Tragic Hero: Stefan Bellof
Bellof was on his way to becoming one of the mightiest drivers the sport has ever seen
Stefan Bellof was never better—and never worse—than when he had something to prove.
And Bellof always had something to prove, even if it was just a minor personal point, created from whole cloth to maximize motivation. Raw talent (emphasis on "raw") allowed the German to drive on the knife's edge, lap after lap. Luck, or the lack of it, determined whether he stayed on that edge or fell off to one side.
On May 28, 1983, a lucky Bellof qualified his Porsche 956 at the Nürburgring Nordschleife track in Germany for the ADAC Nürburgring 1000 km. In traffic, on older tires, and with a nearly full tank of fuel, Bellof ran a lap of 6 minutes, 11.13 seconds at an average speed of 202.053 kph (125.550 mph). Jaws dropped, and stopwatches were checked to see if they were working properly. Never had a racer averaged more than 200 kph here. Some sort of timing mistake, perhaps?
No, it was just Bellof. Six of the seven top cars were 956s, but Bellof was nearly 6 seconds quicker than the next best. The comparatively inexperienced upstart had proven two things. First, that he could embarrass his fellow factory Porsche drivers, which included Jochen Mass, Jacky Ickx, Stefan Johansson, Bob Wollek, Jan Lammers, Jonathan Palmer, David Hobbs, and Bellof's own co-driver, Derek Bell.
Bellof is a certified tragic hero, and new fans have embraced his legend, incredible drives, and comparably incredible crashes.
And second, that he could even embarrass Keke Rosberg, then the reigning Formula 1 world champion. Rosberg drove a Williams in F1 but was guest-starring at the 'Ring in a 956 like Bellof's.
That was on a Saturday. Sunday, during the race, bad luck, enhanced by arrogance, shoved Bellof right off the knife's edge.
Eighteen laps in, Bellof, still feeling lucky, drove the fastest race lap ever run at the Nürburgring: 6:25.91. Two laps later, with a 30-second lead, he crested the hill at Pflanzgarten, became airborne, and flipped. The car came to rest upright. Bellof was uninjured, and he signed autographs for fans lining the fence until track workers finished the cleanup.
Bellof crashed because he was, once again, proving a point. Porsche engineers told him it was impossible to take Pflanzgarten flat-out. Bellof thought otherwise. He was mistaken.
Two years later, the German crashed another 956 at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. This time, he did not walk away. He was 27.
Outside of Germany, Bellof is best remembered for that near-ethereal Nürburgring qualifying lap, a record that went unbeaten for so long. Inside his home country, the enduring, internet-enhanced Bellof legacy suggests that had he lived, he could well have become Germany's next F1 champ. This was during a barren period, well before Michael Schumacher's dominant era, though Schumi, a teen when Bellof died, often cited his countryman as a key inspiration, an opinion seconded by other German drivers, including Timo Bernhard.
Bellof fans—and there are more than you might guess for a driver 33 years gone, most of them centered in Germany but scattered across Europe and beyond—were conflicted when Porsche returned to the Nürburgring to break the record. To Bellof devotees and reportedly even some members of his family, Porsche's campaign smacked of a pricey publicity stunt at the expense of their idol. After all, Bellof set his mark during qualifying, meaning he had to steer around slower cars. His 956 was race-legal, while the 919 Hybrid Evo Bernhard drove was tuned far beyond the rules that governed the model when it dominated the premier LMP1 class in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Porsche management in general and Bernhard in particular were profoundly sensitive about eclipsing an almost mythical record set by a fellow Porsche factory driver. Bellof is a certified tragic hero, and new fans have embraced his legend, drawn by online archived videos that showcase his incredible drives and comparably incredible crashes. With his long, typically tousled hair, big, toothy grin, and laughs aplenty, Bellof's easy manner even won over fellow drivers.
"Everyone liked Stefan immensely," teammate and co-driver Bell said. "Well, maybe except for Jacky Ickx."
Ickx, now 73, is the Belgian racer who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans six times—three of those victories driving with Bell—and won eight F1 races, as well as the tough Bathurst 1000 and the Paris-Dakar Rally. If there was any driver who gave Bellof a reason to prove himself, it was Ickx. It cost Bellof his life.
Bellof's pro racing career started with a dare. At the end of 1981, he was disqualified from the Formula Ford Festival race at Brands Hatch in England after making contact with another car. Bellof was angry. Through his manager—Bellof didn't yet speak English—he told the race officials to "watch my career, because I'll be back next year, and I'll win my first Formula 2 race."
In March 1982, Bellof did just that, driving a privateer car against a field full of factory-backed entries. A year later he became the youngest driver to date to sign with the Porsche factory. He was assigned to the potent Rothmans team, partnered with Bell.
Despite minimal experience in race cars with a roof, he qualified the 956 on the pole for his first race, the Silverstone 1000 km, and the duo went on to win. Their next race was the aforementioned Nürburgring 1000 km.
Bellof went on to win two more races that year then came back in 1984 to win the World Sportscar championship by eight points over Mass. He was cheerful and well spoken, and the cameras adored him. He was on his way.
Given his success, it was no surprise F1 came calling, but the best seat Bellof could find was with Tyrrell, which was stuck with naturally aspirated Ford-Cosworth engines when the rest of the field had turbochargers, putting Bellof and teammate Martin Brundle at a 175-horsepower deficit.
