They say that time flies when you are having fun, actually, I have found that it also flies if you are deep in the ***. Last weekend I was rummaging through a big box of old prints and slides researching for a new book project. I found a sheet or two of slides that reminded of my first visit to the majestic circuit known as Spa Francorchamps. It was exactly 25 years ago, the first week in September and what should have been a great time became memorable for all the wrong reasons. Then the thought occurred to me that I should share this peek into the past with the SpeedHunters' Tribe, so here goes. This what a European sportscar event looked like back then.
1985 was a year of transition for the World Endurance Championship run for Group C cars, although perhaps we did not realise it at the time. The glory days of the Porsche 917s and Ferrai 512s in 1970-71, when sportscars took top billing on the tracks and in the movies over Grand Prix racing, were long gone. Porsche was a constant in endurance racing but werks efforts from the likes of Matra, Alfa Romeo and Renault had come and gone, sometimes successful, more often not. So in 1985 there was, as ever, a factory effort from Porsche in the shape of the Rothmans 962 pair. Their main opposition was provided by Martini backed Lancias and a whole range of 956/962 customer teams.
Lancia had given Porsche a hard time with their Monte Carlo Group 5 cars and the LC1 Barchettas during the previous years and in 1983 launched the Ferrari powered LC2 on the endurance stage. The Martini livery and the sleek lines attracted admiration on all sides, the twin turbo Ferrari V8 that was good for 900bhp in qualifying mode was the icing on the cake. However a promising campaign in 1984 had fallen apart after the disappointment of leading for hours at Le Mans only to suffer transmission failures. For 1985 improvements were made to the LC2 but the whole project was under extreme pressure to succeed as a World Rally Championship programme beckoned. Despite being quicker than the Porsches most of the time, the team had not delivered and Spa was the final chance for redemption. Fail there and it was curtains for the LC2.
Since the introduction of the Porsche 956 in 1982, a number of private teams had been able to purchase cars and run at a very competitive level, even beating the factory Rothmans backed cars from time to time. Entries from teams such as Brun, Joest, Kremer, Richard Lloyd and Fitzpatrick had proved to be top notch, well able to trouble the factory cars at any circuit.
If Lancia were reviewing their options, the arrival of sportscar legend, Jaguar, was welcomed in the paddock. Run by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, the Jaguar XJR-6 heralded the beginning of the era of factory teams in Endurance racing. Toyota, Nissan and Sauber Mercedes were to follow the path within a year or two, taking the sport back to the very highest levels.
The Jaguar was designed by the great Tony Southgate and was an entirely Carbon Fiber/Kevlar chassis construction and was powered by a 6 litre V12 engine, one of the great sounds in motor racing. A pair of XJR-6s were entered at Spa with one for Martin Brundle and Mike Thackwell, the other for Jean-Louis Schlesser and Hans Heyer. As the Jaguar did not make its first appearance till round 6 at Mosport, it was clear that 1985 was to be a year of sorting out the teething troubles in preparation for a proper crack at the World Endurance Championships in 1986.
Aside from the Porsches, Lancia and Jaguars in the Group C1 class there were also two Aston Martin powered cars, one of which was the EMKA Aston Martin 84/1. This project was led by Pink Floyd manager, Steve O'Rourke, who had commissioned Len Bailey to design the car in 1983, so Spa represented the final part of the car's career.
And part of the Endurance landscape for nearly 30 years was Yves Courage. In 1985 he drove the Porsche powered Cougar C12, and was partnered at Spa with the four time Le Mans winner, Henri Pescarolo.
The Group C2 class was well subscribed and was led, as usual, by the Spice Tiga Cosworth GC85 of Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm. To say the least Gordon was, and is, a great character, I had the good fortune to work for him in his motor spares business for a while. He recently published a book "The Life of Spice" which is full of the stories that can be published, there are plenty that have to remain secret.
The main opposition to the Spice/Bellm duo came from another famous name that had been revived for the 80's, Ecurie Ecosse. This famous 50's outfit had actually won the Le Mans 24 Hour race outright in both 1956 and 1957. The new team ran an Ecosse C2/85, powered by a 3.3 litre Cosworth DFL with constructor Ray Mallock being joined behind the wheel by Mike Wilds and David Leslie.
Group C2 had quite a variety of chassis available, one of the more interesting was the all carbon fiber Alba AR3, this example being Cosworth powered. It was driven at Spa by Pasquale Barberio and Maurizio Gellini.
The factory Alba AR6 had a Carma turbo engine and was an early Championship contender in the hands of Carlo Facetti, Martino Finotto and Almo Coppelli. Reliability issues caused by the fierce pace of the Spice and Ecosse entries, blunted the Italians' challenge.
