Stefan Bellof 1957-1985
Of all the lost talents spread so liberally across the history of Grand Prix racing, the story of Stefan Bellof is perhaps the most tragic. His all too brief career encompassed twenty Grands Prix for Tyrrell and nine World Sportscar Championship wins, a cache which does no justice whatsoever to his talent.
By the early eighties Germany was something of an underachiever in modern Formula One. Pre-war great Hans Stuck had appeared in a small handful of Grand Prix, but was to close to retirement to have any impact on the Championship. Wolfgang von Trips seemed to have taken the title, but Death was to cheat him almost at the final hurdle. Since then, only Jochen Mass had taken a Grand Prix win for Germany, and that at the shortened 1975 Spanish round. Stefan Bellof was another man who seemed to be ready to break that duck, and the brightest hope for some time.
He was something of a late starter, with his first car race coming at the age of 23, in 1981. Bellof entered the German National Formula Ford 1600 Championship, and took the title at his first attempt before winning the International version in 1982. He was signed to drive a Ralt in the last seven rounds of the Formula Three Championship, and caused a stir when he won his third race in the category. He would add a further two victories, and move up to Formula Two for 1982. Signing for Willi Maurer's team, using their own chassis and powerful BMW engines. Maurer also took over management of Bellof's career. The outlook was good, although Maurer was heavily criticised for signing the youngster over the proven Mike Thackwell for the third car alongside Beppe Gabbiani and Peter Schindler.
Bellof silenced his critics by dominating the wet International Trophy race at Silverstone, equalling Dave Morgan's long-standing record of winning his F2 debut. A fortnight later he took the Jim Clark Memorial Trophy, with a superb win at Hockenheim. However, a valve failure at Thruxton was just the start of a decline in form for the team, with engine troubles and a chassis which was too delicate for Bellof's aggressive style, meaning he didn't win another race that year. He stayed on with Maurer in 1983, but his main focus was shifting already. Porsche, quick to realise the potential of having the young German star in one of their cars, signed him for its Rothmans-backed works team. He astonished those in the sport by driving the big 956 in exactly the same fashion he threw his single-seaters around, and his form was devastating. Paired with Derek Bell, he demolished lap records wherever possible.
At one of the last international races held at the old Nordschleife circuit in May, for example, he lapped the beast in an amazing 6:11.13, a full 20s faster than Bell had managed the day before in the same car, and 5.5s faster than Mass in the second Rothmans Porsche. In the race itself Bellof tore away, pulling away at a rate of six seconds per lap from Mass. However, Bell drove at a more reduced rate after their switch, and old 'Ring-master Jacky Ickx, taking over from Mass, passed him. Bellof's next stint rather summed up his whole season. He shot off after Mass, passing him, leading him by 29 seconds and then engaging in a titanic duel with the stopwatch, resulting in a 6m 25.91s lap (with an average speed of 120.75mph) before spinning at Pflanzgarten and managing to almost completely destroy the car after a 160mph shunt into the barriers. If Stefan was rather unfazed by this, Mass crept past the wreckage, fully expecting the young German to be dead, but instead seeing Bellof standing on the other side of the barrier, waving at him.
Bellof had a great season: after teething troubles with the latest evolution of the 956 saw him 7th at Monza, he came good at Silverstone, his second drive for the team, where he and Bell drove to a fine win. At Spa, where the duo came second after team orders kept them behind local hero Ickx (the team manager Norbert Singer made sure Bell had the final stint, as he was not sure that Bellof would follow his instructions). A lengthy pitstop at Brands Hatch saw Bellof undertake a breathless charge to finish third, but it was his fault as he had spun the Porsche and lost a piece of the bodywork. With the Championship all but wrapped up, he and Bell then took wins at the closing two rounds - Kyalami, lapping the field in the rain, and Fuji.
