The finest discovery since Jochen Rindt?
FORMULA TWO has a revelation in its ranks. The sharpest, boldest, and most naturally talented driver since Jochen Rindt appeared in the formula fourteen years ago.
Superlatives, yes. But BMW Motorsport Director Dieter Stappert, never usually a man prone to emotive statement, is sure that they are justified. He has been all along. It was Stappert who massaged negotiations so that this new talent, Stefan Bellof, could enter the highly competitive European Formula Two Championship in the first place. It was Stappert what convinced the ambitious Maurer team that they ought to seriously consider German F3 Champion Bellof as a candidate for one of their coveted works seats. And it was also Stappert who faced a wave of cynicism and acidic observations once Bellof had been accepted in the Maurer team, in preference to Mike Thackwell.
The so-called experts explained it all away with that dirtiest (and yet increasingly common) motor racing phrase, “politics”. It was, after all, rather obvious: the German Maurer-BMW F2 team was a regular front runner in 1981, confidently expecting to win races with their new MM82 design in 1982, and aiming to graduate to the dizzy but delicate heights of Grands Prix by the middle of 1983. When they make that graduation, they will rely on BMW turbocharged power and, they hope, BMW patriotically-charged technical assistance. This why they accepted the unknown Bellof into their F2 team. Stappert is a vigorous Bellof promoter and wields considerable influence within the BMW boardroom. Team owner Willi Maurer had little choice. Diplomatically, he just had to accept Bellof.
Just three races later, it is plain that it is just as well that he did. Stappert’s predictions have proven uncannily astute: Bellof may not necessarily be the best raw talent to emerge since the late, great Jochen Rindt, but he is most certainly the revelation of 1982 Formula Two. He went straight out and won his first ever F2 race, the International Trophy at Silverstone on March 21st, and by doing so he equalled the historical F2 debut record set by Dave Morgan. But while the experts were still busy attributing this victory to the effectiveness of his Michelin tyres on a net track surface, Bellof was busy chalking up his second successive victory on a perfectly dry track. Two weeks after Silverstone (and indeed just five months after being thrown out of the competition at the British Formula Ford Festival by the Clerk of the Course for unimpressive and unruly track manners!), Bellof won again at Hockenheim, taking the Jim Clark Memorial Trophy home to Into the International Trophy on his suddenly over-crowded mantelpiece. What is more, his Maurer-BMW also parked on pole position, having rounded off the weekend with the fastest lap.
By round three of the series, at Thruxton on Easter Monday, Bellof had quietly assumed number one status within the three-car works Maurer team and had accumulated 18 championship points — three times the total of his nearest rival. He was not, however, to add to that handsome advantage. One week after being interviewed on a country-wide German TV sports programme as a new national hero, Bellof was soon on BBC screens as the first visitor to the Thruxton pit lane. This time the astute Mr. Stappert was not smiling. The BMW engine in Bellof’s black car had dropped a valve 300 yards after the start.
This left the Maurer team to turn their attentions, instead, to Beppe Gabbiani and Peter Schindler. The Osella F1 refugee went to Thruxton second in the points standings and by finishing fourth at the Hampshire circuit he collected three more points to raise his total to exactly half that of Bellof’s. He has not, however, been especially impressive on any occasion. His points owe themselves to simple reliability. Gabbiani’s slow decline in reputation reflects his inability to qualify well and a similar slovenliness in establishing the ideal suspension/wing/ride height/tyre choice for the race.
If the Bellof-Maurer-BMW-Michelin combination has been the biggest surprise of the new F2 season, the largest disappointment has been that of Spirit-Honda-Bridgestone. With the emphasis on Bridgestone.
Established by former March F2 team manager John Wickham and McLaren designer Gordon Coppuck, the Slough based Spirit team is in its first year of competition. The Spirit 201-Honda is a conventional but conspicuously compact and neat aluminium honeycomb structure. Its Japanese V6 power comes with the financial and technical blessing of the factory. Drivers Thierry Boutsen and Stefan Johansson have tied neatly into this Marlboro sponsored team, and the package has gelled to become immediately professional and pacesetting. Tyres, however, have been the disappointment. At Silverstone Johansson claimed pole position on an ever-changing wet/dry surface but the Swede led the race only for his wet weather Bridgestones to lose all grip after a few laps. After persevering with them for ten more laps, he pitted for hand-grooved slicks, made a hurried return to the race — and promptly gyrated into the Woodcote catch fencing.
The Spirit glory in Germany belonged to Boutsen although, after half-a-dozen laps, Bellof’s Maurer-BMW breezed past, leaving the Belgian to collect second place.
