Rolf Stommelen was one of Germany’s leading racing drivers for over a decade and if as the title (above) of his biography implies, he could drive anything anywhere, this was largely true. Although his Formula 1 career with mediocre teams was patchy, in production cars he was reliably top class. But it was with Porsches that Stommelen was at his best, from amateur wins in his 904 GTS to victory at the Targa Florio and 3rd at Le Mans as a member of the all-conquering Porsche works team. After a spell at Alfa Romeo, he drove private or works supported 935s and 936s almost exclusively for the remainder of his career, becoming German sports car champion in 1977, adding three more Daytona 24 hour trophies to his shelf and all but winning Le Mans in 1979. A real Nürburgring specialist, the undemonstrative Stommelen was a great favourite of the German crowds.
A black and white family photograph from around 1950 and shows a little family group against a drab urban backdrop. In the centre in short trousers and blazer is a curly haired boy, clearly Rolf Stommelen. But the picture is deceptive: the two older children either side of him are cousins and the adults are his aunt and uncle. Rolf was an only child and this family shot is seemingly the only one his biographer could find of his early life.
He was born in 1943: the Stommelens lived in Cologne but Rolf’s father sent his mother 60 miles east to Siegen to escape the worst of the allied bombing and Rolf spent his first couple of years there before returning to Cologne. An unexceptional child, he was neither gifted academically nor especially sporty, but he loved cycling and motorcycles and his father gave him an NSU Fox to ride around his extensive garden. Rolf’s school studies were followed by a technical certificate and he was apprenticed to Cologne’s main VW-Porsche concern: perhaps his father had put in a word for him. Stommelen père had a car workshop and as Germany recovered in the 1950s, his business flourished, expanding into sales and car hire.
The parents were by now separated and Rolf’s father lavished a Porsche Super 90 on his only child and the 19-year old would discover the Nürburgring from the driver’s seat. We can only speculate now on what lobbying went on but by 1964, Rolf Stommelen had Porsche’s latest racer, the 904 GTS, which cost his father a princely DM30,000. The boy would repay Wilhelm Stommelen’s faith in him though: over the next three seasons his record in airfield races and hill climbs earned him a seat in a works 906 at Le Mans in 1966 where he and Günther Klass won the 2-litre category and finished seventh overall. Porsche’s talent spotter Huschke von Hanstein had had the young Kölner in his sight for some time: this performance convinced him and Rolf Stommelen would be on his list of works drivers for Porsche’s 1967 campaign, which with Ferdinand Piëch at the helm, sought nothing less than outright victory at Le Mans. At 23 the youngest member of the squad, Stommelen would be a professional race driver for the rest of his life.
Porsche’s assault on sports car racing would culminate in the 917, an astonishingly fast racer which severely tested its engineers’ understanding of aerodynamics. In the quest for speed, the 917 eschewed downforce because Piëch forbade anything which created drag. The result was a sports racer so unpredictable on the Mulsanne straight that initially few of the works drivers would extend it. Team manager at Le Mans and renowned Porsche development engineer Peter Falk recalls that only Stommelen and the British tearaway Elford were brave enough to put the pedal to the metal. Indeed, Stommelen’s practice time at the 1969 Le Mans April test weekend with the long tail 917 was the fastest (he had recorded second fastest the year before in the 908), the 917 touching 350km/h. In the race two months later, the Stommelen/Ahrens 917 retired, as did all the factory 917s. Shortly afterwards Porsche decided internally to entrust its racing effort for 1970 to the John Wyer organisation which had run the Le Mans winning Gulf Mirages in 1968 and ’69. A second team would be managed by Porsche Salzburg under Martini colours; Porsche would continue to manage development of the cars.