Formula 2 was less successful, with more reliability trouble, to which Maurer's answer was to blame everyone else. Maurer's character (which rival driver Jonathan Palmer would liken to that of ATS (and later Rial) boss Günter Schmidt) meant an unhealthy turnover of staff and engineering crew, and thus no stability or organisation that was so important in F2. He was, however, awarded a win at Jarama after the dominant Casio Ralt-Hondas of Palmer and Thackwell, as well as the third-placed AGS of Philippe Streiff, were disqualified, giving Bellof and Alain Ferté a Maurer one-two.
Formula One teams were beginning to pay attention: Ickx, Mass and Bell were no slouches, and yet on raw speed Bellof was eating them alive. However, as a first priority he was tied to Rothmans Porsche for 1984, and this tended to scare off the big teams, who wanted first call. Rothmans also didn't want him to drive for a team with tobacco sponsorship, ruling out the likes of McLaren and Lotus. He did test for the former, along with Brundle and Senna, and impressed, but the Rothmans veto and the sudden availability of Alain Prost undid any chances of a seat with the team. There were several rumours that he was going to race in a second ATS-BMW during the later European rounds of the 1983 series, but this never happened - probably for the best, as the team were unable to prepare their sole entry for Manfred Winkelhock properly. A drive in Formula One did come his way, though. After an impressive test at Paul Ricard, Ken Tyrrell reasoned that signing the next great driver, and only running him at the races where he wasn't driving for Porsche, was better than not running him at all. Also, the Tyrrell team didn't have to worry about a big money JPS or Marlboro contract annoying Rothmans, as the team was incredibly poor (allowing Bellof to race in his Rothmans overalls). They were the only team not to run a turbocharged engine in 1984, relying on the DFY version of Costin & Duckworth's classic V8.
Despite Michele Alboreto's win at Detroit, finances were as strained as ever at Tyrrell. The Italian had left for Ferrari, and only scored on one other occasion, while American Danny Sullivan had proven a costly flop, with just a 5th at Monaco to his name. The lucrative United Colours of Benetton sponsorship had also gone, to Euroracing and Alfa Romeo. The team's only sponsorship at the start of the year came from the Racing for Britain scheme, responsible for helping the career of new team-leader Martin Brundle (hot from his legendary British Formula 3 title fight with Ayrton Senna). However, things were not without hope - 1984 would see a fuel limit set for the first time, meaning the thirsty turbocharged engines would have to keep an eye on their fuel consumption. The Tyrrells had no such worries, and the capacity for the nimble, responsive cars to be driven flat-out by the eager young drivers was cause for optimism.
The season-opener at the Jacarepagua circuit in Rio saw Bellof qualify 22nd, four places behind Brundle. He ran with the British driver early on, but his throttle jammed after 11 laps and he span off. Brundle went on to finish a determined 5th. The second round at Kyalami saw him start 24th, a place ahead of Brundle, and another strong race was ended when a loose wheel sent him ploughing into the Crowthorne sand trap. He again outqualified his team-mate at Zolder in 21st (his car bearing sponsorship from Maredo for the first time), but his race was what everyone was talking about. An electrifying drive saw him pass cars as if they weren't there, and a tigering performance was rewarded with 6th place. His finesse and aggression were again on display at Imola, where he started 21st again, and outdid himself by finishing in 5th.
On the Sunday morning before the Monaco Grand Prix, faces were long in the Tyrrell garage. Hopes had been high of a good result on the circuit where power didn't matter as much, but Brundle had suffered a brake failure in the closing minutes of qualifying while on a quick run, and had written off his car at Tabac. On the plus side, this meant Stefan kept his place in 20th, and last, on the grid. Torrential rain graced the race itself, and Tyrrell told Bellof to take it easy, and hope that enough of the turbo boys aquaplaned off. But Stefan was having none of this. On the first lap, he moved past five people, leaving him 13th as the two Renaults had been squeezed by Arnoux at Ste Devote. He then began to pick off some of the leading lights of the day on a circuit not exactly renowned for passing opportunities, to say the least. He had an extended tussle with Keke Rosberg, but even the gritty Finn was forced to concede. He moved up to fourth when Nigel Mansell slammed his Lotus into the wall, and then third as he forced his way past Arnoux, despite the Frenchman's attempt to shove him into the wall at Mirabeau. He then reeled Ayrton Senna in at a rate of knots as the Brazilian carved into a brake-troubled Alain Prost's lead. However, it was not to be and despite the rain being no worse than it was at the start, the red flag was held out after 31 laps. People are quick to point to this as a race stolen from Senna, but had the current pace continued, Bellof would have passed both. The biggest question is whether he would have thrown it into the barriers or not, however...
