On 1 September, 35 years ago, the motorsport world sadly lost 27-year-old Stefan Bellof in an accident during the 1000 km of Spa-Francorchamps.
He was regarded as one of the rising talents in motorsport who left too soon, with the potential deemed on-hand to fight for a future drivers’ championship title in Formula 1.
Racing in Round 7 of the 1985 FIA World Sportscar Championship (WSC), he unfortunately passed away at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in an accident at Eau Rouge involving Jacky Ickx.
Whilst competing full-time in the endurance discipline for only three years, and not even a full year spent in his Formula 1 commitments, he left a legacy of talent, bravery and potential.
Bellof was born in Giessen, West Germany, where he grew up to initially follow his brother’s motorsport path, Georg, and made his karting debut in the 1973 Federal Junior Cup, governed by Automobilclub von Deutschland.
Having claimed fourth in the championship that year, a karting title came along in the form of the 1976 International Karting Championship of Luxembourg.
It followed what were several competent results in the final standings, with all places in the top-five. Georg won the German Karting Championship in ’78, whilst Bellof won it in ’80 as he edged himself into a Formula Ford campaign.
From here onwards, he moved up the junior ladder of motorsport to compete in Formula Ford 1600cc (winning the championship in ’80 as well) and 2000cc variety.
Whilst still participating in the Formula Ford championships in 1981, he raced in the German Formula Three Championship for the Bertram Schäfer Racing team, claiming three wins, five poles, and six podiums in its nine races. He finished third in the final standings.
This allowed him to take off into European Formula Two for Maurer Motorsport, continuing his quest for success to win five out of the 10 races held, thus finishing fourth in the final standings.
At the tail end of that 1982 European F2 season, he made a one-off debut appearance in the World Sportscar Championship (often referred to as the World Endurance Championship for Drivers/Makes).
Bellof debuted in endurance racing at the 1000 km of Spa, partnering Rolf Stommelen at the wheel of a Porsche CK5 for Kremer Racing. They later retired from the race on lap 51, down to an issue with the starter motor.
At the beginning of the 1983 World Sportscar Championship, he joined the Rothmans Porsche team to drive in their iconic Porsche 956 in the Group C prototype class. He accompanied Derek Bell to share driving duties in the #2 car.
They both won for the first time at the 1000 km of Silverstone, in which they took the race lead at half-distance and charged to victory by over a minute ahead of the duo Bob Wollek and Stefan Johansson who drove a privateer Porsche 956.
Success littered his first season of endurance racing, acquiring three wins, four pole positions, four fastest laps, and four podium appearances in the six races he drove in to finish fourth in the championship that year.
On May 28 1983, during qualifying for the 1000 km of Nurburgring, he set his iconic 6m11s lap time at the Nurburgring Nordschleife in the Porsche 956.
The weather in the surrounding Eifel region could only be described as cold and miserable, but dry nonetheless.
Porsche entered the race with 13-inch front-axle rims for the first time.
The larger camber angle and modified steering lever enhanced the car’s turning abilities thus allowing Bellof to assert this record.
Bellof managed to be five seconds faster than former Formula One driver Jochen Mass and half-a-minute faster than reigning world champion Keke Rosberg.
“When the time appeared on the display, I thought, ‘That can’t be right—there must be something wrong with the clock,'” Rainer Braun recalled, who at the time was both the course spokesman and Bellof’s manager.
The lap itself was a mixture of exhilaration and speed.
“Stefan broke records in that history-making lap,” says Norbert Singer, who was Porsche’s head engineer at the time.
Bellof was also the first driver to average more than 124 miles per hour for a lap at the ‘Green Hell’.
“I could have gone even faster,” Bellof reflected at the time, mockingly disparaging the impressive pace he already set.
“But I made two mistakes. And a 911 briefly got in my way,” he added.
That record would stand for another 35 years until it was unofficially beaten in 2018, and represented his pure resonance with speed, thus a potential in the making for a later chance at the Formula 1 world title.
Unsurprisingly, he soon tested in Formula 1 towards the end of 1983 amongst two British Formula 3 stars – Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle.
Testing at Silverstone for Mclaren, Bellof ended by damaging the gearbox so Brundle did not quite get the opportunity to drive that car.
Heading into 1984, he was competing in what were considered the two most regarded and demanding championships in the motorsport world – Formula 1 and the World Sportscar Championship.
His F1 journey started (and ended) with the Tyrrell Racing Organisation as he partnered Brundle in Ford-powered naturally aspirated machines in a surrounding field of turbocharged competitors.
His debut at Brazil (and the following race in Kyalami – South Africa) were unsuccessful as he failed to finish, only scoring two championship points in the Imola and Zolder rounds for that season.
He did manage to achieve a podium finish at that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, after starting from last (20th) position, but was later disqualified for a technical infringement.
Apart from the leading duel between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, other drivers faced the consequences of a rain-soaked Monte Carlo circuit into a number of barriers.