Rolf Stommelen was now Germany’s leading driver: the other young Porsche stars of the sixties had all gone, the brilliant Gerhard Mitter killed in 1969 as was Günther Klass in another track tragedy, and the ‘fourth musketeer’ Udo Schütz, shaken at the loss of his friends, had quit. Yet Stommelen’s name was not among the eight selected for the two Porsche teams. Veteran Hans Herrmann who had often been paired with him believes the Kölner’s outspokenness was probably his downfall. All the drivers were critical at times, especially of the 917, but Stommelen could be vocal. “He wasn’t a diplomat”, said Hermann, “and I think he upset a number of people.” Stommelen was a very determined racer and when things went wrong, he had not at that stage in his life learned how to rein in his frustration. There were cries of spoilt young man, a reference to his favoured beginnings in racing and Porsche engineer, then a team mechanic Valentin Schäffer said he always wanted what Gerhard Mitter had and could be a bit childish about it. Characteristically, Peter Falk is more philosophical, “He was a fine driver – I think early on he suffered from being in the shadow of Mitter.” (Mitter won three hillclimb championships with Rolf twice runner up). So, for 1970, Stommelen had to look elsewhere and turned to the Autodelta team which ran the works Alfa Romeo effort. He knew that Alfa was not Porsche, but he was offered a starting salary of DM550,000, three times what Porsche had paid and he appreciated the altogether warmer atmosphere of the Italian team.
As his country’s foremost driver, there was always pressure on him to enter the top level, Formula 1, and former racer and later Ford team manager Jochen Neerpasch found him a place in the Brabham F1 team with sponsorship from Auto, Motor & Sport journal. 1970 was to prove something of a turning point in Stommelen’s life for not only had he left Porsche, he was Germany’s new hope in F1, its first representative since Wolfgang von Trips. He also married the love of his life that year, Marlene. They would be a very close couple, there were no children and she accompanied him to virtually every race he drove. And he drove a lot as his 1970 results show no fewer than 33 races. Rolf lived to race, Marlene would tell people.
If the Alfa T33 initially proved unreliable, Stommelen was loyal to the Italians. “Wir sind langsam aber lustig,” he joked (“We’re slow but we’re fun”) and in his four years with Autodelta he would mature. His Alfa fellow works drivers, Masten Gregory and Andrea de Adamich like him were also bespectacled and the team was known as the three blind men. It was part of the fun.
His first season in F1, 1970, netted him 10 points including a third in Austria and he got on with Jack Brabham who had a paternal regard for him. But having failed to win a fourth championship that year, the 44-year old Brabham quit and handed the team over to Ron Tauranac who preferred the promising Australian driver Tim Schenken. So, for 1971 Stommelen joined the team of another former world champion John Surtees. The relationship was not a success, Stommelen who never really mastered English, complaining that Surtees always had the better car despite what he thought they had agreed, but if his F1 was a flop, the Alfa T33 had become more reliable and he managed two wins and four seconds in the 3-litre class. Proving his versatility, he also drove a Mercury in a round of the NASCAR at Talladega, recording fastest lap, but retiring. In fact, he was more than competent in production cars, demonstrating this with convincing wins in the famous works ‘Cologne’ Ford Capri in 1974 and successful outings in Schnitzer BMW 2800s.
However, his attempts to be Germany’s standard bearer in F1 continued to disappoint, a March-based F1 entry, the Eiffelland, a car financed by ‘caravan king’ Günther Hennerici was no more effective than the Surtees TS 9 had been. “My grandmother would have been faster,” Rolf complained. Stommelen skipped the 1973 F1 season to return in 1974 in Graham Hill’s Embassy team. He liked the affable and gentlemanly Hill, but thought the team was disorganised, though he committed himself to a further season. At the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, Stommelen found himself unexpectedly in the lead when the rear aerofoil broke off, the car went out of control and he crashed into the crowd, killing five spectators and severely injuring himself. Marlene describes how she slept at his bedside in a Barcelona hospital for two weeks. It was only then that he was well enough to receive the news that his accident had also caused fatalities. Shocked, Stommelen would however not give up. A leg was badly broken and would always give him pain and he lost the top of two fingers, but Marlene describes how with utter determination he trained himself back to fitness to return to on the track in a mere four months.
The Graham Hill venture though came to an abrupt end only three months later when the Briton crashed his light plane a short distance from his London home, killing himself and driver Tony Brise and the team was subsequently disbanded. For his part, Stommelen would try a couple more seasons at F1, including a wretched stint with the Arrows team before finally abandoning his F1career after almost ten years of fruitless endeavour. Jochen Neerpasch believes Stommelen was never suited to Formula 1, “He was an exceptional driver, but he couldn’t communicate what needed to be done to improve the car. In F1 you have to be a development driver too and Rolf wasn’t. He was always better in sports or production cars that needed less setting up.”
