The first ever World Rally Champion, Sweden’s Bjorn Waldegard was always the most at-home behind the wheel of a works Ford.
Bjorn Waldegard may not have been the most glamorous, and not even the people’s favourite (Ari Vatanen took that title), but he was one of the most successful. You only have to look at what he achieved at Boreham to see that.
Just look at the stats. He won six out of the 17 World Championship rounds which he started for Ford, took eight more podium finishes — and retired only once. Two of those second places were behind other works Escorts. And that’s not all — he was robbed of Monte Carlo victory in 1979, by just 6 seconds, when French saboteurs placed rocks in his way on a special stage. With crashes in World rallies, no wonder he won the World Championship in 1979.
Already a superstar after twice winning the Monte Carlo in Porsches, Bjorn must have wondered why he had to suffer two such traumatic years at Lancia in 1975 and 1976.
At Lancia, he won several World Championship rallies, but suffered from team politics: the Italians wanted Sandro Munari to win every time. When Bjorn defeated Munari at San Remo in 1976, team boss Cesare Fiorio was so angry that he sacked the Swede on the spot.
Bjorn, therefore, was on the market again:
‘I talked to several teams at that time, but as soon as I talked to Peter Ashcroft I knew that the Ford offer and programme was the best…’
Not only was Boreham noted for its relaxed environment, but it was time to rebuild the team. Timo Makinen was being released, Roger Clark was just past his best, and Ari Vatanen was still at the bash-and-crash stage. The whole team needed Bjorn — old in the head, but still fit and young — to start again. Bjorn clearly loved working with the works team at Ford. Nothing, it seemed, was too much to ask — and he gave everything in return. If Boreham needed to know anything about their rivals — Bjorn could tell them. Having started in VW Beetles, he had been rallying Porsche 911s since 1968. After winning the Monte in 1969 and 1970, he then went freelancing, to drive for Fiat, Toyota, BMW, Citroen and Opel — before settling at Lancia in 1975. He could drive anything, and win in anything:
‘Learning to drive the RS1800 wasn’t difficult,’ Bjorn commented, ‘because it is a very easy car. I’d driven all types of car recently anyway— front-engined, rear-engined, mid-engined. In a way the Escort is like the BMW 2002, and very much like the Toyota, but a lot quicker.’
He settled in at Boreham at once. Hired a month before the end of 1976, he found that his Lancia Stratos drive in the RAC rally had been cancelled, and begged an Escort to compete in the British event. Boreham — typical Boreham, who pulled many a rabbit out of the hat in those days — scratched around, found that Timo Makinen’s ex-Total Rally car had just got back from South Africa, and rebuilt it for Bjorn.
After just one testing session at Bagshot in another car, he met MTW 200P at scrutineering in Bath, then spent the next four days looking as if he had been driving Escorts throughout his career. He never put a foot wrong, and finished third: only Roger Clark (RS1800) and Stig Blomqvist (16-valve Saab 99) beat him.
Success then followed success in 1977, the season in which Ford so nearly beat Fiat to the World Rally Championship. Bjorn started six events, winning three of them, not finishing below fifth, and never crashing: he became Mr Consistency. Everyone at Ford loved him, for Bjorn was soft-spoken, placid, always ready to do his best — and was amazingly successful.
It was this character, rather than his sheer pace, which made Ford so happy. Ari Vatanen might generate all the emotion (and, at this time, most of the expensive accidents), but it was the quiet, effective Swedish farmer who provided most of the results. Even in late-1970s guise the Escorts still liked to kick their tails out, and go sideways, at every opportunity: Bjorn loved that, and was very comfortable with the habit, but never let it get out of hand, for he was always totally composed.
Was he not hard on his cars?: “No way,” Mick Jones told me, “and you can tell, by looking at them afterwards, he’s as smooth as silk.” Calm, fast, but never getting bogged down, in 1977 his performance on the wettest-ever Safari was awesome. Rivers became deep torrents which had to be waded (have you seen the videos?), and only 12 cars made it to the finish. Only one of them was an Escort, but that was Bjorn’s car, which won by 35 minutes. That’s minutes, incidentally, not seconds.
If that wasn’t enough, he went to Greece six weeks later, and repeated the trick. Ford had always shone in the Acropolis, but Bjorn positively glittered. Beating team-mate Roger Clark by 6 minutes, he was 16 minutes ahead of the next non-Ford. So, what if he didn’t shine in the 1000 Lakes (he never liked the Finnish jumps) — the RAC was still to come.