Montreal saw an inevitable downturn, a broken driveshaft ending his race - although he did appear in the Drivers v Press football match. The only reason he was able to attend an event which clashed with the Le Mans 24 Hours was because Porsche withdrew their official works entries in protest of last-minute regulation changes; otherwise Bellof would have been driving one of their works cars. At Detroit he ran with Brundle, who ended up second, but clouted the pit wall and limped round a lap before retiring. This caused some consternation in the Tyrrell pits, as Bellof had been due in for his water stop the next lap... However, this was small potatoes compared to what the team was about to go through. In post-race scrutinising officials tested the water and found impurities and lead shot. Samples were sent away for proper analysis, and Ken Tyrrell was summoned to Paris for a meeting on July 18. Until then the team was allowed to race under appeal. At the shambolic Dallas Grand Prix things got worse when Brundle broke his ankles after a crash in Friday Practice. Bellof clipped a wall and retired early on.
Between the Dallas race and the British Grand Prix the Paris meeting resulted in the expulsion of the team from any further participation in the Championship, and the negating of all points and placings already achieved. Tyrrell appealed, and gained the right to run the cars at Silverstone, thanks to the support of the RAC, with Stefan Johansson replacing Brundle. To fend off possible complications should Tyrrell be found guilty, 27 cars were allowed to start. Bellof ran near the back, narrowly avoiding Palmer's race-stopping shunt, and coming home 11th.
His home race saw him absent with Porsche, and Mike Thackwell stood in. His return couldn't help the ever more beleaguered Tyrrell team at the flat-out Österreichring, as the power nature of the circuit saw both cars fail to qualify. To add to this, his 27th best time was disallowed as his car was 3kg underweight - not what Tyrrell needed in the circumstances. Another low-key outing a Zandvoort followed. Then came the final hearing on the ballast problem, which lasted two days before the appeal was rejected. Bellof, meanwhile, was having a fine season with Rothmans Porsche. He won the opening round of the Championship at Monza, again partnering Bell. Further wins with Bell followed at the Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps and Sandown Park, as well as partnering John Watson at Fuji, and Bellof took the 1984 title. He also won the national German Endurance title, again for Porsche.
For 1985 he decided to concentrate on Formula One. Ken Tyrrell was trying to secure turbocharged engines for the season, but for now the team had to make do with the DFY. Bellof also signed a sportscar deal with Walter Brun's team, again running a Porsche 956, although Tyrrell would have priority. However, for the opening round in Brazil he found himself snubbed in favour of Stefan Johansson when Tyrrell suspended him. He was already a little on Tyrrell's bad side after Maurer had made threats to sue the team after the 1984 disqualification, and when the German driver refused to remove a personal sponsor's logo from his overalls, the team suspended him. Johansson, whose own drive with Toleman had failed to materialise, was kicking around the paddock in case anything opened up, and having driven the 012 the previous year was happy to take over.
