Mairesse was a Formula One driver from Belgium. He participated in 12 Grands Prix. He achieved 1 podium and scored a total of 7 championship points. He committed suicide in a hotel room in Ostend after injury forced an end to his career.
Mairesse drove with a grim determination and frequently came unstuck, suffering a whole series of lurid accidents which burnt and battered his small frame but never dented his fearless approach.
Willy Mairesse was born in Momignies, on the Franco-Belgian border in the province of Hainaut. He started racing at the age of 25, when he joined a friend, Dr. Henry Misonne, in a Porsche 356 on the Liege-Rome-Liege race in 1953. Their attempt comming to a sppedy end with mechanical failure.
In 1954 he entered the race again in his Peugeot 203 driving with Raymond Pirson. They finished the race in 28th and 8th in class. He drove the Peugeot 203 again in 1955 with Maurice Desse as his co-driver. This time he finished 8th overall and won the 1300cc class.
His breakthrough came in 1956 when he switched to a Mercedes 300 SL, competing in several rallies and his first races on closed circuits. He won the Liege-Rome-Liege Rally, beating the favourite, Olivier Gendebien, in the process, which sparked a bitter competition rivalry between the two Belgians. He also raced in the Grand Prix des Frontières in Chimay and the GT Race supporting the German F1 Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, where he finished 3rd.
In 1957 Willy had a number of accidents and it was luck that he had caught the attention of Jacques Swaters, the manager of the team Equipe Nationale Belge. The ENB assigned Mairesse to drive several of their cars in 1957 and 1958. In 1958 he drove his first Nürburgring 1000 km and the Le Mans 24h. Both ended in DNFs. He did finish 2nd in an ENB Ferrari Berlinetta in the Reims 12 Hours.
In 1959 Mairesse clashed with Gendebien once more in the Tour de France, defeating his rival on a number of timed stages but missing out on overall victory.
However his races often ended in accidents and he had to curb his aggresion in order to become a successful racer.
Late in 1959 Ferrari took an interest and offered him a drive in the 1960 Targa Florio. He finished fourth and was taken on as a works driver for both F1 and sports cars. Late in the year he scored the first of two successive Tour de France victories in a Ferrari 250GT, but only after Gendebien of all people had helped him get his car out of a ditch.
He was retained in the sports car team for 1961, taking a number of GT victories and a second place at Le Mans with Parkes. After buying a couple of GP rides at Spa and Reims, Mairesse blew another Ferrari F1 chance by crashing at the Nurburgring, but another win in the Tour de France may have kept him employed in 1962, Willy accepting the role of test driver vacated by Ginther, who had moved to BRM.
The season started with wins in the Brussels and Naples GPs, before more success with victory in the Targa Florio. At the Belgian GP, though, Mairesse was involved in a lurid high-speed accident with Trevor Taylor, receiving burns which kept him out until a comeback at Monza which netted fourth place.
He survived the Ferrari clear-out to partner Surtees in 1965, but his erratic performances culminated in a needless accident at the German GP when he wrote off the car and put himself out of racing for the remainder of the season.
His Ferrari career finally at an end, Mairesse was still a more than useful sports car driver, and joined the Equipe Nationale Beige, winning the 1964 Angola GP in their Ferrari GTO and the Spa 500 Km in 1965. His last major win came the following year when he shared a Filipinetti Porsche 906 Carrera with Herbert Muller to win the Targa Florio.
His accident-prone career finally came to an end early in the 1968 Le Mans 24 Hours when a door flew open on his Ford GT40 whilst on the Mulsanne straight for the first time. He crashed heavily and suffered severe head injuries that left him unconscious for two weeks. He never fully recovered and after a year spent in poor health, and with no prospect of a return to racing, he committed suicide in an Ostend hotel room.