Derek Bell – Two Hours, Five Wins….
And A Whole Lot More
five Le Mans wins of course – but that could have been a TK-equalling
seven, perhaps even eight.
Derek Bell and I had aimed to get together during
the Sebring 12 Hours meeting in mid-March, but Derek was incredibly
busy, having just flown in from Moscow (where he was performing
ambassadorial duties for Bentley), to host a luncheon to induct
the latest group of names into the Sebring Hall of Fame.
We managed half
an hour then, and agreed to adjourn until late April, at his former
family home in Pagham, Sussex.
paths had crossed twice before, but on neither occasion was the
Editor an Editor. The first time was at the Crystal Palace circuit
in south London, on May 31 1971. I was 15 at the time, and a rather
shy 15. Derek was among a group of friends, at the conclusion of
the day’s racing. He’d finished an unrepresentative
eighth in the Hilton Transport Trophy Race for F2 cars – driving
a March 712M for none other than Frank Williams. His partner at
Williams that day was one Henri Pescarolo, a man whose name would
crop up later – about 35 years later!
Looking at the
result that day – here
- you can’t help but be struck by the quality of the F2 field:
Fittipaldi, Schenken, Peterson, Jaussaud, Reutemann, Birrell, Pace,
Jarier, Quester, Wisell, Depailler, Walkinshaw, Hill, Siffert, Watson,
Lauda, Cevert, Jabouille, Stommelen, Wollek, Stuck, Brambilla, Hunt,
Merzario, Beltoise and Marko. There was a Grand Prix field if ever
there was one – but I didn’t gather many autographs.
I did gather Derek Bell’s – and Ronnie Peterson’s,
Carlos Pace’s and Henri Pescarolo’s. Only two of them
would see the end of that decade.
Jump ahead to a school playing field in Sussex –
in late 1982, I think.
While Derek Bell had been winning Le Mans several
times, I’d been to university, faffed about, decided I’d
be a teacher, despaired of state education – and ended up
teaching at a preparatory school in Sussex. As a games player myself,
once upon a time, I soon adopted the role of rugby coach, football
coach and (my favoured sport) cricket coach. In late ’82,
I drove the mini-bus to Great Ballard School, and there on the touchline
was none other than D. Bell. His son Justin was playing for the
opposition, and my recollection is that Sompting Abbotts beat Great
Ballard. Justin cast his mind back and reckoned Sompting used to
win most of the games between the two schools – but Sompting
was a bigger school.
Did I talk to
Derek that day? No.. I was either too in awe of the man (most likely)
or too busy following the progress of the game.
24 years later, I finally caught up with him, at his (former) family
home, Little Welbourne, right beside Pagham Harbour, on the Sussex
is just along the lane (far more than just a farm these days), and
Church Farm Racing was Derek’s single seater team in the late
1960s – with the young man supported by his step-father, ‘The
Colonel’ (Bernard Hender).
Now the Derek
Bell story is a lengthy one, and two hours in his company was never
going to be enough to tell anything like the whole tale. For that,
I can refer you to “Derek Bell – My Racing Life"
(ISBN 1-85260-107-8), by Derek Bell and Alan Henry – a copy
of which I found in a second hand bookshop, many years ago. Someone
borrowed it though, and for the life of me, I can’t remember
to whom I lent it… but Derek came to the rescue, and loaned
me one of his dwindling supply.
I remember thinking when I first read it, ten or
15 years ago, that here was the best motor racing biography (autobiography
in reality) I’d ever read – and I still think that now.
One reason is that the story is absolutely fascinating, another
that Bell comes across as such a human and likeable chap, but thirdly,
this book isn’t one of those dry, in-sequence stories (and
then I raced at Anderstorp, where the car had an oil leak, then
we went to Monza etc. etc): it leaps about from one era to another,
one tale to another, but it still makes absolute sense. Alan Henry
did a brilliant job of telling us who Derek Bell is.
He did so in 200 pages – I’m going to
try and do something similar, in a few thousand words. If you can
find a copy of that book, you’ll enjoy every moment, every
I wanted to ask Derek about the Tecno, that F1 car
(there were two in fact) that effectively sealed his fate as an
“That bloody thing – why does anyone
want to ask me about that! The Tecno ****ed my F1 career….”
Or in other words, turned him into the sportscar
star we’re so keen to learn more about?
But in discussing “the bloody Tecno”
we find that Derek Bell in the late sixties / early seventies was
every bit the coming man, and there should have been a glittering
career ahead of him – and in F1, that career should have really
taken off in 1972…
“I’d been racing the John Wyer 917s
in 1971 (as well as that Frank Williams March in F2), but when that
project was disbanded (the three litre rule arrived in ’72),
David Yorke was asked by Martini & Rossi to set up an F1 team.
