"As quick a driver as I've ever seen... "
Martin Brundle raced alongside Schumacher and rubbed wheels with Senna, but is talking here about Stefan Bellof. Thirty years have elapsed since the German’s passing. Time, then, to reflect on a sports car world champion who might have achieved so much more
Writer Simon Arron
How good was Stefan Bellof? The statistics will ever be incomplete, but there’s evidence that – with the right opportunities – he could have extended his collection of world titles beyond the one he won during his second sports car campaign.
To add some context, Bellof was the star turn in German Formula Ford during the 1981 season, just as Ayrton Senna was in the UK. Rightly regarded as a meteor on wheels, the Brazilian moved on to dominate FF2000 in Britain and Europe – often at club-level meetings, with commensurate crowds – while Bellof graduated directly to European F2, then F1’s unofficial ante-chamber, and won his first two races. Their paths were realigned two years later in F1 – most notably in Monaco, where they accompanied Alain Prost on the podium. Had the race been allowed to continue in teeming rain, they might well subsequently have passed him. Officially Bellof’s third place was annulled because Tyrrell – accused, among other things, of using illegal ballast to comply with post-race weight checks – would later be excluded from all 1984 results. On a day such as that, though, it counted to anybody who appreciates car control.
It was a maiden F1 podium for both drivers – the first of 80 for Senna but a one-off for Bellof, whose star would be extinguished the following summer.
Here’s how he is remembered by those best placed to comment.
Tyrrell team-mate, sports car rival, now Sky F1 TV analyst
“Stefan was great fun and had an infectious, distinctive laugh – you’d always know if he was in the same restaurant.
“We often ended up glued to each other’s gearbox in our normally aspirated Tyrrells in 1984, but there was never friction between us. He was quite crafty, though. At Detroit Ken Tyrrell said, ‘If one of you is behind the other and feels he is being held up, raise your hand as you pass the pits.’ We were both in a queue, picking our way through the turbos, with me ahead, so Stefan puts his hand up as though I’m delaying him, which I wasn’t because I was also being held up. So Ken pitted me, which played into my hands because I came steaming back towards the end of the race and finished second. With me out of the way, Stefan went for it and clipped the wall at the final chicane, taking a wheel off, so that ploy didn’t work!
“At Zandvoort in ’84 we were again picking our way through the turbos and Stefan pulled an amazing move at Tarzan to get one car ahead of me. Then he’d do it again and get two cars ahead, at which stage I’d be goading myself, ‘Come on, come on…’ They’d be banzai moves, though, and when he tried another he’d wind up behind me, because that one didn’t work. That was Stefan. He knew no limits, but later on, with more experience, if somebody had directed all that raw talent and speed… He was as quick a racing driver as I’ve ever seen. Everyone talks about Senna being robbed at Monaco in 1984, but I’m sure Stefan would have passed both him and Prost had the race continued.
“Ken didn’t really want either of us to race sports cars and things were increasingly difficult between him and Stefan by mid-1985.
I remember Tim Clowes, the insurance agent, saying to me that he didn’t think Stefan would ‘make old bones’ and that always stuck in my mind. I witnessed his fatal accident, unfortunately, and rang Ken afterwards. He answered the phone, said ‘I know’ and hung up again. He was aware he’d lost a great driver and was very angry.
“The hardest thing was going to Stefan’s funeral and seeing the destruction it wrought on his family and friends. This was new territory for me and it dawned that I could potentially inflict the same on my family. I decided there and then not to attend any more racing funerals while I was still active, so consequently I missed Ayrton’s – something I mightily regret.”
Maurer F2 racer, now F1 analyst for Swedish TV
“I’d raced for Maurer’s European F2 team in 1981 and was asked to attend an end-of-season test at Paul Ricard. They wanted me to establish a benchmark time and set the car up before they tried two or three promising youngsters. Stefan was one of them.
“It was immediately obvious that he was an outstanding candidate – from his lap time, the way he worked, everything. Even before I’d had a chance to look properly at the other guys, I was telling the team to hire Stefan! He was very cheerful and had his feet on the ground, but he was also incredibly focused – a bit like Sebastian Vettel nowadays.”
German F1 writer who penned a commemorative Bellof book
“He was a great driver and a potential world champion, a point Ken Tyrrell once made to me. At the time of his death, I believe he had already agreed terms with Ferrari for the following season.
“He was friendly, very open and always in a splendid mood – you cannot imagine how easy it was to deal with him. Once, on the way to Estoril, we were both in hired Minis, driving flat out at about 130kph. For some reason Stefan’s girlfriend Angelika was in my car and photographer Jimmy Froidevaux in the other. At one point, still doing 130, Stefan pulled alongside and Jimmy wound down the window. ‘Excuse me, Stefan would like to borrow Angelika’s newspaper. He wants me to read something from it. Could you pass it across?’ So we did. That’s just the way Stefan was – always mucking around.
