Willy Mairesse

Born:
1st October 1928
Momignies, Wallonia
Died:
2nd September 1969 (Aged 40)
Ostend, West Flanders, suicide
Nationality:
Belgian
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

Willy Mairesse’s career was dogged by accidents and ill-fortune and his life ended in despair.

Background and early racing career

The son of a wealthy timber merchant, Mairesse was already in his mid-twenties when he drove a Porsche 356 on the 1953 Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. His Mercedes-Benz 300SL won the event three years later and he started his circuit racing career with the car. He won the 1957 Spa 500Kms GT race and was third as the category supported that year’s German Grand Prix.

That attracted the attention of Jacques Swaters and his Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 250 GT was second in both the 1958 Reims 12 Hours and 1959 Tour de France Automobile. There were also several accidents and a growing rivalry with compatriot Olivier Gendebien but Mairesse was invited to join Scuderia Ferrari for the 1960 Targa Florio.

Formula 1 and sports cars with Ferrari

Fourth on his debut for the team and third in the Nürburgring 1000Kms, his season included the first of successive victories in the Tour de France Automobile despite crashing his private Ferrari 250GT into a ditch at one point. Mairesse also made his Formula 1 debut in the 1960 Belgian GP in a Ferrari Dino 246 and finished third at Monza – the best result of his GP career. He was retained in the endurance team for 1961 and finished second at Sebring and Le Mans.

An infrequent Ferrari GP driver over the next three seasons, he opened 1962 with non-championship F1 success at Brussels and victory in the Targa Florio. His Ferrari Dino 156 briefly led the Belgian GP and he was disputing second position with Trevor Taylor when their cars touched at Blanchimont. Taylor was unhurt in the ensuing crash but Mairesse suffered burns and leg injuries. He was not fit to drive until the Italian GP which he finished in fourth position.

Winner in the 1963 Nürburgring 1000Kms with John Surtees and second at Sebring and the Targa Florio – Mairesse was among the favourites to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. Again partnered by Surtees, he was leading the race when their Ferrari 250P caught fire entering the Esses after a refueling mishap.

Burnt again, he returned at the German GP only to crash heavily after carrying too much speed over the Flugplatz. A young ambulance man was killed as the Ferrari Dino 156 disintegrated and Mairesse broke a leg and both arms.

Sports cars and his final accident

It was over a year before he raced again but his 1965 sports car campaign included victory in the GT Spa GP and a class-winning third place finish at Le Mans with "Beurlys" and Ecurie Francorchamps’ Ferrari 275GTB.

A switch to Ecurie Filipinetti for 1966 brought his final major victory – sharing the winning Porsche 906 with Herbert Müller in the Targa Florio. Third at Le Mans once more in 1967 in an Ecurie Nationale Belge Ferrari 330P4, Mairesse crashed on the opening lap a year later. He had failed to close his Ford GT40’s door properly after the traditional Le Mans start and was struggling to close it on the Mulsanne Straight when he lost control at over 150mph and disappeared into the trees.

The Belgian suffered head injuries and was left in a coma. He regained consciousness two weeks later but recuperation was slow and a return to racing impossible. Mairesse took a fatal overdose of sleeping pills in an Ostend hotel room 11 months after that final accident.