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Waving from behind the barriers - The history of a German driver that may oft be overlooked

Published by Scott Woodwiss

German drivers in F1 were few and far between before the emergence of Schumacher. Once he started imposing his skills on the World Championship, more and more have managed to make their way to the top. Names which spring to mind include Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Nick Heidfeld, Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock and Adrian Sutil. The person I left out there is Sebastian Vettel. Why? Because the person we're talking about here is seen these days as the Vettel of his era. Sadly his life was cut short, and at a time where he never quite reached his peak. One man. One name. Bellof.

Stefan Bellof was born in Geiben, Germany on 20th September 1957. He seemed to catch the racing bug thanks to his father, who competed in rallies with a BMW. But unlike every other normal driver who makes it into motorsport these days, he didn't start his career so young. He started his first karting event at 16 but in the 7 years he raced them he won many championships including an International championship, 2 German and 2 European. Moving into Formula Ford in 1980 after finishing 2nd in a race at Hockenheim the year before, he formed a rivalry with fellow German Volker Weidler. I know him from winning the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours with Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot for Mazda.

Bellof had a pretty decent success rate, winning 12 of the 28 FFord races he contested. After taking the title first time out in 1980, the rivalry between Bellof and Weidler came together in 1981. Stefan was seen as more relaxed with an easy-going personality, while Weidler was more of a man that kept to himself and was rather secretive. It all came to a head at the penultimate round of the 1981 season at the Siegerland airfield. Bellof won the race, but Volker protested that he'd jumped the start. After the protest was rejected initially, Weidler appealed the decision and had it overturned. The championship had to be decided at the final round at Zolder, where Bellof bumped his way past his rival at the last corner to make it 2 from 2.

For 1982 he was signed onto Willy Maurer's BMW Formula 2 team. In his first two races, he won. The first was in the wet at Silverstone and the next at Hockenheim where he took pole and set fastest lap. At this point already, Maurer could see potential, that this guy could go far in his racing career, and he promptly became his personal manager. The season didn't quite go as successfully but he took two more podiums and finished 4th.

That same year had seen him venture into a form of motorsport that in this aspect puts him closer to Schumacher. Bellof is known for his exploits in sportscar racing just as much, if not more than, his achievements in F1. He decided to run a double season in 1983 in F2 with Maurer once again and the World Sportscar Championship with the infamous Rothmans Porsche team. It is in this year, with this team, in the Porsche 956 that he's remembered best for. All because of his exploits at the mighty Nurburgring during practice for the 1000km race. His co-driver Derek Bell had been out earlier and at the time he and Stefan were second behind teammate Jochen Mass. Before he went out, Mass had set a pole time of 6'16. Bellof went out, rang out every bit of speed he could despite traffic and pulled out a 6'11.

To this day, it still stands as the all-time lap record around the fearsome 13-mile track. What was also another amazing measure of his talent was that Bell's best lap in that car was 20 seconds slower. Can you imagine Hamilton today being faster than Kovalainen by that margin? It was unheard of then and it still would be today. Bellof suffered a massive accident in the race, but what was amusing was when Mass arrived on the scene. Seeing the severity of the crash, he feared the worst for Stefan. So you can imagine his amazement when he saw Bellof stood at the side of the track, waving to him from behind the barriers.

1984 was Bellof's breakthrough, when Ken Tyrrell snapped him up, but it seemed at the time that his duties with Porsche were more important. It is said that both McLaren and Lotus wanted him, but because he was racing in a works 956 backed by Rothmans, they didn't want him driving a car covered in the logos of their tobacco competitors in their market. Therefore it was Tyrrell that got him. Ken himself said that signing the next big talent and getting him to drive on weekends when he wasn't tied down with commitments with Porsche was better than not having him drive at all. Plus, with hardly any money in the team and no tobacco sponsorship to worry about, there wouldn't be any problems.

It proved to work. After disappointing luck in the first two races, he managed a 5th place at Zolder followed by 6th at Imola, both times after qualifying 21st and outdoing himself in a below average car with a non-turbocharged Ford DFY engine. But because the engine was so light, it helped the 012 chassis achieve a perfect weight balance. Next came Monaco, the race his F1 career is best remembered for. On the Saturday in qualifying, teammate Martin Brundle suffered a horrific crash at Tabac. He would have gone back out in the spare car had he not strapped himself in and then asked his pit crew "Right, which circuit are we at?". Therefore, Bellof had go solo. He almost hadn't qualified, but managed to scrape through and had to suffice with the back of the grid.

The day of the race saw a torrential downpour and treacherous driving conditions. The team had told him to go easy because of the weather, but this seemed to fall on deaf ears. Bellof passed 5 cars on the first lap and as the race went on kept on picking off greater talents than himself at the time. Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell and Niki Lauda all succumbed to the young German. It's said that had the race not been stopped, Bellof could have won, not Senna as everyone suggests.

