This Is What It’s Like To Sit Shotgun With Rallying Royalty In A Big Benz
Photography by RB Hahn and Robb Pritchard
Walter Röhrl drifting a Fiat 131 and various Porsches in huge mud-and-waterlogged power slides; Stig Blomqvist in a Ford RS500; Timo Salonen in a Alitalia Abarth; Sandro Munari signing autographs next to his Stratos; Ford Group B designer John Wheeler in his Evolution RS200; plus 145 other classic rally cars ranging from a Trabant to Pikes Peak Audis and pretty much everything in between… It’s not a wet dream for a fan of yesteryear’s rallying championships, but the Eifel Rallye Festival in rural western Germany, one of my favorite events of the season. Though the next edition is a ways away from now, it never hurts to reflect on the moments from the past that make us look forward to the next round.
One such memory for me came in the form of a certain ride in a Mercedes-Benz. The manufacturer’s classic department brought along its 450 SLC to the festival one year, and while it doesn’t really look like your standard rally fare (and in the parade of legendary machinery surrounding it it seemed a little lost), it still has some chops. It’s an older guy who gets in the driver’s seat, easing himself in a little stiffly, which is understandable seeing as he’s well into his 70s. We’re about to go for a nice jaunt around the countryside, but it’s no pensioner out on a Sunday drive turning the ignition key; it’s Hannu Mikkola, 1982 WRC champion, and one of the founding fathers of modern rallying. One of the most famous people to ever slide a car sideways down a forest road, and I’m about to get a full-speed demonstration of what this car can do—actually, it would be better say I’m about to find out what Mikkola can do in this car.
If if doesn’t look like much of a rally car it certainly sounds like one. The 5.0L V8 must be one of the bigger engines to have graced a WRC event, and revving up next to some Escorts—even a couple of factory Quattros—its sound is just massive. Kitted up with a skull-squeezing helmet and strapped securely in place, we head up to the start and laugh as we get cut off and blocked by an angry guy in an Audi waving his gloved fist at us. It was an A2 in works colors, and it had Mikkola’s name on the wing, a copy of his championship-winning car, no less. Perhaps he didn’t know who he’d cut off? Our Mercedes is no replica though, not a former road car with a cage and some period-correct stickers. It’s owned by Mercedes-Benz, and its normal parking spot is in the official collection in Stuttgart, so we’re not going to go too fast, right?
For history buffs the name Mikkola is synonymous with Ford and Audi—not so much with Mercedes—but one of his 18 WRC victories came at the wheel of the 450. In 1979 he won the Ivory Coast Rally in one, while teammate Björn Waldegård took 2nd place behind him and the World Championship that year in the process—by a single point. This particular car did the Vuelta a la América del Sud, a rally that circumnavigated the entire South American continent in an incredibly short span of 38 days. These days it’s safety, fuel economy, and alternative technologies that the R&D departments concentrate on, but back in the late 1970s all the innovations were to do with the car’s reliability. The world records achieved with Mercedes-Benz’s M117 engines and the C111 concept car lineage testify to this, so perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that the company chose to enter such a massive race to test their mettle and metal. To put those 30,000km into a modern context, that’s three and a half times longer than the Dakar! Entires were also restricted to almost standard cars—no modifications allowed to the engine, transmission, or body—so the stalwart 450 was the perfect choice.
The early leader in the race was Polish triple European Rally Champion Sobiesław Zasada in the very car until he had a mishap and injured his leg. But because the car was an automatic, he was able to keep going and eventually finished 2nd behind teammate Andrew Cowen.
Once the green flag is waved in our direction, though, there is no more time for reminiscing about what this car used to be. We were off, out through the last houses of the village and along the long straight… faster and faster… “It’s a museum piece,” I kept thinking as we powered along at a very un-museum pace, “he’ll take his foot off the floor soon.” Nope. Up ahead, bales of straw and a big red arrow indicate a very sharp left turn. “Soon we’ll start to brake.” The hairpin was looming up quite close now. A switch of the pedals as quick as the blink of an eye and Mikkola’s left foot hits the floor and he slams the gear lever back into first. Everything surges forward as the centre of gravity suddenly piles on the front wheels. The car slides lazily around the graveled corner and Mikkola powers it away using the gear selector even though it’s an auto. Then we’re power-sliding over blind crests, drifting over shortcuts in the grass, and fishtailing on the brakes towards trees, Armco barriers, and other things that would hurt us and the car if we were to make contact. The cage was up to the top levels of safety—for 1979—so I should be terrified, but I’m not. Although he’s on the limit, I totally trust his driving, wouldn’t you?
It’s a strange sensation though, because a heavy, big machine with really soft suspension is everything you don’t want in a tarmac rally car, but how Mikkola handles it is nothing short of amazing. How he knows exactly how much speed to take into a corner, how much grip there will be when you get there, and how much he needs to brake is mind blowing. The connection between man and machine is so total (and you can mock me all you like for saying it), is so spiritual. I am having a firsthand experience of why this guy is rightfully considered a legend in his field. And it’s not as if you can say he’s familiar with the car anymore seeing as he hasn’t driven it since 1979.
Powering away from another hairpin, our museum exhibit is ragged for all its worth, and then Mikkola is laughing as we go through the straw bale chicane. “It’s so big. It almost doesn’t fit,” he chuckles. And there it was, an apology for driving too slow. “It’s not really a car for tight roads,” he says over the intercom, setting up a deft Scandinavian flick for the 90° left, talking as calmly as though we were cruising down the road at five under the limit. Mercedes-Benz planned to enter the full championship in 1981, and Röhrl had signed a five-year contract with them, but the car wasn’t going to be competitive on loose surface events, and so they pulled out before Rallye Monte Carlo. “This car is good for the long marathon rallies where you are driving fast all the time. When you get to 220km/h and stay there. All these 90° corners…” he mused as we slid into another tight hairpin.
But then it starts getting hot. I’m already in a fire suit, and fireproof thermal underwear from wrist to ankle, plus a balaclava under the helmet. The temperature gauge is in the red, which is part of the problem, so we trundle around the last few corners. “It’s more than 60°,” he says as I try to wind the window down without fainting. “If this is hot can you imagine doing this non-stop for four days and four nights in Africa?” I can imagine trying… but the thought ended with me dead after an hour or so. To recreate the scene at home, try going to a sauna wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a woolly hat on and get a Finnish psychopath to push you around a lot.
As we coasted down the hill, ignoring people trying to offer as beer and paying even less attention to the marshals, I mentioned that I’d done a bit of research on the car before and how he and the late Waldegård had fought for the championship in it. “I lost it by one point,” he said. “Just one point.” After 36 years it still seems that I can hear the angst. “We agreed at the start of the year that with our Ford Escorts we’ll do the same number of events, but my transmission blew on one event and Ashcroft asked if I wanted to do another round. I said no, that’s not fair, but then we had an offer from Mercedes so we went to the Ivory Coast… And everyone knows that story.”
Helping me out of the car, one of the organizers laughs at the size of my smile. Well, I have just been bashed about in a rolling piece of rallying history by a living legend. Of course I am smiling!