Here, in the brand-new British Airways-liveried car, WTW 567S, he drove serenely to victory. Five of the first six finishers were in Escorts, and Bjorn who led them all. The only non-Ford driver to challenge him was Hannu Mikkola – and he had already been signed up to rejoin Ford in 1978.
Amazingly, in 1978 Bjorn only tackled three World rallies for Ford. One reason was that Ford never planned a full programme — no Safari, and no Acropolis entries, for instance — but the other was that a lengthy pay strike crippled Boreham in the autumn. Even so, Bjorn managed one victory (in Sweden), and second in the RAC, behind team-mate Hannu Mikkola’s sister car. Because of the strike, Mick Jones actually part-completed Bjorn’s car at home, in his own garage:
“When I needed parts for the car,” Mick once told us, “I would go back to Boreham at night, when there were no pickets. When I knew the security people would be looking the other way, I would let myself into the workshops – I always had a key.”
In 1979 Ford committed themselves to a full Championship assault, for the Escort was near its peak, and the loss of the 1977 championship still rankled. Bjorn and Hannu Mikkola both tackled seven events, while Ford also released them to drive for Mercedes-Benz in their 450SLC 5.0 coupes in the rough and tough Safari and Bandama (Ivory Coast) events. Bjorn’s major competition came from Hannu Mikkola, and there were no team orders.
This was the way the season developed:
Monte Carlo : Bjorn and Hannu swapped the lead throughout, but at the start of the last night, Bjorn led the rally by 6 minutes, 27 seconds. Although he lost time to Darniche’s Stratos during the night, he would still have won if spectators had not placed rocks in his path on the next-last stage. He lost — cheated out of victory — by just 6 seconds.
Sweden: After Bjorn had crashed on the first ice-bound stage, no-one could catch Stig Blomqvist’s front-wheel-drive Saab 99 Turbo on the snow. Even so, by being fastest on 19 of the 38 stages, Bjorn’s second place, 80 seconds behind, was a fine effort.
Portugal: Hannu and Bjorn used reborn POO 504R and POO 505R RS1800s, finishing first and second. The fastest non-Ford was 22 minutes behind. No contest!
Safari: Driving a Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0, Bjorn took sixth place.
Acropolis: Bjorn drove his opponents into the ground (Hannu’s engine broke) and dominated this hot, dusty, gruelling event. He set 30 fastest stage times, and won by 32 minutes! It was the first World victory for a Rothmans-liveried car.
1000 Lakes: Bjorn had never liked this event, but drove smoothly to finish third, 6 minutes off the pace. He set only two fastest stage times — but team-mate Ari Vatanen set 20 fastests.
Quebec: Driving POO 505R (ex-Portugal, and once Roger Clark’s 1976 RAC-winning identity), Bjorn won his second rally of the year. This time it was close – his car stalled for 7 minutes in deep water at one time, and smashed a gearbox casing in another stage. In the end he was only 38 seconds ahead of Timo Salonen’s Datsun 160J.
RAC: It should have been a cake-walk, but it all went wrong. Works Escorts finished first, second, fourth and sixth – but Bjorn’s car (GJN 126T, brand-new before the event) finished ninth, way off the pace. Punctures, jacks that did not work, and a broken rear axle were all part of the problem. But was Bjorn off the boil? He only set two fastest times, compared with 35 by other Escort drivers.
One event remained, and since Bjorn and Hannu could both still win the Drivers’ Championship, both accepted fistfuls of Deutschmarks for the Bandama. Driving Mercedes-Benz 450SLC 5.0s, Hannu Mikkola won the event, with Bjorn in second place. It was a steamroller win, which confirmed Bjorn’s World Championship success – by one point from Hannu, 112 to 111 points.
Incidentally, if we discount the Mercedes-Benz scores, Bjorn’s victory margin was crushing – 99 against 76 for Hannu. Third man, Markku Alen (Fiat Abarth 131) was way behind, on 68.
Amazingly, Bjorn never drove for Ford again. After spending a troubled year with Mercedes-Benz in 1980, he moved over to Toyota in 1981, winning five more World Championship rallies (mainly in Africa) — his last coming in 1986.
Like many other stars, though, he did not walk away from rallying completely. Still one of the most effective drivers in classic rallying, he astonished us several times in more recent years — including winning the East African Safari Classic Rally in 2007 in a Historic Motorsport-prepared RS1600. Except that the hair went white he was still recognisably the same Bjorn who charmed everyone at Ford in those three seasons, and he died, too young, in 2014.
Words Graham Robson
Full the full story of Bjorn Waldegard and Ford in the June 2017 issue
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