It’s difficult to believe that exactly 30 years have now passed since one of Formula One’s most promising prospects, Stefan Bellof, was killed at the 1985 Spa 1000km. A contemporary of Ayrton Senna, the rising star of F1 was on a parallel path to his Brazillian counterpart throughout the 1980s. But while Senna went on to win three World Championships, the record books show that Bellof scored only a single podium finish, at Monaco in 1984.
As with Gilles Villeneuve, however, those record books do not tell the whole story. Bellof’s racing career, though criminally short, was diverse, offering tantalising glimpses of brilliance and visions of a potential German world champion years ahead of Michael Schumacher. We remember the highs and lows.
One of Bellof’s most impressive drives came at Monaco in 1984. In atrocious conditions, his normally aspirated Tyrrell 012 was more suited to the tight street circuit than the turbocharged cars driven by his rivals, and he took full advantage. When the race was stopped early, Ayrton Senna was catching Alain Prost for the lead – but Bellof was catching the pair of them.
Bellof’s spectacular drive in Monaco offered the driver little consolation, when, at the end of the season, the Tyrrell team was excluded from the World Championship amid political acrimony and allegations of ballast irregularities.
After winning the German FF1600 title in 1981, Bellof graduated to Formula 2 in ’82. The German ace showed his true pace on home soil at the Nordschleife the following year. He qualified on pole position by a staggering five seconds, later crashing out of contention after his Maurer MM83-BMW became airborne. While Bellof's outright speed was never in question, his fearless nature occasionally worked against him.
Just a year after his spectacular drive through the streets of Monte Carlo, Bellof failed to qualify for the 1985 race, missing out by less than half a second. Tyrrell was increasingly handicapped by its adherence to an 'atmo' engine, which it ran through the first half of the season – by the time the team switched to Renault turbo power, Bellof was no longer around to take advantage.
Bellof was a popular member of the paddock. On one occasion, he proudly boasted that he'd avoided the traffic that was queuing to get into the circuit by taking a shortcut – driving his Porsche 911 across a ploughed field to reach his destination.
A natural talent, Bellof excelled whether behind the wheel of a normally aspirated Tyrrell, a Formula Two Maurer or the hugely powerful Porsche 956 – especially at the Nürburgring. In 1983, he set a new record at the circuit in its then-configuration with a time of 6 mins 11.13 secs.
Following his one-off appearance in the World Endurance Championship at Spa in 1982, Bellof joined the Porsche factory team for 1983. Stuttgart wisely paired the young hotshoe with the super-experienced Derek Bell.
The first victory in the pair’s 1983 campaign came at Silverstone, and they repeated that success at Kyalami and then Fuji (pictured). Bellof secured fourth position in the championship. Bell, incidentally, filmed a superb set of onboard laps during that season's practice sessions – they were put together in a feature called In-Car 956, which is well worth seeking out.
Building on his success the previous season, Bellof was in imperious form during 1984. Sharing with Bell as well as Hans Stuck and John Watson, he scored several victories, including at the Nürburgring, Spa, Mosport and Sandown (pictured) on his way to winning the endurance racing World Championship.
By 1985, Bellof’s stock was on the rise – both in the sports car arena and Formula One. By the time of his fatal accident, it was widely reported that the German was being courted by Enzo Ferrari to drive for the Italian team for the 1986 season.
Bellof’s magical car control was always best shown in wet conditions, but at the 1983 Brands Hatch 1000km he had to give best to the privateer 956 of Derek Warwick and John Fitzpatrick. Here, Stefan is led into Paddock Hill Bend by the sister car of Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass.
Bellof’s promising career was cut short at Spa on 1 September 1985. His all-or-nothing approach finally caught up with him when he attempted to pass Jacky Ickx into Eau Rouge. The two cars touched, and the young German died in the ensuing accident.