David seemed to have a high opinion of me – after all, I’d
finished up second in F2 in 1970, behind Regazzoni, and I’d
beaten the whole bloody lot in F2 that year.. Stewart, Regazzoni,
all of them.
“I was at the top of my game, and driving
the 917s had given my morale a huge boost. David Yorke and I got
on very well – he always called me ‘son’ –
and he explained that the plan was to run Carlos Reutemann and I
in a couple of Brabhams. I’d always had a great relationship
with Ron Tauranac’s cars.. starting in 1967, when I won eight
F3 races, against the best of them. I’d raced the BT30 in
F2 in 1970, and the thought of an F1 Brabham in 1972 sounded just
“Then out of the woodwork came the Tecno….
Somehow the Tecno people had persuaded Martini to back an Italian
car, but why David didn’t put his foot down I’ll never
know. In fairness, Tecno had built some wonderful F3 and F2 cars
– but it sounds as ridiculous now as it did then. Let’s
go and set up a new team, build our own cars and take on Ferrari
at its own game. Yeah, right.
“Throughout October and November ’71
we were waiting for the first car to be built, and eventually we
were summoned to the Pirelli test track near Turin, one frosty morning
in early December. They filled it up with boiling water, started
it up – and that bloody car just ran and ran. In fairness,
I wasn’t caning it, partly because the barriers there were
at a height that was more suitable for road cars than single seaters,
and if I’d hit them, I would have gone under them…..
“Of course we had no times to compare it with,
but it was reliable – and David Yorke and I concluded that
‘It didn’t go badly, did it?’ “
There is the suggestion, in Derek’s book,
that the design for the flat-12 was identical to that of Ferrari’s
flat-12 – and that perhaps someone had walked out of Fiorano
with the drawings for Mauro Forghieri’s engine.. which would
explain why the engine actually went quite well…
was sharing the drives with Nanni Galli, but at Clermont Ferrand,
it was Derek’s turn… but he didn’t get to race
“In the first session, it was going quite
well, but in every session thereafter, it felt worse and worse.
Whatever we did to it, it handled more and more badly.
“ ‘Sorry old son, you’re not going
to race it,’ were David Yorke’s words on race morning.
The bolts holding the engine to the chassis had been progressively
breaking, and the car was becoming more and more like a big hinge.”
So 1972, in F1 at least, turned into a complete
shambles. In the autumn of 1971, the prospect of racing a Brabham,
with Reutemann, was particularly appealing, because “I used
to beat Reutemann all the time.”
Now there’s the second prompt from Derek Bell
– a reminder, if you like, of how very, very good he was ‘in
He’d had his chance as a factory F1 driver
already – with Ferrari no less – but he didn’t
have a fair crack at it, simple as that. He knew he could beat these
F1 drivers – because he’d beaten them in F3, he’d
beaten them in F2. Confidence was high – and nothing that
had happened in ’71, racing with Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez,
changed his view of his own ability.
But there’s a difference between self-confidence
and a feeling of invincibility..
“If I was arranging, say, a game of squash
for the week after a race, I’d always cover myself by adding
“all being well”. After all, we lost both Jo Siffert
and Pedro Rodriguez in 1971 – the last year of the 917s and
neither of them saw the end of the (calendar) year….
“We were crazy I suppose – doing those
speeds, with your feet ahead of the centre line of the front wheels,
and very little protection ahead of you, apart from the frame to
support the bodywork.”
And apparently that bodywork used to deflect at
high speeds, and could make contact with an Englishman’s large
“When I raced at Le Mans in the 512S in 1970,
we could just about take the kink on Mulsanne flat – at about
215. A year later, it was absolutely flat in the long tail 917,
at 246 mph. John Wyer was proved right, that the short tail car
was still the better bet at Le Mans, because a short tail won. Our
car went out with a crack in an oil gallery.
“My last serious run in a 917 was at Silverstone
in the early ‘90s. David Piper asked me to drive his 917,
and John Fitzpatrick and I agreed that we must both have been crazy.
David had ‘found’ the 917 in Australia, and my reaction
was that I had to drive it, never really thinking of the implications
of driving a 20 year old 917. I qualified it on pole in the damp,
with a time that would have put me third on the grid in the 1000
Km race. I won the race – well, I had to, didn’t I?
“The whole of the F1 grid would have given
their eye teeth to drive the 917s in their heyday, so it wasn’t
something you would ever decide not to do.
