He was one of the best endurance racers of his generation, but his story is one of the saddest from the 1960s era of motorsport: Willy Mairesse. The Belgian had survived a long career featuring ups, downs, and some horrific accidents. Then in 1968, after he had retired from motor racing to focus on his business and his family, Mairesse decided to make a comeback at the Le Mans 24 Hours. Again he crashed badly, and this time, he never fully recovered from his injuries. On 2 September 1969, unable to bear the physical and psychological trauma he had suffered, Willy Mairesse committed suicide. 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of his death.
Nürburgring, late May 1964. Jacques Swaters, the team boss of Ecurie Garage Francorchamps (EGF), entered two cars into the 1,000-kilometre race: a 250 GTO/64 (#5575) and a brand-new 250 LM (#5843), which had arrived just weeks earlier. The Belgian squad planned to run four drivers: Lucien Bianchi, Jean Blaton (who raced under the pseudonym ‘Beurlys’), Pierre Dumay and Gérard Langlois. At Swater’s invitation another well-known racer was added to the line-up: Willy Mairesse.
Mairesse, still recovering from his big crash at the ’Ring 10 months earlier, returned to the Eifel for the first time. Thanks to a successful operation and an intense rehabilitation programme, he’d all but regained full strength in his right arm. But the long road to recovery had taken its toll on his morale. The invitation from an old friend to come to the Nürburgring was timely. Willy desperately needed it, his psyche at its lowest. The pure joy of being back at a race track, back with his friends, was the right medicine.
In practice the drivers struggled with the mid-engine 250 LM, Swaters having to endure plenty of complaints: ‘This is not a Ferrari. The car is impossible to drive.’ Suddenly, Mairesse waltzed out of the garage, wearing his helmet, and jumped into the car. ‘I’ll do a few laps to see what is possible,’ he said. Swaters gave his man the green light, and watched in amazement as he left the pits at walking pace. After the out lap Swaters switched on his stopwatch, and was even more amazed at what he saw when Mairesse finished his first flyer. He’d just set the fastest lap of any of the EGF drivers. Back in the pits Willy swiftly suggested some brake and tyre changes. The feeling within the team was that Willy was back. And Willy himself felt it, too. Maybe the free fall was over. Maybe it was time to get back on top…
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by Etienne Bourguignon
Photographs: Sammlung Peter Hoffmann, André van Bever, Bernard Cahier, Sammlung Nils Ruwisch, Sammlung Etienne Bourguignon, The Revs/Eric Della Faille, Klemantaski, Motorsport Images, Sigurd Reilbach