having the pleasure to test the same cars in our respective careers as driver and journalist. For instance, Bublewicz’s Sierra.
Miko tells me, “I’ve driven one of those RWD Sierras you’ve tested. I think that back in the day and still now, the ability to control a car despite not being able to have influence over all the events surrounding you, the ability to adapt, was the most important skill that driver could have. I’m not suggesting that nowadays it is different, but modern rallies went to the route of analysis, everything is precise and planned much more. Remember that today rally cars are built from scratch to do one thing, but back then they were road cars prepared for the rallies more often than not. If you were to put modern rally driver into the co-driver’s seat of Marian’s Ford they would probably be amazed at how fast you can go in that old Sierra. This year I drove the Skoda Fabia R5 in the Rally of Lower Silesia, and for the first time in 25 years, from the moment when that tragic crash happened, the stage of Lądek Zdrój to Złoty Stok was opened for the competition.
“This Special Stage is just so cool, but it has so many moments when one mistake can snowball into something very dangerous. Big elevation changes, sometimes hills that you go over seeing 180km/h on the clock. 13 kilometers in less than six minutes. We drove where Marian had his accident. It’s a scary place, very dark, with low visibility. My co-driver noted that we should be cautious there. I try to be professional, stories like this shouldn’t reflect on how we drive. We have to race, drive fast, do what we have to, so for the whole rally we didn’t mention the crash. I still think though, that everyone is somehow living through this accident in their head. Rallying is a beautiful sport, but it never was safe and everyone knows that when they drive today too. Of course, you force yourself not to think about it, but somewhere deep I know what happened on that corner two kilometers into the stage. I’m very happy I could drive this route today though. To just be there. Our appearance there with rally cars was a silent tribute for Marian. I think that he looked at us and smiled, happy that the stage is once again in use.”
A wintry Poland. February 25th 1993, 2:43PM. The slushy streets of Olsztyn are filled with hundreds of citizens, fans and friends of Bubel. The funeral procession is made up of a couple dozen cars, including a white and red Marbloro service truck with a trailer. On that trailer laid a coffin held there by the hands of Bubel’s team members. The last farewell for the Champion, the rally driver, friend, daredevil, a man who was truly loved. The condolences sent the family’s way even came from the reigning Polish president.
Rallying really is a beautiful sport. It draws in so many of us because of the inherent uncertainty, feeds our taste for balancing on the thin line between life and death. Unfortunately, the sport tends to take some of its followers forever. But they live on in other ways, and meeting the rekindled Marbloro Rally Team Poland with Gazmot Motosport was an extraordinary experience. I took a peek inside a truly astonishing operation. I met exceptional people who’ve spent their whole lives in a passion for speed and sincere admiration for this one man. Marian was an atypical person, he didn’t let himself to be labelled be described in simple words, but today I have no doubts that he must have been a living legend in his day.