Bellof, obviously, had plenty to prove in F1 but little chance to do it, often crashing or breaking in his rookie season as he willed his Tyrrell to run with the turbos. At Monaco, he finally got a chance to shine. Wet tracks are great equalizers when it comes to horsepower, and the principality was soaked. Demonstrating a degree of otherworldly car control that even the also-rising Ayrton Senna couldn't match, Bellof slid and yawed his way to third, closing fast on Senna, who was second, and leader Alain Prost. Suddenly and to the surprise of most everyone on the track and off, the race director halted the event after 31 laps, citing the poor conditions, though they seemed comparable to what they had been like all race long. Had the race run the full distance, Bellof may well have won. As it was, he still managed his first and only F1 podium, but due to the decreased race length, only half-points were awarded.
Bellof was back with Tyrrell for 1985, and team owner Ken Tyrrell struck a deal that got Bellof and Brundle a few turbocharged engines for later in the season, but they still had to run the Fords early that year. Bellof's last F1 race was the Dutch Grand Prix in August 1985. He and his team were still getting used to the quirky Renault engine, and it blew up 40 laps into the race.
A week later, Bellof was killed. He never had the chance to show what he could do in a car with proper power. Reportedly, he had a ride with Ferrari for 1986. The possibilities are sobering.
His final season, Bellof was an F1 driver first, a sports car racer second, cherry-picking events on off weekends in F1 when he could, against Tyrrell's wishes.
The shorthand version of Bellof's career, now that so much time has passed since his death, is bookended by two events: that Nürburgring record run in 1983 and his controversial fatal crash at Spa.
His final season, Bellof was an F1 driver first, a sports car racer second, cherry-picking events on off weekends in F1 when he could, against Tyrrell's wishes. Bellof entered the Spa 1000 km race in privateer Walter Brun's fast 956, partnered with Thierry Boutsen.
Did Bellof have another something to prove at Spa? Oh, yes. Porsche factory racer Ickx, conservative, often tightly wound, and not at all impressed by Bellof's playboy personality, was driving Porsche's newest race car, a 962C.
Ickx and Bellof were oil and water. Spa was Ickx's home track. And remember the Monaco Grand Prix that was stopped as Bellof was reeling in Senna and burgeoning legend Prost? A moonlighting Ickx was the F1 race director for that event.
At Spa, Ickx and Bellof had both just taken over for their co-drivers. A quicker pit stop put Ickx ahead of Bellof. It did not take long for Bellof to catch Ickx, but passing him was another matter. On lap 78, Bellof attempted perhaps the riskiest pass imaginable, taking aim at Ickx as they entered the treacherous left-right Eau Rouge corner. Bellof dove in to Ickx's left. They touched.
Both cars spun into the guardrail at 140 mph. Ickx took a glancing blow and was able to climb from his car. But Bellof's car speared head-on into the barrier, at a point where it was supported by a concrete pillar. The Porsche then burst into flames. Ickx hurried to Bellof's car to help track workers pull him out. It wouldn't have mattered.
Ickx had a contract to finish the season for Porsche, and he did, contesting the final three races, winning the finale at the Shah Alam Circuit in Malaysia with co-driver Mass. Ickx then hung up his helmet. By all accounts he was deeply troubled by Bellof's death, but he has seldom spoken of the incident on the record.
Just as Mass was unfairly blamed for causing the death of F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve in 1982 at the Belgian Grand Prix after they touched wheels during qualifying, a contingent of Bellof fans still suspect Ickx might have blocked Bellof as the two entered Eau Rouge, causing the crash.
But Ickx had a camera in his car, and the evidence disputes the notion of dirty play. So said former Porsche chief engineer Norbert Singer, who designed the 956. "We reviewed the film, frame by frame, for several laps," Singer told Automobile. "Ickx took the same line through Eau Rouge every time.
Bellof "just ended up going side-by-side into the corner and wouldn't lift. But that was him—Stefan wouldn't lift." —Martin Brundle, Tyrrell F1 teammate
"Stefan and Jacky were not really friends," Singer continued. "Bellof had the idea to show him that he was the hero at Spa, show him that someone could be much faster than him. He tried to overtake where normally nobody can. It was very tragic."
Bell agreed with Singer. "I was very upset when he got killed," he said. "It was a totally unnecessary accident. Bellof was incorrect, and I would say that to his parents. Nobody in his right mind would try to pass on what may be the most difficult corner in the world."
Brundle, Bellof's Tyrrell F1 teammate, was racing a Jaguar at Spa and was waiting to get into his car when the crash happened right in front of him. Bellof was "trying to make a statement, basically," by passing in full view of pit lane, Brundle wrote in a 1997 column for F1 Racing magazine. Bellof "just ended up going side-by-side into the corner and wouldn't lift. But that was him—Stefan wouldn't lift."
The funeral, Brundle wrote, "was horrific. It was just awful. The family was beside themselves with grief."
Bellof devotees rally around the driver's official website, Stefan-Bellof.de, where you can still buy family-approved merchandise and read archived stories about his career. Shortly after Porsche set the new 'Ring record, the website carried a statement that, despite reports to the contrary, the Bellof family did not support the event.
As you might expect, many of the comments on the Bellof site and Facebook page are unenthusiastic about the new benchmark. Wrote one fan: "You can't compare apples to pears," suggesting that a car specifically modified for the record run and using 35 years' worth of fresh technology doesn't directly compare to Bellof's achievement, set in an entirely different era with what is now certainly antiquated equipment.
That said, even the diehard Bellof fans seem unanimous in their praise for the human aspect of the new Holy Grail of lap times. "Despite all the nostalgia," wrote one, "a great performance by Timo Bernhard."
Archive photography courtesy of Porsche and LAT Photographic