The Untouchable Record: Stefan Bellof's Legendary Lap of the Nürburgring
Stefan Bellof was an up-and-coming driver with a point to prove. During qualifying for the 1983 Nürburgring 1,000km he made it emphatically. Images via Porsche Newsroom
Elite racing drivers have always been a breed apart. Let's be honest, it takes a certain kind of psyche to not only master the car control to do close proximity battle at well over 200mph, but also the awareness of one's surroundings to repeat the feat lap after lap. It’s a fine, almost spiritual balance between zen, instinct and adrenaline, the perception of time slowing down as the speed goes up, of throttle positions, tyre temperatures, G-forces and geometry. But even within this rarefied bubble, there are those who can separate themselves from their peers.
Picture the scene. The date is the 28th of May 1983, practice day for the upcoming Nürburgring 1,000km race and Porsche Motorsport is present in force, with six Porsche 956 Group C cars pounding around the Green Hell. The typically volatile Eifel Mountain weather is proving to be miserable and cold, but mercifully - dry. The car and roster of world-class drivers have already proven themselves imperious, sweeping to both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ 1982 FIA World Sportscar Championship titles, as well as a 1-2-3 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Developed under the direction of Norbert Singer, the 956 is powered by a progressive injection, 2.6-litre turbo engine producing 620bhp, features ground effect aerodynamics, and an experimental, five-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It weighed in at a paltry 800kg.
From left to right - Bellof, Derek Bell, Jochen Mass, Jacky Ickx, Vern Schuppan, John Watson @ 1,000km of Spa
Amongst this fanfare, wunderkind Bellof has something to prove. He is the new kid on the block - fast, aggressive, impish and looked down upon by the team management for a lack of experience. Formula One ace Joachim Mass has already been out in his 956 and recorded a flying lap of 6:16:85 earlier in the weekend, but Bellof’s car is chassis number 007, which has a joker card to play. It’s fitted with bigger 13” rims running a larger camber angle, alongside a modified steering lever to enhance the car’s turning abilities. Even so, when Bellof records an astonishing 6:11.13 qualifying run, the circuit officials are left stunned, with even Bellof’s own manager and course spokesperson Rainer Braun questioning the calibration of the timing equipment in disbelief.
But there was no error. The time was validated and history was made. Not only had Stefan taken the outright lap record, but significantly he became the first to ever average over 200kp/h around the fearsome circuit. The young German's teammate Derek Bell described driving the 956 around the Nürburgring as a constant struggle against the circuit’s notorious bumps. 'With ground effects, we had a lot of trouble keeping the car on the road’. Bellof’s colossal bravery was underlined when reigning F1 World Champion Keke Rosberg qualified his rival 956 with a deficit of over thirty seconds, in the same conditions. Rosberg didn’t make any excuses for the difference, 'I thought [mine] was a good lap until I saw the times,’ Rosberg told Motorsport Magazine. Summing up his milestone achievement, Bellof was nonchalant: “I could have gone even faster. But I made two mistakes. And a 911 briefly got in my way.”
Today's Nurburgring differs from the Green Hell of the lap record
During the race, Bellof scorched away from the chasing pack, in just six laps building up a 36-second lead on Mass, and a two and a half minute one on Rosberg. Team principal Singer ordered Bell to conserve fuel during his turn in the car, but Bellof was unimpressed to find his hard-won lead cut. In his second stint he claimed the fastest lap at 6:25.91, however much to his chagrin he would crash soon after at Pflanzgarten, having finally found the car's limits at over 160mph. Emerging unharmed, Stefan immediately began signing autographs for the gathering crowd.
The fellow Rothmans 956 of Joachim Mass/Jacky Ickx went on to claim victory, with no fewer than eight Porsches occupying the top ten standings. In 1984, the revised Nürburgring GP circuit was completed and the traditional race layout - combining the Nordschleife and GP was dissolved into just the GP. This meant Bellof’s record would stand for over 35 years. It was a record that seemed set to endure, however in a 2018 Porsche took the 956’s spiritual successor - the 919 Evo - to the Nürburgring and shattered the lap record by almost a minute, clocking a 5:19.54 run, set by Timo Bernhard.
Bellof went on to take the 1984 World Sportscar drivers’ title and by the end of the year broke into Formula One, being talked up as a future World Champion. Tragically it wasn’t to be - Bellof died in 1985 behind the wheel of a different 956, during the Spa 1,000km. Battling Jacky Ickx driving the next generation 962, Bellof clipped the rear of the Belgian, causing his 956 to ricochet off the track at Eau Rouge. His life story may have come to a premature end, but those six minutes and eleven seconds ensures his legend lives on forever. On the 28th of May 1983, Stefan Bellof was in the zone.
Stefan Bellof, 20 November 1957 – 1 September 1985