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Stefan Bellof, 35 Years Ago

John Brooks looks back at the 1985 Spa 1000Kms

Another piece from the DSC Archive, John Brooks on Stefan Bellof, and a tragic day in the Ardennes

The true sign of a champion is not only winning the great prize but also consistently being able to repeat that achievement. So we value a Fangio or a Kristensen above a Button or a Barth, though of course, we do give proper respect to those who ascend the summit but once. There are those, however, who are prevented by prevailing circumstances from fulfilling their destiny. One such individual was Stefan Bellof.

Those of you who read these pages regularly should be familiar with the brief, bright career of Stefan Bellof, who burst on to the International motorsport stage by winning his first Formula Two race at Silverstone in 1982. He repeated the result a few weeks later at Hockenheim, giving notice to all with eyes to see that a new talent was on the scene. The evident raw speed prompted the management of the factory Porsche team to recruit the young German for their endurance driver squad in 1983. He would bring youth and pace to compliment the skill and experience that the likes of Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell had in spades.

The 1983 season saw Bellof develop as a sportscar driver, learning from his illustrious teammates. He absorbed the lessons well, to the extent that he won the World Endurance Driver’s Championship the following year for Porsche, scoring five victories. Bellof was lightning quick, aggressive and confident in his abilities and many suggested that here was a future Formula 1 World Champion. At the 1983 Nürburgring 1000 kilometres, he had set a pole position time of 6m 11.13s, which is the fastest lap ever recorded on the Nordschleife. During the race, he posted a lap time of 6m 21.91s, but on the following lap destroyed the 956 at Pflanzgarten. He was fearless, almost too fearless. The young German was also making a name for himself driving for Tyrrell in Formula One. In 1985 he left the factory Porsche team and took a place in the Brun Porsche team since single-seater glory was his primary objective.

1985 was forecast to be the dawn of a new era for Group C and Endurance Racing. The Porsche 956 had raised the bar on its introduction back in 1982. There were a good number of top privateer teams running customer versions of the 956 taking on, and occasionally beating, the Rothmans factory effort. Kremer, Joest, Richard Lloyd and Brun all had top-line efforts. Ranged against the Germans was the Martini Lancia LC2 pairing, on a make or break season with its elegant Ferrari powered machines. In the wings was a revival of the most iconic sportscar team of them all, Jaguar.

Tom Walkinshaw Racing had been commissioned by Coventry to take the Big Cats back to Le Mans, building on the Group 44 American project that had undertaken the task in 1984. The Japanese trio of Toyota, Nissan and Mazda were also planning an upgraded assault on the French classic and, it was hoped, future full seasons in the World Championship.

So much for the good news. The 1985 season began in farce but soon descended into tragedy. At Monza a storm caused a tree to blow down, blocking the track and ending the race. High temperatures at Hockenheim resulted in a flash fire at a refuelling pit stop for the Rothmans Porsche team. The great Norbert Singer suffered first degree burns that hospitalised him for three months. Matters became even worse in Mosport Park in Canada, when Manfred Winkelhock was killed in an unexplained accident during the race. The whole sportscar circus arrived at Spa-Francorchamps some two weeks later hoping to put this unfortunate set of circumstances behind them. Things could only get better.

September 1985 and the Spa 1000 Kilometres was scheduled to be my first visit to the classic Belgian track. I was really looking forward to it as I was growing out of following the British Formula Three Championship and sportscars were always my first enthusiasm. I had been seduced by the glamour of Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans” epic and inspired by the legend of Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez in the Gulf Porsche 917. Spa had been the venue for some of their finest battles, so I hoped to find an echo, perhaps a ghost or two, in the Ardennes Forest, of the magic that they created.

I arrived in the Spa Paddock on Friday afternoon but instead of the flurry of activity that might have been expected, there was an eerie silence. Worried expressions were on everyone’s faces. The news gradually filtered through, Jonathan Palmer had gone off on the approach to Pouhon and it looked like a repeat of the accident in Canada. An explosive deflation of the right front tyre had pitched the Richard Lloyd Racing Porsche 956B into the Armco at great speed, causing a big impact. Palmer’s injuries were confined to a broken leg and concussion, a tribute to the early composite structure of the RLR-modified Porsche. Once the dust had settled, there was a collective sigh of relief: the bullet had been dodged.

The field at Spa was a competitive one. There were three factory efforts each running a pair of cars, with Jaguar making a European debut to take on the incumbent heavyweights of Porsche and Lancia. Adding spice to the mix was the usual collection of privateer Porsches from the likes of Joest, Kremer and Brun.

There was a healthy collection of Group C2 cars boosting the number of starters to respectable 33.