“Although I drove with Jo Siffert, I didn’t
know him that well. Six months or so, that was all – and then
he died at the Championship Victory race at Brands Hatch. He looked
upon me as the young lad, and I listened to everything he said –
although he wasn’t a great technical man. He had a rather
gravelly voice, and he was a huge star in his own country. As a
Brit, racing in sportscars at the time, it was a bit strange. Jimmy,
Graham, Jackie – they had been my heroes, but I was in sportscars.
Jo certainly had a very pleasant demeanour, but there was a definite
sense of aggravation between he and Pedro. I think Pedro was a little
bit quicker, but Jo was bloody quick.
Pedro had that ability to pull something extra out of the bag.”
The image on
the right must include Derek somewhere in the background - because
this is the start of the 1970 Spa 1000 Km, with Siffert in #24 and
Rodriguez in #25 already having fun and games into Eau Rouge.
Derek Bell’s first race of that 1971 season
was both a rewarding one and a distressing one.
“Jo and I won the first race – in Buenos
Aires. Jackie Oliver had stuffed the other car in testing, and Pedro
had to fly out with a spare front. Jackie wasn’t very popular
that weekend, Jo and I had a fairly straightforward win, but that
was the race when poor old Giunti was killed, in the Ferrari.”
At Daytona, the JW Porsches had a new rival –
the Penske Ferrrai 512M.
“Although the front of the 917 wasn’t
known for its strength, the front corners were actually very strong.
Pedro seemed to spend much of the race punting the Ferrari around
and it finished up a mass of tape and not much else. You’d
never do that at Le Mans, although I suppose the speeds were pretty
high at Daytona too.
“At Sebring, we ran out of fuel, and Pedro
appeared on a motorbike, and I jumped on with a gallon of fuel in
a can on my lap. We got penalised for that…” They finished
“At Spa, I put our car on pole, and Pedro
said to me ‘I think it is time that you drive with me Derek’.
I never did, and he lost his life in Herbert Muller’s Ferrari,
in July I think.”
That Spa event remains the fastest ever road course
race, Derek Bell catching up with Jack Oliver in the closing stages,
the two cars finishing four tenths apart – in a race that
was completed in just over four hours.
Drivers tended to show each other more respect then
(Senna and Schumacher tactics were still a long way away), “although
at Hockenheim for Formula 2 one year, Reutemann nearly had me in
the trees. I was livid about that, confronted him, and shoved him
up against the truck.
“But I’d been used to racing F3s all
around Europe, and at places like Enna, Hockenheim, Chimay and Monza,
we’d regularly be four abreast – and often there would
be four rows of cars. 16 of us hurtling round…”
From the 1967
report of F3s at Chimay, in Autosport….. Pescarolo
led at the end of the first of ten laps, but from then on it was
almost impossible too see who was ahead. For whoever came past first
on one corner was almost certainly second or third at the next….
On the last lap the leaders entered the village in the same close-knit
group that they had held throughout the race… then on the
second right hander on a double bend at the back of the circuit,
Ahrens got himself all crossed up and sideways coming out of the
corner. The German bounced off the straw bales, sliding sideways
up the circuit, only to be rammed by Peter Gethin.. Westbury miraculously
picking his way through….
Derek Bell came third in that one, but the text
does give a flavour of F3 at the time – all this on a road
course measuring 10.45 kms, with a fastest lap of 3:24.1.
As another Bell (Rob) commented recently, a single
seater career is good practice for endurance racing, because if
you touch another car, you’re probably out of the race…
or in the 1960s, you were probably heading for a hedge, straw bales,
trees, a house…
Derek Bell: “In all my 30 years in sportscars,
I never once failed to finish through making a driving error.
“When I was with Bentley for their Le Mans
years, there wasn’t much I needed to say to the likes of Brundle
and Ortelli – so my only real advice was to make sure that
they didn’t touch anything.”
That advice is remarkably similar to that offered
by Henri Pescarolo, to his drivers at Le Mans (and why he was so
annoyed when it was ignored by one of them in 2005).
“Henri was in one of the factory Matras in
F3 in ’67, with Jaussaud and Beltoise.”
Pescarolo was one of the drivers taken out in that
last lap shemozzle at Chimay.
“Henri was always a quiet, dour but charming
man: he didn’t speak much English then, but he always liked
a good story. He had a very good sense of humour, and he just got
on and did a heck of a job.