sponsorship conflict was soon cleared up after the race (Johansson had
been signed by Ferrari to replace Rene Arnoux by then anyway), and at
Estoril the rain gave him the chance to prove himself. While Senna waltzed
off into the distance to score his first win, Bellof recovered from
an early spin (after which Manfred Winkelhock punched a big hole in
the front of the Tyrrell) to move up to a superb 6th, following Nigel
Mansell's Williams across the line, and narrowly avoiding being caught
up in the latter's finish-line spin. It was his first officially recognised
The Cosworth let him down early on at San Marino, as the team struggled to find the sponsors needed to complete the new Renault turbo-powered 013. He missed out on qualification at Monaco, the year-old car not up to making the 20-car grid. Canada saw a battling performance go unrewarded with 11th place, but the Detroit street circuit gave him a chance to shine. He again shadowed team-mate Brundle until the Englishman ploughed into Philippe Alliot's RAM. Despite contriving to lose a huge panel off the front of his car Bellof hunted down Alboreto's Ferrari, and was closing on him for third when Stefan's eye caught the fuel meter reading 'empty' and he eased off to settle for 4th place, the final points scored by the DFV/Y.
The new Renault-engined car was ready for Ricard, but only one was available and it was given to team leader Brundle. Stefan was lost in the pack at the speed circuit, coming home 13th, 3 laps down - the DFY giving away around 30mph down the endless Mistral straight. Brundle again got the turbo at Silverstone, and - once more with a huge straight-line speed disadvantage - Bellof finished 11th out of 11, six laps down. He was finally given a Renault-engined car at the Neue Nürburgring for his home race, and immediately outpaced Brundle, qualifying seven places ahead of him, and finishing 8th to the Englishman's tenth. He might have scored in Austria, but overzealous use of the turbo saw him out of fuel two laps from the end. The engine then blew up altogether at Zandvoort, but no-one could imagine what was to happen before the next race.
Bellof had found that Brun's Porsches weren't in the same league as the works machines, but had still partnered Thierry Boutsen to a fine third in the season opener at Mugello. Then results tailed off somewhat, though the duo won the national Norisberg round as well. However, come the Spa 1000kms Bellof felt that the driver's track nature of the circuit gave him a chance. Coming up Eau Rouge, he tried to force his car past the works machine of Ickx on the outside line - an astonishing move. The Porsches touched, and were thrown into the barriers. This just three weeks after the death - in Kremer's 956 - of compatriot Manfred Winkelhock at the Mosport round. Stefan died from his injuries despite the best efforts of the safety crews (aided by Ickx). Combined with Jonathan Palmer's practice crash, which curtailed the Englishman's season with Zakspeed, it meant the end of part-time drives in other categories for Grand Prix drivers
Since his death his legend has increased, with Bellof scoring repeatedly good placings in various specialist press polls. Michael Schumacher has gone on the record stating Bellof was his hero, and the seven-times' world champion's early years in Cosworth-powered Benettons certainly show the influence. In more recent years, there seems to be a solid belief that Bellof had signed for Ferrari shortly before his death, but this seems to be sentimentality from the German press. It would seem Bellof was scheduled to meet Enzo Ferrari a few days after the fateful Spa race, but whether a solid offer would have been forthcoming is unknown.
Of course, to counter the praise there exists a backlash. There are those who say he was no faster than Brundle, and point to the Englishman's vague underacheivement in his subsequent career. Brundle's strangely unsatisfying career during the 1990s (where he seemed to arrive in a number of good teams at just the wrong time and - his season at Benetton aside - had a habit of turning in front-line drives in three or four races per season and disappearing in the rest) and subsequent feckless Coulthard-cheering for TV coverage tends to obscure that he was an exciting prospect himself back in the day. Fighting tooth and nail with Senna in British Formula 3 and his initial form for Tyrrell were not the marks of an average driver, but he never quite seemed to recover from his ankle injuries sustained at Dallas, and stagnated in the late-1980s.
There are also those who point out that, had Bellof turned up in a 1986 Ferrari, he would have done no better with the difficult F186 than Alboreto and Johansson did. However, his natural brio could well have resulted in the same sort of performances that the difficult early 1980s would bring out of Gilles Villeneuve, or the slow start to the Jean Todt revolution drew from Jean Alesi. Ken Tyrrell, however, described him as the greatest natural talent he had worked with since Stewart, and there were few more accurate scouts in the paddock. Bellof's was a talent that shone brightly whatever he drove.