As it was my first time at the classic Belgian track, someone suggested I walk around the circuit to get my bearings. I wish I could remember who that comedian was, as revenge would be sweet (if painful). On Saturday morning I set out from the Media Centre full of the joys of youth until I encountered the climb from Eau Rouge up Raidillion. Then the ascent along the Kemmel Straight to the high point of the circuit at Les Combes. I soon discovered that everywhere in Spa was uphill and with the amount of gear that I was dragging around I felt in need of the services of a team of Sherpas but they seemed in short supply. Somehow I completed the trek and vowed never to do so again without some form of mechanical support, a promise that I have kept to this day. Sleep was easy that night, only marginally helped by a few glasses of Leffe to ease the aching limbs.

On the tarmac, the drivers had no such issues. The dispute for the honour of pole position was resolved in favour of the Lancia LC2 of Riccardo Patrese who flew round in 2m 05.91s, about half a second quicker than Hans Stuck in Rothmans 962C.

The leading group was made up of Boutsen (Brun), Ludwig (Joest), Baldi (Lancia), Ickx (Rothmans Porsche) and Surer (Kremer). The Jaguar pair were a little off this pack, lack of a turbo boost button and being right at the start of the development programme meaning that it was more productive to focus on getting the race pace sorted.

One thing that stands out from the names on the grid sheet was the presence of six current Grand Prix drivers, a very different state of affairs to the current situation. The death of Manfred Winkelhock in the previous race had caused concern in the Formula One paddock and would lead to changes in the drivers’ contracts preventing them from racing outside that bubble.

The weather at Spa Francorchamps is notorious; it is common to have all four seasons represented in a single day, sometimes simultaneously at different parts of the track. So it was not a complete surprise to find myself at the start down the hill at Eau Rouge with all the other photographers, cursing the clouds that hid the sun briefly as the cars rolled past the pits awaiting the start. No autofocus back then, no digital either, so we relied on slide film that had very little latitude in terms of exposure and no fixing in post-production. Cars half in and half out of sunlight was the worst possible condition, except perhaps for the traditional Francorchamps deluge. Whatever, depending on the spot that you prefocussed on, you got the shot or not.

The pack charged down past the pits and a leading trio of Riccardo Patrese, Jochen Mass and Thierry Boutsen broke away from the pursuers. That chasing group comprised Ludwig, Bell, Brundle and Baldi. Schlesser’s Jaguar was an early retirement. Patrese struggled to stay in front of, and then with, the Porsches.

He fell back into the clutches of Ludwig and incurred the ire of the German by some aggressive defence. Derek Bell pitted his Porsche early as a tyre had turned on its rim causing a big vibration. This stop would put their car out of sync with the rest of the leaders.

Group C was a fuel-based formula, the finite amount available to each car (510 litres for 1000 kilometres) meant that managing consumption was even more important than flat out speed. From the outside, it was difficult to judge the real status of any race. Was the leading group on or off their fuel consumption plan? It transpired later that at the one hour mark the Rothmans Porsches, the Boutsen 956 and the Patrese Lancia were all burning way too much petrol, 57 litres per 100 kilometres, whereas the second Lancia of Baldi was being much more frugal at 47 litres per 100 kilometres. Later in the race, this would be significant.

The race approached the third hour with Paolo Barilla enjoying a 30-second advantage over Jacky Ickx and Stefan Bellof who were having a hard fight over second place. On lap 78 the pair was nose to tail passing down the pit straight approaching Eau Rouge, Bellof tried to squeeze down the left to get the inside position for the corner. Ickx was already committed to his line, but Bellof did not lift. There was simply not enough room for both cars and Bellof tagged the rear of the 962C. Ickx spun up the hill into the barriers at Raidillion, destroying one side of his car. Bellof in the Brun 956 speared sharp left and slammed straight into the wall at around 130 mph. The impact was heard in the pit lane as the Porsche folded over and briefly caught fire. Ickx ran back to the stricken car but despite his best efforts and those of the marshals, there was little that could be done for the young German. He was eventually cut out of the wreck and taken to the Medical Centre where he was pronounced dead. There was little enthusiasm for racing prior to this news being released and thereafter the various team managers agreed that continuing the event was pointless so at the five-hour point the race was stopped.

Lancia had finally taken a win in the LC2 in a straight fight with Porsche but neither Mauro Baldi nor Bob Wollek could celebrate in the shadow of the death of their fellow racer. Most of us in the paddock felt the same way.

I did not really know Bellof, as a photographer just starting out on the international scene. I felt that keeping a low profile and paying my dues was appropriate conduct. However by 1985, Stefan would at least nod recognition in the pit lane; we were a similar age and both motorsport nuts, it was just that he was the talented one. For that reason alone feeling some form of a bond, I lost interest in proceedings and drove home to the UK with no accident scene shots nor any podiums. The ensuing row with the photo agency is how I still have these images; I paid for them to be processed after a few harsh words were exchanged.

Stefan Bellof was on the verge of great things – he was said to be heading for Ferrari in Formula One and maybe he could have succeeded where others had not. He had an ability to create magic and the prospect of his going head to head with the other rising star of the time, Ayrton Senna, is a tantalising one. It was all lost in one moment of misjudgement in Belgium, on a Sunday afternoon 27 years ago.