Bellof, however, kept clear and reached a 21s gap behind Prost and under 14s behind Senna. The race was capped at 31 laps due to the weather conditions.
Bellof, Brundle and the rest of the team were stripped of all their 1984 championship points, after their cars were disqualified from the season following a dispute over lead ballast in their fuel tanks found after the Detroit Grand Prix.
FISA charged the team on four separate instances, but the team appealed for injunctions in order to continue competing in the championship.
Sooner or later, the FIA Court of Appeal rejected their final appeal and kicked the team out of the remainder of the season.
Bellof missed his home race to compete in the World Sportscar race (on the same weekend) at Mosport Park. Him and Derek Bell finished fourth overall and third in-class in their 956.
In fact, in a mixture of outings with Rothmans Porsche and Brun Motorsport, efforts at the Nurburgring, Spa, Mosport and Sandown, alongside his teammate Bell, saw him take the World Sportscar Championship title by eight points ahead of Jochen Mass.
He gathered up six wins, five poles, three fastest laps, and six podiums during the season to finish on 139 points – a great deal more successful than his fourth position in the previous year on 75 points.
As a result of this success and more, Porsche also claimed the makes’ title that year with all but one win throughout the 1984 season.
For 1985, he continued to race for Tyrell in F1 whilst driving in a privateer-backed 956B for Brun Motorsport in the WSC.
After missing the first F1 race of the season, he raced at the Portuguese Grand Prix where he was presented with conditions alike the previous year’s Monte Carlo race.
He masterfully made his way up the field from 21st up to sixth place, claiming a point to finish the race.
At the Detroit race later in the year, he redeemed the difficulties of the previous year to finish fourth.
Unfortunately, his failure to qualify in Monaco (only once in his career), an exclusion at the Austrian Grand Prix, with his newly-fitted (since the German GP) Renault engine exploding on lap 40 at Zandvoort, all meant that the three points acquired at Detroit were his final points in F1.
The WSC proved he had the talent and potential to be successful if he had been granted a seat in a more competitive F1 team.
The story, however, was not to end such a way as it ended in tragic circumstances at the 1985 edition of the 1000 km of Spa.
On lap 78, whilst fighting Jacky Ickx’s works-backed Porsche 962C from the La Source hairpin on the downhill approach to the Eau Rouge complex.
As they entered the left kink of the complex, Bellof positioned himself on Ickx’s left side in an attempt to make a pass at the right-kinked Radillion element of the Eau Rouge climb.
The move was not successful, as Bellof’s right-front fender touched the rear-left of Ickx thus sending them both into a crash at the barriers.
Situated at the top of the hill, Ickx climbed out unaided and, amongst the hurried team members of Bellof, attempted to attend the smoking and burning Brun Porsche of Bellof (catching fire seconds after the wreck).
Over 10 minutes were spent by the emergency medical members to extract him out of the car, but he was pronounced dead after reaching the track hospital due to excessive internal injuries.
Out of respect, the race was shortened by 150 kilometres than proposed.
As many will acknowledge, the motorsport era of the 60s, 70s and 80s were at the peak of the dangers that racing wheel-to-wheel racing posed.
Another tragedy involving a Porsche only three weeks before Bellof’s death, was the accident of fellow compatriot and F1 driver Manfred Winkelhock when he died of severe head trauma after a crash into a concrete wall, whilst behind the wheel of a Kremer Racing-run Porsche 962C.
Concerns grew up and down the WSC paddock as other customer teams raised their queries with using the 956 for the remainder of the season.
As a result, the 956 was withdrawn at the end of the 1986 WSC season after taking a win at its final race in Fuji.
Bellof’s talent had been acknowledged and noted by many of the rival teams that he had been competing against in F1, including an exciting offer from Ferrari for the 1986 season.
A meeting was scheduled with Enzo Ferrari himself before his fatal circumstance.
The tragedy was a big loss for Formula 1, the World Sportscar Championship, and motorsport as Bellof was taken too soon for him to stretch his legs in a racing car.
The accident was also a turning point in which F1 teams would not be allowing their expensive drivers to simultaneously compete in other championships as well.
A number of tributes were made not only at the time, but later on including the naming of the section of the Nordschleife previously known as Pflanzgarten III to the Stefan-Bellof-S.
He was in the heart of drivers and fans, considered one of Michael Schumacher’s racing idols and rated highly in numerous F1 driver surveys.
One most recent tribute was when Timo Bernhard’s helmet was designed in Bellof’s livery at the 30th death anniversary, the 2015 WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.
After an illustrious story in sportscar racing, in addition to a plucky commitment in his F1 campaign, his legacy of potential will always be remembered in the shadow of the unfortunate departures that motorsport presents to us to remind that motorsport is unpredictable in all-sorts of aspects.
To our distaste, motorsport itself often decides the weighting of positive and negative racing circumstances.