Today we pause to remember Stefan Bellof – the young German touted as his country’s first potential F1 World Champion – who died on this day 26 years ago.
Considered by many as one of the richest racing talents to have lost their lives in the 1980s, Bellof’s rise to Formula 1 – and his all too brief stint in it – was truly sensational.
A multiple karting champion in his homeland, Bellof made his open-wheeler debut in the national Formula Ford championship in 1980, claiming the title at his first attempt. He won the German international crown the following year, and had already progressed into Formula 3, stamping his authority with three wins in just seven starts. Incredibly, he finished third in the championship.
His exploits brought him to the attention of Maurer Motorsport and its owner Willy Maurer, who quickly worked with BMW’s Dieter Stappert to tie up a deal to place Stefan in his Formula 2 team for 1982.
The result? He wins on debut, at Silverstone, and in the rain. Next round: pole position and another win at Hockenheim. Unfortunately the momentum couldn’t be sustained for the rest of the season, and he failed to grace the top step of the podium again as a series of troubles hampered his cause. His speed wasn’t in question, as he posted five fastest race laps.
He stayed in F2 and with Maurer in 1983, but he dovetailed his efforts with sports car competition, courtesy of a works seat at Porsche. Sharing the cockpit with ace drivers Derek Bell and Jochen Mass, Stefan took to the category like a proverbial duck to water, hustling the car around many a circuit (often obliterating lap records, when he wasn’t doing the same to the cars!).
Wins came at Silverstone, Mt Fuji and Kyalami, and he remained with the Rothmans-backed team in 1984, claiming six round wins and the title with ease. He also managed to win the German title in a Brun-run Porsche.
And he did all this while contesting a debut Formula 1 season with Tyrrell, having tested with McLaren and reportedly knocked back a seat with ATS the year before. The little car’s lack of a turbocharged engine would hardly be noticed, as Stefan often wrung the neck of the Cosworth-powered 012 chassis.
While many will remember the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix as being Ayrton Senna’s coming of age with a brilliant drive to second place in the red-flagged race, it is less well known that Bellof finished third and was catching Senna.
That the Tyrrell team was thrown out of the 1984 standings was a disgraceful act in itself, and it simply served to strike Bellof’s three points-scoring drives off the record.
What would turn out to be his last season of competition got off poorly when he was suspended by the team for the opening Brazilian Grand Prix. He returned with vigour at Portugal, finishing sixth in the soaking conditions mastered by Senna’s Lotus. A fine fourth place would follow at Detroit.
But Bellof’s speed also carried with it a rather reckless streak, and this would ultimately prove his undoing. He had switched to the Brun Porsche outfit for the 1985 World Sportscar Championship, and at the Spa 1000km, he attempted an all-or-nothing passing move on Jacky Ickx at, of all places, Eau Rouge. The pair collided and Stefan was sent headlong into the barriers. He died instantly.