Two weeks ago, on September 1st, marked the 25th anniversary of Stefan Bellof’s death. A quick look at his F1 career stats tell us nothing of his immense skill and speed, with only 22 starts and 4 points. But, what he did in Formula 2, and then sportscar racing, gave us a glimpse of what could have been one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time.
Stefan Bellof driving for Tyrrell
Stefan Bellof was born on 20th November 1957, and made his entry into motorsport by following his older brother Geörg into karting. For several years, he made good results in national competitions, until he won the International Karting Championship of Luxembourg in 1976, and then the German Karting Championship two years later.
After this, he made a meteoric rise through the German formulae. In 1981, he got a chance at German Formula 3, but entered the competition having missed the first two races. No problem for Stefan though, as with one race left in the series he was 7 points ahead. However, at the Nurburgring, he finishes 13th, while his title rivals Frank Jelinski and Franz Konrad were 1st and 2nd, meaning he lost the title at the very end. He had made his mark though, having finished in the top 4 in all of the first 8 races he competed in.
While ending the year, he decided to enter the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. In his quarter final heat, he finished 6th, but was disqualified for excessive contact. Bellof famously made a promise to the meeting clerk after this, saying the official who penalised him had “better watch my career, because I’ll be back here next year and I’ll win my first Formula 2 race.”
With his pace, this was not a promise to be broken. A certain amount of backing from BMW meant Stefan made a place on the Maurer Motorsport Formula 2 team, with Willy Maurer being signed as his manager in the process. In his first race at the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, he only qualified 9th. However, showers and a wet track meant that Bellof stormed through the field, and won by 21 seconds to Satoru Nakajima, and was only the second driver ever to win on his Formula 2 debut. He swiftly followed this up with another win at Hockenheim, but a slump in form near the end meant he was unable to fight for the title.
After this disappointment, Stefan decided to move to sportscar racing, while staying in Formula 2, though this brought little luck. Still, he entered the World Sportscar Championship with Porsche alongside Derek Bell. This was to prove his immense talent, as their first race together meant they won the 1000km Silverstone race by an entire minute ahead of Bob Wollek and Stefan Johansson. Their next race was at the 1000km at the Nurburgring Nordschleife, where Bellof smashed one of the greatest motorsport records to pieces. His pole position time of 6 minutes, 11.13 seconds is unofficially the fastest ever time on the Nordschleife, and he was 5 seconds faster than anybody else. To prove his skill, he was travelling the “Green Hell” at an average speed of over 125mph.
In the race, his fastest lap of 6 minutes, 25.91 seconds is the official fastest lap ever for any car on the Nordschleife. Two laps after setting this time, his car flipped over and left him out of the race.
Later on in the season, he took two more victories in Kyalami and Fuji. In 1984, he continued to drive alongside Bell and also John Watson, and dominated the championship with wins at Imola, Monza, Nurburgring, Spa, Mosport and Sandown. Alongside this, he won the German DRM championship that year.
With his talent finally shining through, Bellof was signed to the Tyrrell team alongside Martin Brundle. The team were facing an uphill struggle, with their Ford engine lacking 150bhp compared to their turbo rivals. Despite a poor start to the year, Stefan scored back-to-back points finishes in Zolder and Imola. Another retirement followed at Dijon, before another masterful performance showed through. At Monaco, Stefan was 20th on the grid, but torrential rain caused a huge amount of drivers to crash out of the race. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, who made Monaco his own in his era, were leading the race, but guess who was catching both the McLaren and the Toleman? A certain Stefan Bellof. The race was red-flagged before the race end, so we will never know if he could improve even further.
Stefan Bellof in Monaco in 1984, in 3rd place
Stefan crashed out in Detroit while Brundle finished 2nd, but worse was to come. Tyrrell, and both their drivers’, points for the 1984 season were taken away after they were found to have lead ballast in their cars. Nevertheless, he continued at Tyrrell for 1985, but missed the first race of the season. Disregarding this, his first race at Estoril was another impressive one in treacherous conditions, moving his way up from 21st to 6th place in the wet. This was to be his first ever point in F1, as last year’s points were wiped from the records.
Stefan Bellof in Monaco in 1984, in 3rd place
After last year’s brilliant drive, he failed to qualify for the 1985 Monaco GP, but made up for it with a 4th place in Detroit, which turned out to be his highest-finishing drive. However, the rest of his season had been ruined, as Tyrrel took until the German GP to switch to the turbo engines, meaning that Bellof was unable to challenge for podiums and even wins.
Despite only a few points in the early stint of his F1 career, he was being regarded as a potential future Formula 1 champion. However, his dreams were shattered at the 1000km of Spa race, where, driving a Porsche 956 and trying to catch Jacky Ickx, he collided with him and crashed into the guardrail, resulting in both cars catching fire and the race being halted. He was eventually extracted from the car, but declared dead an hour later.
Only three weeks earlier, compatriot Manfred Winkelhock had been killed driving a Porsche at Mosport Park, which had prompted Porsche to hurry the development of the safer 962 model, but didn’t arrive quickly enough for Stefan.
Stefan Bellof and Jacky Ickx moments before they collide at Eau Rouge
Despite a prospective career cut short, Bellof made a huge impact on motorsport. Unfortunately, his death prompted many teams to stop their drivers taking part in competitions outside of the main championship, which limited the drivers’ ability to prove themselves. Today, Michael Schumacher names Stefan Bellof as one of his childhood idols.
Mementos of Stefan Bellof can be found at the Sammler und Hobbywelt museum, including his go-kart , and his racing overalls and helmets from his time at the Porsche and Tyrrell teams. The Motorsportarena Stefan Bellof was also named after him.
In my opinion, Stefan Bellof was one of the greatest drivers of recent decades, and never really had the chance to show us his full potential. His stunning record lap at the Nurburgring, which has never been beaten, and his masterful drive in Monaco 1984 show that he had the talent to be one of the all-time racing greats.
Edit: Final picture of Bellof’s crash removed because it’s from the wrong event, correct one can’t be sourced.