On the 30th anniversary of his death, Sam Smith remembers Stefan Bellof, World Sportscar champion in 1984.
He was the racing driver that could defy the laws of physics, the physiology of reflex and the rules of adhesion. He danced the high-wire of motorsport, but at just 27 years of age, Stefan Bellof could not repel fate.
Thirty years on from his death at Eau Rouge it says much for the embers of his white-hot talent that the great and good of motorsport will be thinking of him today as both a fantastic racer, and a fine human being.
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost are rightly set as the benchmark of the mid/late 1980s and early 90s in F1.
Yet, how different could the record books look if Bellof had not made a fateful decision to attempt what appeared to be an impossible move on Jacky Ickx's works Porsche 962 at Eau Rouge 30 years ago today.
Close to Monaco GP win
The ifs, the buts and the maybes gather more plausibility when put in to the context of the Monaco Grand Prix, in June 1984.
Bellof, like Senna, was in just his sixth F1 race, and as legend echoes, if the race had not been stopped, he would likely have caught both Prost and Senna to complete a sensational victory, on that would have included an remarkable move on Rene Arnoux's Ferrari using the pavement at Mirabeau!
There was some irony that the clerk of the course in the Principality that day was Jacky Ickx, and it was the great Belgian who ordered the red flag to be unfurled, and quite rightly stopped the race in the worsening conditions.
Ickx was a chief rival of Bellof's in the works Porsche World Sportscar Championship team, and while he was more often than not outpaced in qualifying, in the race Ickx's experience and guile brought the two in to many a fight for the lead.
It was of course one such occasion that ended Bellof's life, albeit by this time Bellof was in the privateer Brun run 956B .
Eau Rouge move
From those that knew him closely, they figured Stefan would never back out of a move, and if it happened to be at one of the most daunting corners in motorsport – Eau Rouge, which then had no run-off worth its name, then so be it. Some said it was reckless, most just called it racing.
Bellof's reputation at the time was one of blistering pace but one that would wrestle risk and force it to submit. But there had been warnings.
Perhaps one race that encapsulated Stefan's whole racing psyche was the 1984 Fuji 1000kms. Untouchable in qualifying, he was a full second ahead of Mass and Ickx, his only serious rivals that weekend. This was even with a worn right rear Dunlop, which the team had mistakenly fitted to the car in the final second session.
Imperious in the race, Bellof simply drove away from the field, laying the foundations for another victory to move in to the lead of the title race.
However, with a comfortable lead Bellof's pace did not diminish, and making a move on Pasquale Barbiero's Alba C2 car, he swiped it off the road, and Barbiero in to the medical centre.
Bellof was a fantastic racing driver, yet his raw skills had no filter. It remains as pure an inherent talent as perhaps ever existed in motorsport. Across several disciplines, his fascinating, brief life is why thousands of racing fans and former colleagues will be raising a glass to him today.
Whether in the sublime Maurer F2 car, the iconic works Porsche 956 or the tiny, and exposed Maurice Phillipe penned Tyrell F1 cars - that instantly recognisable helmet and the whir of gloves gave Bellof the capacity to deliver genuine 'double-take' laptimes. His unique brand of flair will be stamped forever in to racing folklore.
Stuck and Bernhard remember 'the man'
Timo Bernhard paid a special tribute to his hero at the 6 Hours of Spa earlier this year, and spoke at length about why Bellof mattered so much to German motorsport.
"I was only four and a half years old when he died but I actually do remember when the announcer on German TV said that he has died and I was quite upset," Timo Bernhard told Motorsport at Spa earlier this year.
"I think Stefan stepped up the popularity of endurance racing a lot as he was one of the first young guys from single-seaters to be very successful and show the way. He's just an idol to me, even though I never saw him. I have read the book and I can speak to people who knew him for hours. He was a true racer for sure. He was 'the man'.
Bellof's talents in a Porsche 956 ensured he was also a great teacher, even to already established racers like Hans-Joachim Stuck.
"Stefan taught me all about the Porsche 956, he really did," said Stuck. "When I did my first race in 1984 when I was with Harald Grohs after the first practice I was eleven seconds off the pace….eleven f****** seconds!
"I said 'hey Hans, what is happening here, you are in trouble'. So Harald took me up to Stefan and said: "Explain to Hans how to drive this thing.' So Stefan taught me completely how to drive this car which you had to really use the ground-effect, brake in to the corners and how you treat the kerbs."
Grohs went on to marry Bellof's former girlfriend Angelika Langner, who still frequents racing paddocks with the Porsche Carrera Cup marketing department.
"Stefan was fast, fast, fast," continued Stuck. "We did a race together at Imola which we won in 1985. It was in the Brun Porsche and you know I am proud to say even now that I was in a car with Stefan, because he was special. He had this feel for a racing car that not many had. He was a great kid too and it was so sad when he went, so sad."