“As for his driving, it was like an explosion when he graduated to F2 and won straight away. There was also a race at the Nürburgring, where he came around with an absolutely massive lead at the end of the first lap – so big I assumed there must have been a monstrous pile-up. There wasn’t, though, and the others eventually appeared. Something silly put him out – a broken throttle cable, I believe – but otherwise he might have lapped the field… and that was at the Nordschleife.
“Motor racing had a very poor image in Germany in those days – drivers were regarded as suicidal maniacs, wasting precious fuel. If there had been a referendum, the sport would probably have been banned. Manfred Winkelhock had been killed in August 1985, remember. During the evening after Stefan’s accident, a guy named Rauschenbach introduced a supposedly serious sports programme on the radio and began with the question, ‘What have potatoes and German racing drivers got in common? The best parts are under the earth: Stefan Bellof died today. And now, onto the football…’ He was joking about it, can you imagine?
“Stefan wasn’t stupid, by the way. I know people say he was attempting an impossible move when he died, but he absolutely wouldn’t have tried unless he thought he could do it.”
F2 & sports car rival, now chief executive of MSV
“He was a fun guy, very relaxed and certainly brave – as he proved whenever conditions were difficult. I know everyone remembers his drive to third in the wet at Monaco in 1984. His Tyrrell was probably ideally suited to the conditions – nimble and naturally aspirated, with good throttle response against all the tricky turbos with masses of power and no grip – but he made fantastic use of it.
“I have clear memories of him racing a Porsche 956 – he was amazingly quick in those and they weren’t easy to drive: heavy steering, heavy brakes… They were particularly hard work at somewhere like the Nordschleife, which by 1983 bordered on the terrifying. You were doing 200mph in some places, with no run-off. About two thirds of the way through a lap, I came towards Pflanzgarten and saw yellow flags and debris. My initial reaction was that somebody had lost a bit of bodywork, then I thought, ‘Actually, that’s quite a lot of bodywork.’ I then saw what looked like a whole rear end and a loose wheel. After a debris trail of about 500 metres, I finally spotted the remains of Stefan’s tub. I think he’d just gone quicker and quicker until the 956 turned into an aircraft and looped, although he emerged unscathed.
“In 1985, the sports car summer had been scarred by the death of Manfred Winkelhock at Mosport Park. He was a really nice guy and we were all shell-shocked.
A couple of weeks later, during Spa practice, I suffered a blow-out at Pouhon. There was nothing like the run-off there is now and I sustained a head injury, broken leg and smashed foot. I was taken to a local hospital before being transferred by air to London.
“I was feeling very sorry for myself the following morning, having been told I might have to walk with a stick for the rest of my life – not great, aged 27 – when my brother came to visit and told me Stefan had been killed. That rather put things in perspective.”
Fredrik af Petersens
Veteran F1 writer who spoke often to Bellof in the paddock
“He lived life to the full both on and off the track and was never far from a practical joke. It was fun to talk to him about anything, not just racing. He was always interesting and had a good grasp of the wider world. It’s his positivity I most remember. Even if you were in a crabby mood, you’d have a quick chat with Stefan and he’d soon suck all the negativity out of you.”
FF1600 contemporary, now Toro Rosso team principal
“Stefan was extraordinarily fast, without any fear. He was also very open. If he didn’t like anything, he said so immediately. He had absolutely no respect, either, and would sign contracts here, there and everywhere. He just didn’t care. The big drivers all have a similar way of thinking. I have no doubt he would have been Senna’s big rival. If he had gone to Ferrari or whatever he would have enjoyed a fantastic career, I am 100 per cent convinced. He was like Senna, Michael Schumacher – like all the absolutely top guys.”
European F2 rival, now a GP analyst on German TV
“As a human being he was simply fabulous – always in a good mood and the kind of bloke you miss very much. His driving style was distinctive, because he took a tremendous number of risks, but he did it knowing that he could control the situation. In wheel-to-wheel combat you were always prepared for him to try something unusual. He was a real racing animal and I liked him.”
All-round legend and Porsche team-mate
“Stefan taught me all about the Porsche 956, he really did. When I did my first race in 1984, with Harald Grohs, after first practice I was 11 seconds off the pace – 11 f*****g seconds! Harald took me to Stefan and said, ‘Explain to Hans how to drive this thing.’ He taught me completely how to use the ground effect, brake into the corners and how to treat the kerbs.
“Stefan was fast, fast, fast. We won a race together at Imola in 1985, in the Brun Porsche, and I am proud to say even now that I shared a car with Stefan, because he was special. He had this feel for a racing car that not many had and he was a great kid, too.”
Porsche racer, Bellof fan, wore tribute helmet at Spa in May
“Stefan was my idol and a hero in Germany. I recall the day he died very clearly and a tribute helmet was my way of getting people to remember what he achieved. He is still a champion in many German race fans’ eyes. I can speak for hours to people who knew him. He was a true racer.”
