Willy Mairesse's story begins on October 1, 1928, in Momignies, a Belgian village near the Chimay road track, which is still open today. Although Chimay's name makes one think more of beers than cars, Mairesse's passion is precisely speed. At the outbreak of World War II Willy is only eleven, at the end he is sixteen, but it will take another nine years before he starts racing. The first race in which he participates is the Liege-Rome-Liege of 1953, in which he enters with a private Porsche 356. For the following year he buys a Peugeot 203, and paired with Pirson he finishes twenty-sixth of thirty-three drivers at the finish.
With the same car he retries the race in 1955 and wins in the 1300cc class paired with Maurice Desse, finishing eighth overall. Subsequently, Willy decides to devote himself to rallies, and buys a Mercedes 300SL with which he obtains the absolute first place at the Liege-Rome-Liege 1956 together with Willy Genin, beating an ace from the wheel like Olivier Gendebien who will finish third on a Ferrari 250GT. Success in a side race at the 1956 German Grand Prix draws the attention of Ecurie Nationale Belge, founded and managed by former Ferrari driver Jacques Swaters. He gets a contract for three years driving sports cars, but without great results. His best result is a second place at the 12 Hours of Reims.
In 1959 Mairesse was fighting with Olivier Gendebien for the victory of the automobile Tour de France: he did not win but was noticed by Enzo Ferrari, who called him to test and drive official Ferraris for the 1960 season. Willy made his debut in the Belgian Grand Prix, his home race, in 1960, aboard a Ferrari 246F1. In qualifying he is thirteenth out of nineteen entrants, but last of the Ferraris. In the race he is fighting with the English driver Chris Bristow and is involved in the accident that cost him his life in Burneville. Mairesse then retires during the twenty-third lap due to the transmission failure. The press describes him as a bad boy very prone to unfairness, and even his colleagues have little faith in him; but Mairesse never gives weight to criticism, since in her view accidents and contacts are part of the game. In the next race, the French Grand Prix in Reims, Willy is fifth in qualifying, second among the Ferrari drivers. In a race dominated by the Cooper-Climax, which obtained the top four positions, Mairesse retired in the first laps, again due to the transmission.
Subsequently, the Belgian driver does not participate in the Silverstone and Boavista events, but returns to the track in Monza, where the Ferraris conquer the front row in qualifying. Mairesse is third on the starting grid, behind Hill and Ginther. More detached Wolfgang von Trips, sixth. In the race the top three maintain their positions until the finish line: for Mairesse these are the first points in Formula 1 and his first and only podium. The race is characterized by the absence of the English teams, protesting against the decision to use the speed ring.
In 1961 Willy drives three different cars in Formula 1 in three races: first a Lotus 18, then a Lotus 21 and finally a Ferrari 156 F1. But he retires in all races: in Belgium due to an injection problem, then in France due to engine failure and finally at the Nurburgring due to an accident. In the 1960 and 1961 editions of the automobile Tour de France, Willy took first place, and even had the opportunity to drive on the most famous tracks, such as Le Mans, Spa, and Sebring. However, his races are always punctuated by accidents and mechanical failures.
However, the Belgian driver can boast two victories at the Targa Florio in 1962 and 1966. At the wheel of the Ferrari 156 F1 he participates in six other races between 1962 and 1963: Fourth in qualifying in Monte Carlo, Willy fails to finish the race due to a loss of oil pressure, but is ranked seventh for completing ninety per cent of the expected distance. During the 1962 Belgian Grand Prix, Willy had his first serious accident: fighting with Trevor Taylor for second place, the Belgian driver was thrown out of the car at Blanchimont. The car catches fire, and Willy comes out with burns and scratches all over his body. Fortunately he can get back on track in a short time.
And in fact, at the Italian Grand Prix he is tenth in qualifying. In the race, then, he recovers up to fourth place: his second placement in points will also be the last in Formula 1, arriving on the same track as the first podium. Outside the Formula 1 arena, paired with Surtees, he won the 1000 Kilometers of the Nurburgring in 1963. At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, however, a wrong pit stop caused a fire to the car, which forced them to retire.
The 1963 Formula 1 season opens with two consecutive retirements in Monte Carlo and Spa, first due to the clutch and then to the engine; subsequently, on August 4, 1963 will mark the end of Mairesse's career in Formula 1. Ferrari joins him with John Surtees in the second car, on the weekend in which the former British motorcyclist leads the Maranello team to success for the first time. from the 1961 Italian Grand Prix.
On the first lap Mairesse ends up off the track at Flugplatz, runs over a safety officer who will lose his life, and the Belgian driver himself is seriously injured: fractured legs and arms and injuries to nerves and muscles. The various injuries will force him to abandon Formula 1. Later he will attempt to participate in the 1964 Belgian Grand Prix on BRM P57, but will not take to the track in any of the scheduled sessions. Willy, however, continues to race in the endurance categories and reports good results: first in the 1965 Angola Grand Prix and at the 500 Kilometers of Spa with a private Ferrari 250LM in the same year, then he is third overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Ferrari 275GTB. In 1966 he drives to victory, paired with the Swiss Herbert Muller, a Porsche 906 at the Targa Florio.
Two years later, taking part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Willy Mairesse faces another very serious accident: at the start the Belgian driver does not wear his seat belts correctly, and during the first lap a badly closed door of his Ford GT40 betrays him on the Hunaudieres. The accident is devastating and the driver comes out alive but with very serious head injuries, remaining in a coma for two weeks. He will never fully recover, and he will never be able to run again. Deprived of his great passion, Willy falls into depression before him and then commits suicide in a hotel room in Ostend in 1969.
His colleagues, speaking of Mairesse, remember him for his haunted eyes before the start and for his estrangement from the world during the race. Extremely aggressive and with a strong propensity to seek contact, Willy paid for his impetuousness with numerous accidents, which never allowed him to shine among the stars of motoring despite his great speed skills. Mauro Forghieri's words clearly describe the impetuousness and skill of one of those few drivers remembered not for their great victories, but for their recklessness:
"The GTO was the result of Giotto Bizzarrini's work. At first the car was really ugly to look at and once it was homologated and produced some serious set-up defects came to the surface. Willy Mairesse was commissioned to carry out road tests and went to test it on the bends of Bologna-Florence where he flew off the road destroying the car. The Belgian driver was initially blamed for going off the road, but he gave us a lot of explanations about what happened, convincing us that it was the car's fault and not his. He said that the GTO oscillated a lot at speed and had a self-steering behavior that made it dangerous and unstable at high speeds. We finally understood the problem. The Belgian was a man who made himself loved very well, he came from a high family but he was very humble in his work. Mairesse was one of the strongest and most courageous drivers I have known. He had a bad accident where everything burned down due to a bad refueling. He had to stop. He was full of burns, but he came to me anyway before being hospitalized to inform me of what had happened. He had a crazy liver, so much so that he chose to commit suicide when he realized that he could no longer live by his physical standards".