In this series, Carboretta will lend colour to those motorsport figures that time forgot. Whilst fans bemoan the PR-driven racers of today, the past is littered with characters of genuine complexity.
In this, the second instalment, we take a closer look at Stefan Bellof, one of the most spectacular drivers of the 1980’s and Senna’s lost rival.
“He was clearly the best German driver since before the war. He was incredibly brave and so fast. He was also very, very easy to like. It was hard to be cross with him and he probably got away with things he otherwise wouldn’t have because of that…” -Ken Tyrell.
It is late summer in Belgium. The leaves are beginning to wither and fall from the imposing trunks of the Ardennes forest. Shrieks and echoes can be heard from the circuit that passes through them so beguilingly. It is the 1985 Spa 1000Kms and the teams are starting to rotate drivers at the end of the opening stint. In the Porsche garage, Jochen Mass leaps from his 962C, handing over the reins to local hero Jacky Ickx. Brun Motorsport will shortly do the same with Thierry Boutsen and Stefan Bellof.
Now exposed to the undulating course, Bellof is chasing Ickx, his privateer 956 Porsche seated on a knife-edge in his heated chase of the Belgian legend. On the 78th lap, exiting the La Source hairpin, Bellof smells an opportunity. Now firmly on Ickx’s tail, the young German decides to jink left during the opening moments of the Eau Rouge sequence, in an effort to glide around the outside of the works Porsche.
That chink of light Bellof instinctively saw snapped into infinite darkness, and, in that moment, one of the world’s fastest drivers lost his life. Tapping the rear of Ickx’s car, Bellof speared head-first into the tyre-barrier, folding the car like paper. There was nothing the marshals or the unhurt Ickx could do.
Quite aside from the personal tragedy, motor racing lost out badly that afternoon. Stefan Bellof was a high-wire act, a ticking time bomb, but arguably the only driver capable of rivalling Senna for both pure speed and an unsettling aversion to fear. An over-striving nut-case, or a future legend. Akin to the great Brazilian, whatever opinion contemporaries had of Bellof, they were certainly strong ones.
Bellof’s career was unconventional from the very beginning. Only making the jump from karts to cars in his twenties, the German managed to land a works Porsche drive in the World Endurance Championship for 1983, after enjoying a fruitful and often spectacular junior career. Bellof was easily the fastest sports-car driver of his time, becoming World Champion with the Stuttgart marque the following season.
It was ironic that such an acrobatic, hot-headed young charger like Bellof would enjoy his greatest successes in a discipline centred around intelligent, smooth driving skill rather than raw talent.
This is not to say that blistering speed did not have its advantages. Talking to Motorsport Magazine, Walter Lechner, a paddock figure close to Stefan at the time, admitted: “The possibility of what could be done with a 956 only became clear when Stefan got into one…”
“It was like climbing a mountain making it go really quick, because its ground effect meant unless you really pushed the car it just understeered. Logic would say you needed to lift off but if you stayed hard on the throttle it would stick to the track. He realised this immediately and the established guys — Ickx, Mass, Stuck, Wollek — were left behind.”
And then there was the Nordschleife record of ’83. Despite the efforts of pretty much everyone, Bellof still holds an astounding lap record at the fearsome ‘Green Hell’, of 6:11:13. That is forty-seven seconds quicker than Niki Lauda in the Ferrari 312T, whose time was set in 1975. Perhaps more tellingly, he was also five seconds faster than his nearest competitor. Such heroics might have been unnecessary in sportscar racing, but boy was it telling.
This incredible natural gift was clearly better suited to Formula One, though, where his scintillating speed could be unleashed lap after lap. It does seems odd saying this in 2016, an age in which these roles have been reversed, but hey hum.
Bellof’s break came late in 1983, during the infamous McLaren young driver’s test involving F3 hot-shots Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle.
With Senna having blown the superior DFY engine, Bellof and Brundle had to make do with the ageing DFV. The duo were estimated to be as quick as Senna after lap-times had been adjusted, and were promptly signed by Ken Tyrell for 1984.
Burdened by an uncompetitive package (Ken was unwilling to stump up for the far superior turbo power-plants), Bellof nevertheless made an exceptional impression, mostly because of one race in particular…
Monaco 1984 is remembered as the race that formed the Ayrton Senna legend. It signalled to the world that one of the greatest talents ever to sit in a Grand Prix car had arrived, and wasn’t going anywhere but forwards. It’s referred to in hushed tones by men with ridiculous beards as Senna’s day of days.
Whilst Senna was indeed magnificent in his unfancied Toleman – putting excruciating pressure on Formula One’s standard bearer, Alain Prost – it was actually Bellof who was catching them both, hand over fist. It was reckoned that if the race hadn’t been stopped, the German would’ve won convincingly.
The rain was atrocious. So bad, in fact, that the field, with their spooling, torque vomiting turbos, were spinning off left, right and centre. To stay on track, you needed acrobatic reactions or a more progressive N/A engine. Stefan Bellof had both.
Unfortunately, Bellof’s astounding drive was rather forgotten in the moment, with Senna’s more eye-catching second place garnering most of the plaudits. If it wasn’t for Stefan’s tragic demise, we might have counted this as the first of many on-track clashes between the two. As it was, they barely crossed swords again.
We are jumping ahead of ourselves, however. The incredible performance – in only Bellof’s sixth Grand Prix — was enough to attract the attention of Enzo Ferrari. The Scuderia had initially wanted to sign him for 1985, but complications with terminating incumbent Rene Arnoux’s contract prevented any sudden movements. An agreement was nevertheless reached for 1986, leaving Stefan quite content with another year driving for the rapidly declining Tyrell.
The remainder of his short Grand Prix career passed with little fan-fare. Bellof’s greatest drives were all ahead of him, with Ferrari and beyond. 1985 was a holding station, Bellof on standby until he could unleash that immense talent within a chassis worthy of it. Unfortunately, he never lived to reap the rewards of his electrifying performance.
Without wishing to sound callous, this was of Bellof’s own making. That same recklessness that worked so effectively in Monaco, blasting through the spray where others lifted, led him into temptation.
The move on Ickx was never on. Two huge, be-winged endurance cars cannot physically fit side-by-side through Eau Rouge. It was Bellof’s insatiable appetite for doing the impossible that killed him. As I’ve previously asked of Villeneuve, perhaps it was an inevitable by-product of this unharnessed genius.
It was a dosage of talent almost too overwhelming for a mortal to come to terms with, and to concentrate down into one lap a weekend. Senna came the closest to balancing that flamboyant intensity with calculated aggression, but Bellof’s was not tamed in the slightest. It was what made him so loved.
Patience, forethought and discipline were never attributes that Stefan lived by. Similarly to his spiritual forebear – Gilles Villeneuve – Bellof was an uncomplicated, smiling young bloke, who approached driving a racing car in the same open, nonchalant manner with which he greeted life itself. To them both, being fast was about winning every corner, not championship trophies.
They paid the ultimate price for such a swashbuckling ethos.
The tragedy of Bellof’s story is multi-faceted. On the one hand, the world lost a genuinely warm character, someone who radiated pleasantness and laughter wherever he went. Motorsport lost a truly brilliant driver, who would no doubt have gone on to win multiple World Championships.
Most of all though, Bellof never tasted the success his skill and determination demanded. He died having officially scored four lonely points, an enormous disservice to his blinding potential.
Bellof left behind one hell of a legacy. That much is indisputable.