Wilhelm Rampf – known as Willy – is not a big F1 name like Adrian Newey or Ross Brawn, but he’s remarkable in that he has been successful in three completely different motorsport disciplines: Formula 1, the World Rally Championship and with motorcycles on the Paris-Dakar.
Now 63, Rampf has always been mad about motorcycles and took part in a few enduro events in his spare time while he was an apprentice aviation electrician and then an engineering student. In 1978 he worked as a mechanic on the very first Paris-Dakar. BMW was not officially involved, but Frenchman Jean-Claude Morellet, who raced as “Fenouil”, rode a prototype BMW 800cc motorcycle and was running second until an engine failure on the penultimate stage.
BMW saw the potential of the Dakar and Rampf joined the company and worked on the development of bikes that would win the Dakar with Hubert Auriol in 1981 and 1983 and Gaston Rahier in 1984 and 1985. When the project ended he moved on to work as a test engineer for BMW South Africa, based in Pretoria.
When F1 visited Kyalami in 1993 Rampf was a Sauber guest, having been invited by former BMW colleague Leo Ress, the Swiss team’s technical director. Fascinated by the F1 technology, Willy expressed an interest in joining the team and six months later was thrown in at the deep end, as race engineer for Heinz Harald Frentzen. Things went well, but when Frentzen moved to Williams, Rampf was less interested in the drivers who followed and decided to go back to BMW, which was planning a new Paris-Dakar programme. He was put in charge. This would result in two consecutive Dakar victories for rider Richard Sainct before Rampf was lured back to Sauber as Technical Director in 2000.
He would remain in the role for the next 10 years, including under BMW ownership between 2005 and 2009. During that time, the team won its first (and only) victory, thanks to Robert Kubica in Canada in 2008, but then BMW pulled the plug and Sauber struggled and Rampf decided it was time to move on and handed over his role to James Key in 2010. A year later Willy was appointed technical director of Volkswagen Motorsport, overseeing the design of the Polo R WRC, which has since won four WRC Drivers’ and four Manufacturers’ titles between 2013 and 2016…