Long-time friend, Hugo Emle of Bilstein, believed though that Rolf was more sophisticated technically than people realised. Klaus Bischof agrees. Today, Bischof is curator of the Porsche museum, but in 1967 he was a works mechanic and knew Rolf well. He describes how in 1974 when Porsche came back to racing in the world championship for makes with the Group 4 934, Stommelen, then in his last season with Alfa Romeo would wander over to the Porsche pits, “He spent more time with us than in the Alfa pit. I could see he was homesick, he missed the Porsches.”
Stommelen’s chance would come. In 1976 Porsche entered the new 935 in Group 5, but to his dismay, racing manager Manfred Jantke chose Jochen Mass and that Porsche family favourite Jacky Ickx for the sole works entry. But Mass and Ickx also had grand prix commitments so Jantke turned to Stommelen to drive the dramatic new Spyder, the Group 6 936 at the Nürburgring 300km in April and the Kölner’s fifth place (second in class) in difficult conditions ensured he was once more in the works team, running under Martini colours. Victories at Watkins Glen with Manfred Schurti and the Coppa Florio at Enna in Italy with Mass confirmed Rolf’s return to Porsche.
1977 would prove his best year with 18 Porsche starts, all but one in the Gelo Racing 935, resulted in seven outright wins and four seconds and Rolf Stommelen was German champion. In 1978, his final attempt to make headway in F1 limited his Porsche activity to an eighth place at Le Mans with Schurti and second in the Watkins Glen six hours with Californian Dick Barbour’s 935 after an earlier DNF at Sebring. In 1979, he concentrated once again on Group 5 and four victories resulted as well as his famous second place at a wet, cold Le Mans. In the adjacent pits was Klaus Bischof who described how Stommelen, who was sharing Dick Barbour’s 935 with the owner himself and Paul Newman, had inherited the lead on the Sunday morning. Barbour however insisted that the Porsche have new tyres to look good for the finish, even though those on the car would easily have lasted. To this day, you can almost hear Stommelen’s groan of frustration as a wheel nut jammed, costing the team its vital margin. The ‘hired gun’ of this all-star team, Stommelen, had been lapping at least 20 seconds quicker than the portly Barbour, but driving the final stint in the ailing 935, he could not regain their lead. The picture of the three afterwards shows a delighted looking Barbour and Newman, as well they might be, and a rather less impressed Stommelen. It would be the nearest the Kölner would come to winning at la Sarthe.
He completed three more seasons, winning at Daytona each year and scoring seven other Porsche firsts for the Joest, Andial and Kremer teams. 1983 was his twentieth season and it began well with a third in the Monza 1000km. Then at short notice, he took off to California to race for his old friend, Briton John Fitzpatrick in the Riverside 6 Hours. A highly successful saloon car racer, Fitzpatrick who had raced with Stommelen for Abarth in 1966 and again in the Schnitzer BMW, had gone to California in the late ’70s and established his own racing team for his customers using Porsche 935s. He needed a stand-in for Jochen Mass who had flown to South Africa on honeymoon. As the Stommelens were scheduled to go to Australia, for once Marlene did not accompany Rolf on this four day US trip. She recalls how he had called her at home to enthuse about the Fitzpatrick 935 which had been fastest in practice. At midnight, she had awoken, thinking she heard his voice. She couldn’t sleep after that and when Erwin Kremer telephoned her at 04h00 to say Rolf had crashed badly four hours earlier, she says she knew it must be fatal. In a hideous repetition of his Barcelona accident, the 935, which Rolf had just taken over from Derek Bell, had shed its rear spoiler and hit the unyielding retaining wall at 190mph. It is probable that Stommelen died instantly. He was a few weeks short of his fortieth birthday.