Ahead of the quiet, thinking, engineer Boutsen in the championship chase is Bellof, of course, and also Johnny Cecotto. The former 350 c.c. and 750 c.c. World Motorcycle Champion has certainly shown impressive form this year. He joined the works March-BMW team following a rather disjointed season of team-hopping in 1981, and has since showed a very real likelihood of emulating the two-to-four-wheel success stories of John Suttees and Mike Hailwood.
At Thruxton he capped his early season form with a superb win, charging back through the field after a pit stop with a puncture. This rising trend in results has been matched with an important growth in confidence, and there is little reason why Cecotto should not follow up his Thruxton success with other visits to the victory rostrum.
A man who should have been on that rostrum at Thruxton was Corrado Fabi. After Johansson had dived into the pits, the 21-year-old Italian assumed the lead in his red Roloil March 822-BMW, and with his (Michelin, tyres in good shape, he looked set for the second F2 win of his career. But it was not to be: a stone shattered his BMW’s distributor, and, as at Silvestone, he joined the retirements list. This was naturally a disappointment for the younger brother of Toleman F1 racer Teo, but at least Corrado had at last shown some justification for his number one status within the three-car March team. This is something he failed to do in qualifying at the first two rounds, although he was the first March across the finishing line at Hockenheim, taking a distant third place with team-mate Cecotto tucked right beneath his rear wing.
March’s third driver has, like Cecotto, shown substantial improvements in the new, Ralph Bellamy designed 822 model. Christian Danner was something of a mid-field struggler in his works March in 1981, managing nothing better than a solitary fifth place. His 1982 form has been very different. The German set fastest lap at Silverstone, qualified on the second row at Hockenheim, before crashing in a rash bid for second place on the opening lap, and was set for a top-three placing at Thruxton before his BMW dropped a valve.
March have taken the European F2 crown four times in the last nine years, and although they do face tough opposition now from the very effective Maurer chassis and the 30 b.h.p. superiority of the Honda-powered Spirits and Baits, many more victories can be expected. The March 822 is light whereas the more powerful Spirit could benefit from a diet, and March currently enjoy a tyre durability advantage on Michelins, while both Honda-powered teams have to make do with the less reliable Bridgestones. Indeed, it is tempting to inquire just how good the neat 822 really is: Cecotto is something of an unknown quantity, Danner hardly has a sensational history, and Fabi was consistently overshadowed by his then-teammate Thierry Boutsen in 1981. It does make one wonder.
Thus far, tyres have been more important than engines in shaping the points table. Once the Bridgestone technicians have rectified their problems, however, the emphasis will surely change. The Spirit-Hondas will naturally be even stronger contenders on reliable rubber, but so too will the Ralts.
After the first three rounds, Ron Tauranac’s team have little to smile about. The Kiwi team manager has dropped both reigning F2 Champion Geoff Lees and Mike Thackwell from his team, taking on Irishman Kenny Acheson and British F3 title holder Jonathan Palmer instead. Acheson’s career, like the late Roger Williarnson’s, now benefits from financial support from Donington Park mentor Tom Wheatcroft, and he moves to Ralt following an F2 season in a semi-works Toleman which was interrupted by a hefty, leg-breaking accident at Pau; Palmer is undoubtedly Britain’s brightest Grand Prix prospect for a long time, and with an envied Williams F1 “apprenticeship” testing contract in his pocket, he enters F2 fresh from eight wins from 19 starts in the British F3 series. The former could be cast as a “raw talent” type driver, the latter a man of outstanding intelligence as well — but neither have had much luck in 1982. Both Acheson and Palmer crashed their 1982 specification RH6-Hondas in practice at Silverstone, duly sliding to mid-grid obscurity in the outmoded ’81 model and struggling on inadequate tyres in the race. On his next two outings Palmer had to relinquish fourth and third positions with mechanical failures. Acheson also retired at Hockenheim, but successfully nursed worn Bridgestones home to finish second, behind Cecotto, at Thruxton.
It has not been a good start to the year for the Casio Ralt team, no. But then neither were the early stages of 1981 very happy for the Weybridge equipe, and Lees still went on to take the title for them. It might happen again. And the fate of those two dumped drivers? Thackwell drove a privately entered March 822-BMW at Silverstone, and a Maurer MM82 at Hockenheim, both of which brought retirement; Lees expects to make a return to F2 in an unspecified but “competitive” car in the series fifth round, at Mugello on May 9th, in addition to his role in the Nimrod Racing Automobiles Aston Martin Group C programme.
Before the Sicilian race, the cosmopolitan F1 circus moves to that last outpost of real motor racing, the Nürburgring, on April 25th. A circuit which Stefan Bellof says he “likes very much”, and knows “very well”. And that in front of home crowd in a German car. It could be just like Hockenheim all over again. . . . — P.R.B.