Maurer F2 engineer, now Triple Eight Racing team principal
“He scores 10/10 as both racing driver and human being. What a bloke. When he landed a works Porsche drive, he rocked up at our F2 factory in a brand-new 928S, his company car – complete with Rothmans stripes. We were due to test at the Salzburgring, 90 minutes down the road, and he asked whether I fancied a go in the 928. So I took that and he used the team’s Ford Granada V6 estate. I was doing 200kph on the autobahn and all I could see in my rear-view mirror was Stefan laughing his head off while almost glued to the Porsche’s bumper.
“He could very obviously do the job. The team was relatively new when he joined, more or less straight from Formula Ford, and it takes time for things to gel. March was better structured than we were, but we still got some good results.
“We had some trick dampers – as the car came up to speed and the downforce kicked in, there was a bayonet system that locked the car down. It had a cable release activated by a cockpit lever and the driver was supposed to remember to pull this and come off the throttle during his in lap, to disengage the bayonets and allow the car to rise again. Beppe Gabbiani sometimes forgot, though, and I remember him coming into the pits at Mugello with the car still on the ground and sparks flying. The scrutineers came running over to find several blokes jumping up and down, trying to free the system and make things legal. It was quite an advanced car, but Stefan would have won races whatever he’d been driving.”
Racing school owner, ran Bellof in FF1600 and Super Vee
“In 1979, I was racing in German F3 against Georg Bellof – Stefan’s brother. Towards the end of that year we attended the same racing car show and Georg brought Stefan with him. He asked me to give Stefan a chance, almost jokingly at first, but there was a minor Formula Ford race coming up at Hockenheim and I agreed to run him. It was raining and he spun about six times, but still finished second. It wasn’t a high-class entry, but his talent was obvious and for 1980 I had Valvoline sponsorship, so he didn’t need to bring much money to join us. He came to my racing school in 1980 and began racing at the same time. He did two full Formula Ford seasons with us, in 1980 and ’81, when he won the German title. We also ran him in a few Super Vee races. We didn’t have the money for a full season, but entered him occasionally because we thought it would help his career and he won at the Norisring. He also did a few F3 races at that time, with Bertram Schäfer.
“At the 1981 Formula Ford Festival he was disqualified for excessively aggressive driving – I went to see the clerk of the course and told him he’d have cause to remember this young driver, because he was going to be a star. And from Formula Ford he moved to Maurer and won his first two races in the European F2 Championship. All right, Maurer had a double-spring suspension system, cleverly designed by Gustav Brunner, but Stefan used it well!
“You can’t say he would definitely have become world champion, because Senna was there at the same time, but he had the potential to win races and perhaps the F1 title. People like Stefan are very, very rare. In my 40 years of racing, I’ve met perhaps a handful. He had natural speed, an easy manner and great natural talent – a bit like Jochen Rindt. I realised very quickly that he had something special. He never, ever complained about the car – he just jumped in and got on with it.”
German Formula 1 writer who covered many of Bellof’s races
“The thing I most remember is his incredibly loud laugh, which could be heard from one end of the paddock to the other. He loved jokes, but was absolutely focused when racing and definitely had the kind of natural talent that could have made him world champion.
I don’t know whether he had that little bit extra you need once you become an F1 winner, the capacity to beat the very best on a regular basis. Perhaps that was less important in those days than it is now, so talent alone might have been enough. He did it in sports cars, so there’s no reason why he couldn’t have done it in F1.
“I was at Spa the day he died and predicted to a colleague that the fight between Stefan and Jacky Ickx would end in an accident, because you could see so many emotions on display – even though it was totally pointless, in the middle of a 1000km race. I saw it from behind and knew it was a big one. I eventually walked towards Eau Rouge to find out what was going on, but Jochen Mass was coming the other way and stopped me. He told me nothing could be done, that it was all over.”
b November 20 1957
Gießen, West Germany
d September 1 1985
Following older brother Georg’s lead, Bellof races karts. He switches to cars late in 1979, finishing second at Hockenheim on his Formula Ford debut. In 1980 he competes in both disciplines, winning the German kart title – two years after Georg had done likewise – and finishing fourth in the national FF1600 series.
Wins German FF1600 title and contests selected F3 and Super Vee races, to broaden his experience.
Having been uncertain whether he could raise an F3 budget, he graduates instead to European F2 with Maurer: he wins the opening two races and finishes fourth in the championship. Makes World Sports Car Championship debut with Kremer.
Ralt-Honda dominates European F2. Bellof puts his Maurer on pole in Pau, but is only ninth in the final standings. Joins factory Porsche team in the WSCC. Wins first time out at Silverstone, with Derek Bell, and qualifies on pole at the Nordschleife – by five seconds – with a 6min 11.13sec lap, an outright circuit record. Somersaults out of the race shortly after setting the fastest race lap ever seen at the track.
Enters F1 world championship with Tyrrell. Finishes third at rain-affected Monaco. Takes part in nine of 11 WSCC rounds, winning six and taking the world title.
Continues in F1 with Tyrrell. Contests selected WSCC races with Brun Porsche. During the fourth of these, at Spa, he crashes at Eau Rouge after a failed attempt to pass Jacky Ickx’s works 956. The story ends against an unprotected barrier beyond a negligible grass run-off area.