After a collision with Brundle in Canada, Tyrrell were found to have impurities and lead shot in their fuel. Samples were taken away and they raced under appeal in Dallas. Before the British GP, they were stripped of all the points they'd scored up to that point for use of illegal fuel, after hydrocarbons were found contained in it, which were classed as an illegal fuel additive, and the lead was actually lead balls found in the rubber bag that was the water tank, therefore seemingly used as ballast. Ken himself said he had no idea about the hydrocarbons, that the cars had always stayed within the 540kg weight limit and that lead was not being used as ballast as a result. But this did nothing and the decision stood. This meant Bellof's incredible Monaco performance had effectively counted for nothing performance-wise.

While his F1 career wasn't going quite as he'd planned, Bellof was working wonders in sportscars. Victories at Monza, Nurburgring, Spa and Sandown Park in Australia secured him and Bell the 1984 title. But for 1985, he wanted to concentrate on trying to make a name for himself in F1. He stayed on with Tyrrell and once again had the 012 chassis at his disposal. Nothing good came of it in the first few races, but he got his break in Detroit. With a damaged car, he finished 4th and scored his first "legal" points of his career. Soon afterwards, the new 014 chassis came about with a turbocharged Renault engine but even so it still failed to produce the points scores Stefan was looking for.

Despite making a commitment to F1, Bellof once again took up a campaign in sportscars in a Porsche. This time however, he signed on to the private Brun Motorsport team run by Walter Brun. While he had already made his mind up where his focus was for the season, his love for racing these prototypes was just too much to give up. He was partnered with the Belgian Thierry Boutsen. After a 3rd at Mugello and a fastest lap at Hockenheim, the next round was at Spa. It's said that Stefan originally hadn't wanted to drive seeing as the private 956s were not on par with the factory Rothmans machines, but his love for the Ardennes circuit, where he'd won the year before, gave him the mindset that its nature would help him neutralise the works cars' advantage.

His theory seemed to work. He put the car 3rd on the grid out of 33 starters, and Boutsen was due to start. Before the race he described in a piece to camera the way to tackle the Eau Rouge corner, a location which was to have tragic consequences for him just hours later:

You are driving very close to the barriers here, then there is a slight left corner. Some brake, some only lift the throttle. It's then taken very fast in 5th gear. The right hand uphill corner is taken at approx. 240-250kph with a Group C car. It's a little bit faster than a Group C car, because of arriving at the corner faster. The cornering speeds should be about the same, but you get to the corner earlier because of the better acceleration.

After a good start, Boutsen took the lead and stayed there until the pit stop, where a brake pad change cost them time and the lead to the works Porsche of Jacky Ickx. With Bellof now in the car, he was determined to regain 1st place once again. He was on the tail of the Ickx's car soon after the stop and they exited the La Source hairpin on lap 78 nose to tail. Getting into the slipstream, Bellof began to pull alongside as they both ran down the hill towards Eau Rouge. There was only room for one car but Stefan was having none of it. Ickx moved across him unknowingly and both cars touched. His car spun and hit the barrier backwards, while Bellof slammed in head-on. The impact was enough to tragically claim his life. As a mark of respect, the race was abandoned at that point and following this, Porsche hurried the development of the new, safer 962C sportscar.

Bellof's loss was as great to F1 as well as sportscars. Due to his death, F1 team principals were now much more stringent and strict when it came to their drivers racing in other series. According to a source on Stefan's official website, it's said that he had an offer on the table from Ferrari to race for them in 1986. Derek Bell also said that his death was down to a lack of discipline towards his driving style and that with proper driver training the accident wouldn't have occurred. Stefan always seemed to have a rebellious yet fun attitude to his life and career. Respected motorsport writer Nigel Roebuck wrote in a piece on Bellof about how, in his anxiousness to get to the Dijon circuit for the 1984 French GP, he cut the traffic by driving his Porsche 911 across the fields and through a gate and proceeded towards the track. Continuing on, Roebuck also wrote in this section about how he was compared with other great drivers:

Very pleased with that, he was, and it taught him a lesson, too. For ever after, it became his practice to arrive at a track very early in the morning, then sit down to breakfast with the Tyrrell mechanics. Gilles Villeneuve was very similar in that respect; no wonder that both men were so loved by their teams. Martin Brundle, Bellof's Tyrrell team mate, once described him as "the fastest driver since Villeneuve", which was a hell of a compliment, honestly paid. In a racing car, Stefan was very much of that school, incredibly fast, with freakish reactions. Like Gilles, too, he was also apparently without a sense of fear.

Would Bellof have gone on to win Grands Prix? I have no doubt at all – indeed, I believe he might well have been Germany's World Champion. Unquestionably he had the ability, and, although it has never been officially confirmed by Ferrari, there is little doubt that he would have partnered Michele Alboreto in the team in 1986. His death, in the '85 Spa 1000 Kms, was a dreadful loss to the sport, and even more of one to those who knew him.

On that day in the Ardennes, motor racing and Germany lost one of its great up and coming talents. He was a brilliant driver who was taken away before he even got a chance to show his true worth. You could say that the spirit of Bellof lives on today in Sebastian Vettel. Perhaps he can carry on his legacy in some way and become world champion. Like it was with Stefan, it was and is a case of when rather than if. Sadly, whether we would have had 2 German world champions by now is a statistic we'll never know.