One of the leading competitors in C2 during 1985 was the Gebhardt JC853 with a good line up behind the wheel of Frank Jelinski, Stanley Dickens and John Graham.
There were also a few odd looking cars around with the Ceekar 83 Cosworth being typical of the back end of the grid.
Louis Descartes was a regular in the Championship with Jacques Heuclin in the home built ALD 01 BMW.
Another attempt to resurrect a famous sportscar brand, came to little with this post Derek Bennett Chevron B62, the whole project ended up in the courts.
A familiar sight during the mid-80's were the pair of Roy Baker Racing Tiga Fords, this GC284 was raced by Paul Smith and Mike Kimpton.
This was the GC285 version, for Jeremy Rossiter and Thorkild Thyrring. Both cars had a 1.7 litre Ford BDT engine, that had reliability issues, that usually prevented the team from fulfilling its potential.
Another one race wonder, literally, was the Nykjaer BMW
Undoubtedly the most pointless entry was the Isolia BMW. Apparently based on a Chevron B36, the debut was a short one. It was finished in the paddock, crashed during qualifying and only lasted a single lap in the race. How did I manage to get this snap?
There were a couple of interlopers in the Group C field, a Porsche 935 running to IMSA GTX regulations.
A BMW M1 but neither of these classics would trouble the leaderboard.
A photographer's nightmare, especially back in the days of film, manual exposure and manual focus, thick cloud and sun at the same time, right at the start of the race. Now that I know Spa a bit better I should not have been surprised to see snow as well.
The race was the usual furious sprint for the first hour, with the factory Porsches, Lancias and Jaguars entangled with the best of the customer 956s, the Thierry Boutsen/Stefan Bellof Brun example.
As the hours and laps ticked by it was clear that the race for victory was between the Brun 956 and the two Rothmans werks examples.
By the time that the circus had reached Spa there was a nervous feeling around the paddock. The race at Monza had to be stopped prematurely when a tree blew down and blocked the track. At Hockenheim there had been a huge fire during a refuelling stop for the #1 Porsche. As a result design guru and all round Great Man, Norbert Singer, was hospitalised for almost three months. A few weeks later Manfed Winkelhock was killed while racing a Kremer Porsche 962C at Mosport. The death of the popular German Grand Prix star rocked the sport.
Arriving at Spa on Friday afternoon of the race weekend my colleague, Graham Smith and I, noticed an eerie silence. In an accident with a similar impact to that of Winkelhock, Jonathan Palmer had wrecked the Canon Porsche 956. He suffered concussion and a broken leg but thankfully he had survived, we had dodged the bullet.
That is until Sunday.
Stefan Bellof was just beginning to shine in Formula One, he had already taken the 1984 World Endurance Driver Championship, winning six races along the way. He was lightning quick, aggressive and confident in his abilities, many said a future World Champion. For example at the 1983 Nurburgring 1000 kilometres he had set a pole position time of 6:11.13 which is the fastest lap ever recorded on the Nordschleife, during the race he recorded a 6:21.91 then destroyed the 956 at Pflanzgarten, he was fearless, almost too fearless.
At Spa on lap 78 he tried to snatch the lead from Jacky Ickx by trying to force his way through at Eau Rouge. Quite simply this was impossible to pull off cleanly and the two cars touched, Ickx spinning up the hill into the armco. He was shaken but otherwise OK. Down in the Eau Rouge dip Bellof was not. His Brun 956 had slammed into the wall without shedding any speed, the car had folded over trapping the young German. Ickx supervised the process of rescuing his former team mate and the event was run under caution for over an hour. Racing was resumed but no one had their heart in the competition, we all feared the worst. Then the news came out that Bellof had died as a result of the impact, the various team managers agreed that further action was pointless, and the race was halted.
Not that anyone cared but Lancia had finally taken a win in the LC2 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 Bellof would at least nod recognition in the pit lane, we were a similar age and both motorsport nuts, just that he was the talented one. For that reason alone feeling some form of 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.
Here Bellof celebrates a win in 1984 with co-driver, Derek Bell. He was on the verge of great things, with it is said, the prospect of a Ferrari Formula One contract.
Bellof had one big fan who would end up at Ferrari to dominate the sport, Michael Schumacher. Like his fan, Stefan Bellof had the ability to create magic, the prospect of him going head to head with the other rising star of the era, Ayrton Senna, is a tantalising one. It was all lost in one moment of misjudgement in Belgium some 25 years ago.
Stefan Bellof, 1957-1985, Rest In Peace.