Derek Bell – Two Hours, Five Wins….
And A Whole Lot More

That’s 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.

Our 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.

So 24 years later, I finally caught up with him, at his (former) family home, Little Welbourne, right beside Pagham Harbour, on the Sussex coast.

Church Farm 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 photograph…

I wanted to ask Derek about the Tecno, that F1 car (there were two in fact) that effectively sealed his fate as an F1 driver.

“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 about perfect….

“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…

Derek was sharing the drives with Nanni Galli, but at Clermont Ferrand, it was Derek’s turn… but he didn’t get to race it.

“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 his prime’.

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 feet…

“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.

“But 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 fifth.

“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.”

From Derek’s 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 him.

“I 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.

“As 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 firsts!

‘But we have never been wrong before, Herr Bell….’

“And they 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 row.

“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…

We’ve 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.

“We led 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 left!

“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…..”

Somehow, that 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.

“I must 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.

There 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.

We’re 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.

Derek Bell's 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


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