The timid Stefan Bellof played tennis, squash, sailed and skied. Yet most of all, he excelled at racing. Images of him in the nimble black Tyrrell remain of his F1 legacy, along with the thought of what could have been.
Stefan Bellof was born in West Germany in 1957, and started karting when he was 16, two years after his older brother Georg started racing. Between 1976 and 1980, with proper funding by their father, both brothers clinched multiple national karting titles.
At the end of 1979, after six years of karting, Stefan’s rapid rise through the ranks of motorsport began. He competed in the last race of the German 1600cc Formula Ford season and finished second, and in his full season of 1980 he clinched the title. In 1981 he again won the 1600cc Formula Ford title, this time at an international level and that same year he also raced in Formula Three. Despite missing the first two races he almost took the championship from far more experienced rivals. Aside from open wheel racing, he also competed in the Volkswagen Golf cup, winning one race.
Bellof was backed by BMW in 1982 and joined Formula Two and his debut race at Silverstone was simply astonishing. After qualifying in ninth, he charged through the field in showery conditions and won the race by a staggering margin of twenty-one seconds. Bellof’s talent was undisputed, but the rest of the season proved disappointing, as did his 1983 season, despite taking another victory at Jarama.
Perhaps, just perhaps, Bellof was a better sportscar driver. After some outings in a privateer team, he was signed by the factory Porsche outfit, backed by Rothmans, for the 1983 season. Bellof won the 1000 Kilometres of Silverstone, and at the old Nordschleife hetook pole position by a massive margin of five seconds. During the race Bellof started lapping twenty seconds faster than his nearest rivals. Despite a massive lead, he lost control and crashed heavily at Pflanzgarten (the corner would later be named Stefan-Bellof-S). Two more wins followed, and he ended the World Sportscar season in fourth place.
Bellof remained at Rothmans Porsche for 1984, dominating the season, winning over half the races and taking the title. Remarkably, he also won the DRM title (the predecessor of the current DTM), also driving for Porsche.
In sportscars Bellof consistently beat renowned drivers like Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass and Derek Bell, so it was only natural that at the end of the 1983 season Formula One teams started to show interest. He drove in the famous test for McLaren with Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle at Silverstone. The three posted near identical times, although Senna got to do two runs, keeping his foot down and blowing up the engine (Ron Dennis was not impressed).
McLaren did actually line up Bellof for the 1983 European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, but, as the Woking-outfit was sponsored by Marlboro, a veto from Porsche’s sponsor Rothmans prevented Bellof from making his debut. Bellof might have then raced for McLaren in 1984, but Alain Prost suddenly became available, taking the seat instead.
But the rookies from that day at Silverstone did make it to Formula One in 1984; Senna joined Toleman, while Ken Tyrrell signed both Brundle and Bellof. The team was cash-strapped and ran its car in two different liveries: Brundle in the number three car, sponsored by Yardley Gold, with Bellof in the number four, sponsored by Maredo. Tyrrell was the only team running a naturally aspirated engine, about 150 horsepower down on their turbo rivals. Regardless, the two rookies impressed.
While Brundle took second in Detroit, Bellof finished third in the famous rain-shortened Monaco Grand Prix, behind Prost and Senna.
Brundle spoke about Bellof as ‘the closest the nearest thing to Gilles Villeneuve we had seen’. Bellof had an uncanny feel for the car and blinding reflexes going flat-out, throwing his car into corners and taking the fullest of risks.
Brundle once remarked; “I remember the race at Detroit, and that Ken Tyrrell was convinced that Stefan was quicker than me, even though I’d qualified higher up the grid. We had a system at Tyrrell in those pre-radio days whereby if one of us thought we were quicker than the other, we would hold our hand up past the pits. I saw Stefan’s hand, even though I had a queue of turbos on my nosecone. So convinced was Ken that Stefan was quicker than me, that he brought me in for a fresh set of tyres. The next lap, no doubt trying to prove he was faster, Stefan put it into the wall. That wasn’t untypical of Bellof. He was a real racer and definitely a great overtaker, but he did take risks.”
Bellof missed the races in Germany and Austria for sportscar duties, as he was still contracted to Rothmans Porsche, who had the first-call on the German. Later on in the season, it appeared that Tyrrell’s cars had been running underweight in races, only to be topped up with lead ballast in the final pitstops. The team, as punishment, were excluded from all further races and retroactively disqualified from all its results that year.
1985 came and Bellof remained with the Tyrrell team. He decided against driving for the factory Porsche sportscar operation to concentrate more on Formula One, and although he missed the opening two races as Stefan Johansson was in the car, he impressed again at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril. Having qualified back in 21st, he slithered across the soaked track through to sixth place. Bellof took his final points in Formula One, with a fourth place in Detroit. His final race was at Zandvoort, were he retired with an engine failure.
In between the Dutch and Italian Grand Prix — while a meeting for the 1986 season with Enzo Ferrari in Monza was scheduled — Bellof traveled to Belgium for the 1000 Kilometres of Spa-Francorchamps, driving for the private Brun Porsche team. He knew the car wasn’t as good as the Rothmans Porsche, but he wanted to drive at Spa anyway because he felt the nature of the track would give him a shot at victory. (Ken Tyrrell disapproved of Bellof racing outside Formula One, but that didn’t stop him either.)
On lap 78, after just having taken over from partner Thierry Boutsen, Bellof raced Jacky Icxk’s Rothmans Porsche out of La Source and down the hill to Eau Rouge. Placing his car on the left of Ickx’s, there just wasn’t enough room for the both of them, and when rivals heard afterwards what Bellof had done, they shouted, “He did what? He tried to overtake through Eau Rouge?”
Bellof’s right front tyre hit the left rear of Icxk’s works Porsche, sending both cars spinning into the barriers. Bellof’s car hit it straight on, breaking through the guardrail and hitting the secondary wall. While Ickx climbed out of his wreckage, Bellof’s car disintegrated and caught fire. It took over ten minutes to get the German from the wreck, and before reaching the on-track medical facility, Stefan Bellof was pronounced dead.
Ken Tyrrell later recalled; “He was going to Ferrari for 1986, and although I hated the idea of him leaving my team, it was inevitable that one of the big guns would get him. Who knows what he might have achieved? He was the great lost talent, wasn’t he? Incredibly fast and brave and a lovely lad too.”
Former teammate Brundle remembers the lighter side; “During our time at Tyrrell I got to know Stefan quite well. He had an infectious laugh that could fill any restaurant or hotel lobby. I hear it now in my head.”
Through the loss of such a talent like Stefan Bellof, teams began to tighten their contractual hold on their drivers, to the point where competing between series became almost obsolete. The other part of his legacy is that his inspirational wet weather performances made him the racing idol of a young Michael Schumacher.
Years after that fateful day at Spa, Jacky Ickx went to see Bellof’s grieving girlfriend. In an interview, she said, about the conversation with Ickx. “We talked about everything. He was crying, I was crying. I never thought ill of him, it was a chain of unfortunate circumstances. It was just fate.”