“We raced the Kauhsen Alfa Romeos together
in 1975, and won four races together that year. We were perfectly
matched – but I suppose the only thing that Henri didn’t
have was that star quality that Jacky Ickx had. Ickx always had
that ability to pull something special out of the bag.”
book: “I was particularly chuffed at Watkins Glen when
I qualified my own car on pole position and, effectively took second
place in the spare. What made it all the more satisfying was that
I was quicker than Mario Andretti, who had joined the team for this
race. That was important to me because I wasn’t in Formula
1 any more and you spend a lot of time in sportscar racing wondering
just how good you really are. You don’t often come up against
a great driver like that, so it was gratifying to have out-qualified
got quite a kick from winning at Spa where I beat Jacky Ickx fair
and square on his home ground in the same car. He drove one of the
Alfas in that race and I remember the battle I had trying to get
past him. It was wet, yet again, as we hurtled down through Eau
Rouge and up through Raidillon, I was right on his tail, catching
him all the way.
we went up through the long hill, Jacky would move from one side
to the other, just enough to make it too difficult for me to overtake…
but eventually I came through Eau Rouge so much faster than him
and barged my way past going up the hill.”
Derek fails to point out that he’d grabbed
the pole at this Spa race too, and having got the better of his
exalted Belgian team-mate, his Spa partner, Pescarolo, did the same
to Ickx’s partner, Merzario (who was sometimes off the pace
in the wet at Spa), and Bell-Pescarolo won by a lap.
That was the kind of form that Ickx and Bell typically
showed later in the ‘70s, and then in the ‘80s, with
the legendary 956 (then 962).
“When Jacky and I won Le Mans with the ‘Jules’
car, in ’81, well, I’d never even sat in it until qualifying
– and I ended up setting the fastest lap that year. That car
summed up Porsche 25 years ago: they could turn up at Le Mans with
a brand new car – and we never once lifted the engine cover.
“After that win, I was summoned by Professor
Bott, who said he wanted me to drive for Porsche in 1982. He told
me about the 956 – that they were building Porsche’s
first monocoque chassis, Porsche’s first ground effect car
and the first ground effect car to be fitted with a flat-six. It
didn’t sound very appealing put like that – too many
have never been wrong before, Herr Bell….’
weren’t wrong, were they? Norbert Singer (with the car
before the start, above) was the engineer of course –
quite simply the greatest engineer I’ve ever worked with.
Michael Cotton asked me to write the foreword to his book on Norbert,
and I’m looking forward to reading that.
“Norbert has always been such a quiet, unassuming
man – but he’d always help, even if you were in a rival
car. At Le Mans in ’94, I was driving the Kremer K8, in Gulf
colours. We had a terrible vibration at the test days, even at three-quarter
speed: it was so bad, the wing mirrors fell off!
“I felt that it had to be something to do
with the body or the floor, and asked Norbert what thickness floor
they were running on the Dauer Porsches. They were using 20 mm –
we had been using 12 mm. I ended up putting that car on the front
“I think Norbert’s whole life was Porsche
then – but perhaps it’s not quite the same there now.”
Bell and Ickx – “there wasn’t
another driver I wanted to drive with” – won Le Mans
in ’82, the first year of the 956s, and nearly won it the
following year too. If we add the ‘nearly but not quites’
in Derek’s Le Mans career, we can probably come up with a
potential eight wins…
1983 was a classic race in the Cracknell-sportscarworld-etc-etc-dailysportscar
story, because it was the first time I’d made it to the great
race… so perhaps you could argue that if Derek Bell’s
drive that year (and the whole event) hadn’t made such an
impression upon me, you wouldn’t be reading this now…
covered the incident at the start (here),
when Jacky Ickx apparently outfumbled himself at Mulsanne Corner..
“but after that, Jacky and I made up a lap on the whole field,
and I was leading at 6 am. I got to Mulsanne Corner, and the engine
just stopped. I’m not very good mechanically, but I took the
tail off, changed a sensor, changed the coil, changed the ECU, and
something else I think, can’t remember what, and I turned
the key and it started. I left the engine running (that six cylinder
would idle quite happily), and with all the mechanics at the signalling
post there encouraging me, I got hold of the tail and ran it forward
over the rear wheels. It just fell into place, and I got it back
to the pits for Jacky to take over.
again later on in the morning – then an oil cooler pipe split
and we had to have the cooler changed.
“An hour from the end, I wasn’t in a
particularly ‘generous’ frame of mind, and hid myself
away in the motorhome. To be honest, I was exhausted. Anyway, Norbert
found me and explained that we ought to have the discs changed:
the fronts had four radial cracks in them, and John Fitzpatrick
had already had a disc shatter on his car.
