An Unsung Hero: Polish Rallying Star Sobieslaw Zasada
Interview translation: Aleksandra Kasztelewicz Images: Courtesy Sobieslaw Zasada, Grzegorz Chmielewski
Born 27 January 1930, Sobieslaw Zasada won 148 rallies, starting with a tiny Austrian Steyr-Puch 650 in which he won his first European championship in 1966. It remains the smallest-engined car to ever win the championship. Seeing his talent, Zasada was offered drives by Porsche and, later, BMW. At the end of his career, he switched to Mercedes-Benz.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. “Restrictions on foreign travel were in force, with passports stored in passport offices,” explains Zasada.
“Each time [competing in an international rally] it was necessary to submit an application… you could often be refused,” explained Zasada. “I envied my rivals from Western countries the freedom with which they could travel around the world. For us, passport, visa and customs formalities consumed a lot of time and energy.”
Despite the restrictions, Sobieslaw Zasada overcame the hurdles to become one of the greatest rally drivers of all time—yet he remains largely unknown in much of the world. Unsurprisingly, Zasada is a hero in his country as he was European Rally Champion in 1966, 1967, 1971 and runner-up in 1968, 1969, and 1972.
In 1968, in the midst of his rallying career, Zasada took part in the first London-Sydney Marathon. He has startlingly clear memories of the event, especially the Indian part of the race.
On 24 November 1968, 98 cars took the start in London, following a 17,000km route that first took them to Paris, Turin, Belgrade, Istanbul, Sivas, Tehran, Kabul, and Pakistan. The cars entered India on 30 November, less than a week into the event.
Here, thousands lined the route as the cars thundered by, recalls Zasada, heading through Punjab to Delhi. From there, the cars wound their way to Bombay, where they boarded a boat, and eventually arrived in Australia, and the finish line in Sydney.
“We won the Australian stages,” remembers Zasada, “ahead of Andrew Cowan (in a Hillman Hunter) and the Australian Ian Vaughan (in a Ford Falcon GT). Overall, we finished in fourth place, only a minute behind for the podium.”
Nine years later, in 1977, the second London-Sydney Marathon took place, but this time it crossed Malaysia and Singapore, with a total distance of 30,000km, making it the longest car rally in history. Sobieslaw Zasada was again among the competitors, in a Porsche 911 Carrera, and was in the lead when the rally arrived in India.
“We entered Delhi on the evening of 25th August,” he recalls. “Crowds of fans pressed our car, it got threatening and the police intervened, with bamboo sticks; they chased away the most excited spectators.”
Zasada in his Porsche is the stuff of legends: The Polish rallying hero covered the 1,400-odd kilometres through Agra to Bombay in less than 12 hours!
An expert driver, he averaged close to 120km/h throughout, meaning there must have been moments when the Porsche reached 180-200km/h! On Indian roads!
Zasada was so quick, arriving at the time control in Bombay so well ahead of time, that the control set-up and the marshals weren’t there to note his arrival.
After Bombay, the event curled south and east to Pune, Bangalore, then to Madras, with the cars shipped to Penang, in Malaysia. Until then Zasada was leading, but an accident in Australia saw the Polish star finish a disappointing 13th place.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Zasada became a distributor for the Daimler-Benz group in Poland. In his country, he remains a hero, a star, even at 91 years of age.
Sobieslaw Zasada was in the news recently, in June 2021, when he competed once again in the Safari Rally Kenya, driving a Ford Fiesta Rally3, the oldest ever to enter this gruelling event. Partnered by Tomasz Borysławski as navigator, luck was not on their side, as the duo met with an accident barely three kilometres from the end of the rally. As current Spanish rally star Dani Sordo said: “Zasada has already won! Starting the rally and competing so well is a victory in itself!”
Zasada may finally receive long overdue recognition as he was recognised by FIVA (Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens, the international federation for historic vehicles). He is one of the first recipients of the recently instituted FIVA Heritage Hall of Fame, alongside other automotive giants such as Mauro Forghieri, Marcello Gandini, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Nazir Hoosein and Osamu Suzuki.
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