Helmut Flegl was a Porsche chassis engineer closely involved with the 908 and 917. A man of outspoken views, he remembers Rolf Stommelen in the late 1960s as an extremely good driver, “He had no sense of risk, unlike Mark Donohue, and technically he didn’t understand a lot of what was going on. Mitter was a cannier operator, Stommelen didn’t see things. F1 was too political for him.” Flegl believes the thrusting Stefan Beloff, killed at Spa in 1985, was a greater loss. John Fitzpatrick disagrees with Flegl’s assessment, at least in regard to sports cars, pointing out that Stommelen always wanted to get the best out of the car, an anecdote from Klaus Bischof supports this. “At Sebring in 1969, Stommelen’s 908 was one of five Porsches fitted with an experimental ABS that Piëch and Bott wanted to try out. But its slow reaction time made the car uncompetitive and that was why Rolf was so keen to get his hands on the 917. He was hungry, he wanted to win.” Stommelen understood sports racing cars and in the mixed team of an endurance race he was often the best man to drive the last stint and get the car to the line, adds Bischof. And perhaps his critics misunderstood Stommelen’s apparent fearlessness. Marlene claims he weighed up the risks and Manfred Jantke thought his professionalism set him apart from other drivers, “He was making a good living from his racing. He was judicious, he was fast but never too fast.”
This is a good point, because it was an over ambitious overtaking manoeuvre than cost Beloff his life. By contrast, Stommelen had three major accidents, none his fault. His Alfa Romeo left the track at Watkins Glen after a front tyre rubbing on the wing set the car on fire – he was able to climb out unhurt, and Barcelona and Riverside were both catastrophic failures of the aerodynamics. He was masterful in the wet, especially at the ’Ring. He used to say you had to treat the throttle pedal as if it were an eggshell.
Friends remember his courage, his commitment and his absolute honesty. John Fitzpatrick said Rolf was always competitive and always fair. Not for nothing was he a Nürburgring favourite and the organisers could be sure of a bigger attendance if Stommelen was participating. In his first outing in the Porsche 936 Spyder in April 1976 at the ’Ring 300km, the state sponsored Renault Alpines were the cars to beat. On a wet track, so eager was Patrick Depailler to pass Stommelen to retake second place after the first few corners of the opening lap, that he slid straight into his team mate Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the leading Alpine. Both cars crashed into the catch fencing and this led to the fans’ dictum that “You can never outbrake Stommelen at the Nürburgring.”
In fact, Stommelen particularly endeared himself to the shivering spectators on that typically murky Eifel afternoon, for after leading for seven laps the 936’s throttle stuck open. The pit crew could not repair it, but rather than retire as many hired drivers would have, Rolf rejoined the race, simply turning the ignition off for curves and eventually finishing fifth. It was typical of the seriousness of the man and indeed of the Porsche engineering tradition of sticking to the task. He never took his public for granted though, always taking the time to sign autographs and careful, as his biographer Michael Behrndt points out, to make his signature legible.
A reserved personality unlike his contemporary the flamboyant Jochen Mass, the shy Stommelen often looks uncomfortable in public photographs. He and Marlene lived quietly, though not monastically. Home was a place to recover, “We were always travelling,” recalled Marlene. Friends recall that the sunny Stommelen – immer optimistisch, was fun to be with. Essentially though, Rolf’s whole existence was dedicated to his racing. After Barcelona, Marlene persuaded herself that he was invulnerable, otherwise, she said, “I would have gone mad with worry. I’d have preferred him to be a top-class tennis player. I’d have supported him through that, but I didn’t want to tell him because his racing was so important to him.” Stommelen kept very fit, running and cycling long before this kind of regime became fashionable or compulsory. Skiing and tennis were ruled out after his Barcelona injuries and he really took to cycling. Hugo Emle believes he was even good enough to be a professional cyclist.
A racing driver of the old school, Rolf Stommelen would now, you might suspect, be something of an anachronism in today’s highly controlled and antiseptic professional motor racing scene where drivers as expected to be as capable of smiling on endless PR occasions as they are of taking team orders. His natural instincts of bravery and an unfailing 100% effort would be expected to be subservient to the requirements of a team strategy. This was never Rolf, and he would not have fitted in.
Clearly, in the politics of racing circles, Stommelen was not universally popular, his friends however, appreciated a man who spoke his mind and always played fair. Because they could rely on Rolf to give of his best, the German race fans loved him. Besides delivering years of entertainment, through his exploits with the 935 especially, he probably did more to establish the 911 Turbo in competition than any other driver. And he would undoubtedly have been a tremendous asset to the growing historic racing movement.
Rolf Stommelen: 11 July 1943 – 24 April 1983
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche