Never a Doubt

Ste­fan Bellof was on his way to be­com­ing one of the might­i­est driv­ers the sport has ever seen

Automobile - - Ethos - by STEVEN COLE SMITH

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.

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 co­driver 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.

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.

“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-by­side 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 “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

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.” AM

Mon­ster crashes punc­tu­ated Ste­fan Bellof’s ca­reer: Nür­bur­gring (top), Spa (above right), and Spa again (right), for the fi­nal time.

Ste­fan Bellof tack­les Spa’s Eau Rouge in his last race (top), and the af­ter­math of his crash (above).

Jacky Ickx’s per­son­al­ity didn’t mesh well with Ste­fan Bellof’s, but the Ger­man’s death ap­peared to have a deep ef­fect on the Bel­gian.

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