Extreme close-up

Steve McQueen – Le Mans, 1970
For Steve McQueen, making a film of the Le Mans race was a passion. And passion can tempt you into taking risks
Writer Gordon Cruickshank, Illustrator Guy Allen

Le Mans. It’s 1970.

You’re Derek Bell, caning a Ferrari 512 into Maison Blanche with Jo Siffert’s Porsche 917 nudging your gearbox; foot down, touching 160mph, you feed the scarlet car through the long left-hand curve, let it run wide to the right on the exit – and something lying in the middle of the road flashes past your left wheels. A body.

A body with a camera…

Bell is used to cameras by now. This most famous race of all is being immortalised on celluloid by Steve McQueen. That means a squad of Ferraris, Porsches and Lolas re-enacting scenes from the real race a month or two before, handled by serious drivers – Bell, Siffert and McQueen himself, who as well as starring is no mean racer. They have the track to themselves, there are no spectators, the camera is meant to be on the grassy left-hand verge – what the hell’s going on?

The shooting over, Bell climbs out of his car. Director John Sturges (later replaced by Lee Katzin) is delighted with the scene, but Bell is seething. “There’s some !*@*^%*@ nutcase lying in the track!” Sturges radios to McQueen, who roars up on his motorbike, helmetless, hair flying. The angry director grills him about why he’s placed a cameraman in such a dangerous place.

McQueen shrugs, grins that sardonic grin. “Oh, that was me.”

He’s a racer, this Hollywood star, and he knows racers. He knows they’ll follow a precise line, that the cars will drift right on that exit. He trusts their inch-perfect skills to keep him safe as he lies prone, unprotected, unexpected, inches inside the racing line. He has to go there, it’s where the good shot is. For mavericks the rules don’t count.

It’s a memorable scene in a unique film, one that many enthusiasts count as the greatest racing movie. And there’s one moment of filming Derek Bell will never forget…