“The job would have taken four minutes. The
other option was to run slowly to the finish. When Jacky came in,
I was shouting at the mechanics to get out of the way – I’d
decided that ignorance was bliss, and I was going to give it a go.
“We were less than a lap behind the Haywood
/ Schuppan / Holbert car, and I was having to use the gears to slow
the car as much as possible. The gap was about 2 mins. 40 seconds
and shrinking, and I broke the lap record twice, despite the brakes.
It wasn’t a one-off, achieving something like that, but it
only happens now and again in your career – finding something
special like that.”
The Ed.’s recollection of that last hour was
that suddenly here was the Derek Bell-driven #1 car on a real mission:
he came flying through the Esses at a speed that no other car even
approached, at this late stage of the race.
“I was catching Vern Schuppan at 20 or 30
seconds a lap in the end, because his water temperature had gone
off the clock. Then they told me over the radio that the needle
on his car had gone back to zero – because there was no water
“Tongue in cheek, I told them over the radio
to call him in. Even on the last lap I was still going for it –
although it was bloody dangerous, with the marshals all on the track,
waving their flags.
“My father timed the gap between us as we
both went through the Ford Chicane, and it was 26 seconds…..”
flat-six in #3 had held together.
So that was
26 seconds short of what have been six wins at Le Mans (seven for
Ickx). The first for these two (driving together) came in 1975 (above),
the first for Ickx being the classic 1969 win. But Derek Bell could
have been a winner in 1968, if a certain Formula 1 drive hadn’t
got in the way.
John Wyer had given Derek Bell a test in a Gulf
GT40 at Thruxton, and, suitably impressed, had offered him the drive
with Pedro Rodriguez – in the race that was held in September
that year. But Derek was asked to race in the United States Grand
Prix, for the Ferrari Formula 1 team, and anyway, Enzo would never
have released him to drive a Ford. Rodriguez and Bianchi won that
1968 race of course… and Derek didn’t get to drive a
sports car until 1970.
That was the Jacques Swaters, Ecurie Francorchamps
Ferrari 512S – at Spa.
have met Jacques through David Piper – and I ended up buying
a silver 275 GTB4 from Jacques. It was a year old, and I think it
cost me £3,000.. heaven knows how much it would be worth now.”
This is that
very car, seen during filming of Steve McQueen's Le Mans
- with the Bell family pictured with the Ferrari.
Bell drove with Hughes de Fierlandt at Spa, but
the Belgian was “many seconds slower than me, even though
it was my first time in a big sports car. I was worried that I wasn’t
quicker, but I didn’t know how good the 917s were! Then Ferrari
asked me to drive a factory 512S at Le Mans, but I’d made
a commitment to Jacques. He quickly became a good friend, but he
urged me to drive for the factory, because otherwise he wouldn’t
get any spare parts for his car.
“So there we were, struggling to take the
kink at 215….”
Which is more or less where we came in, 4,000 words
or more ago. Derek drove with Ronnie Peterson, but the pair of new
boys were offered precisely zero guidance on racing at Le Mans.
are vast areas of this man’s career that we haven’t
even touched upon (such as receiving his MBE in 1987, left) –
so you’ll just have to go and track down a copy of Derek Bell’s
book. Perhaps Derek’s only regret is that he wasn’t
given a fair crack at F1, by Ferrari – “Perhaps I came
into it too early: I sometimes wish I’d got into F1 three
or four years later.
“I’ve noticed with Justin that he’s
driving better now than ever before.” Justin raced with none
other than Ron Fellows at the Rolex 24, and also raced the Derhaag
Riley at Homestead’s Grand Am race in March of this year.
As one Bell era at Le Mans closed (in 1996, with
the Harrods McLaren) so another one opened, with Justin racing the
Oreca Vipers – to a GTS win in 1998.
expecting to hear more of the Justin Bell racing career shortly
– so for now, it’s time to thank Derek Bell for his
time, for his memories, and also for all the entertainment he’s
provided over the years.
Perhaps if he
didn’t have that Ferrari carrot dangling over him in 1968,
he might have won that Le Mans. If the sister 956’s engine
had boiled dry even 30 seconds sooner, he would have crossed the
line first in 1983 – and if Jan Lammers hadn’t been
such a clever chap with an XJR-9 gearbox in 1988, Bell, Stuck and
Ludwig would have won that one.. but we all wanted the Jaguar to
win in ’88, didn’t we? Five wins is still a magnificent
record. Derek Bell, we salute you.
record in World Sports Car Championship races (including Sebring
and Le Mans) is here.
There are (were?)
six copies of Derek's book available here