Today marks 29 years since the death of Rolf Stommelen, one of the few German drivers to enjoy any kind of success before a certain Herr Schumacher joined the fray.
While the bespectacled German didn’t achieve the results in Formula 1 that his talents deserved, he more than made up for it with his fearsome reputation in sports cars, where he was widely considered to be one of the best endurance racers of his era.
He won the Daytona 24 Hours race four times over three decades (1968, 1978, 1980 and 1982), as well as claiming a podium and pole position at the Le Mans 24 Hours in a Porsche 917.
His motorsport exploits started out in hill climb events and the terrifying Targa Florio, and in the mid-1960s he successfully campaigned his own Porsche 904 GTS against the works cars, doing well enough to earn a call up to the factory team in 1966.
His first F1 outing came in a Lotus Formula 2 car at the 1969 German Grand Prix, he joined the championship full-time the following year with Brabham, putting in some sterling drives which included a brilliant run to the podium (from 18th) at the Austrian Grand Prix.
With backing from the Eifelland caravans group, he took his sponsorship to the Surtees team in 1971, but his relationship with team boss John Surtees turned sour very quickly(as was universally the case for any driver who had the misfortune to drive for the former champion) as the marriage fell apart.
For 1972, he put his lot in with the Eifelland F1 team, a new outfit running a modified March 721. Sporting an unsightly periscope mirror, the car was as uncompetitive as it was ugly and it saw poor Rolf on the sidelines the following year.
A lifeline came mid-1973 when he returned to Brabham as the substitute for the injured Andrea de Adamich, and he earned another call-up in 1974 at Graham Hill’s Lola team when he replaced Guy Edwards.
He forged a great relationship with Hill and remained in the team for 1975, but he suffered bloody injuries in a shocking accident at the Spanish Grand Prix. Driving the new GH1 at the strife-torn Montjuich Park circuit, Rolf’s rear wing broke and he vaulted the barriers, killing four spectators.
Thankfully he made a full recovery and returned to the team before the end of the year, but by that point team-mate Tony Brise was Hill’s golden child.
He returned to sports cars in 1976, where his success in the Martini Porsche earned him a few outings with Brabham.
After winning the German touring car crown in 1977, he was back in F1 once again, this time with the new Arrows team with backing from the Warsteiner brewery group.
The year was a disappointment and he was finally out of F1, returning once again to his true love of sports cars, where he was again a frontrunner for Porsche, Lancia and Rondeau.
He started to dip his toe in IMSA Racing, and it was while he was competing in the Camel GT event at Riverside International Raceway when his replica Porsche 935’s rear wing failed. Poor Rolf slammed into the barriers and he didn’t stand a chance. He was just 39 years old.
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