Long-distance operator

One of Britain's unsung motorsport heroes, Derek Bell's sportscar skills are often overlooked by an F1-hungry media. Andrew Frankel asks a living legend to reflect on his exploits at Le Mans which yielded five superb wins

Cold, wet day at Snetterton. Team Bentley are testing the new EXP Speed 8 Le Mans car. The press have been invited and Derek Bell is doing what he does second-best: entertaining and informing, being the greatest ambassador any team could hope to have. Meet Derek for the first time and I guarantee you will leave his company convinced you have met him before and that, against all the odds, it is you and not Derek who has forgotten the event.

His hand waits while yours struggles to find its way out of your pocket: the eyes fix, friendly, sincere and focused not somewhere in the middle distance but clearly and singly on you. "How are you?" It's a simple gambit but delivered so it beats your hastily prepared introductory "Hello, I'm..." patter by at least three lengths, so it has a knockout effect. You know as well as you know the sky is blue (above the grey) that you are going to like this bloke; this bloke to whom you have yet to utter a single syllable, this bloke who seems at least as interested in you as you are in him. This former Ferrari Fl driver, double world sportscar champion and five times winner of Le Mans. And you should like Derek Bell, for he is not only the most successful British sportscar racer who ever lived, he is also funny, urbane and a man who knows precisely where self-deprecation slides into false modesty. He has an ego but is not egotistical: he knows what he's done, will tell you about it if you ask and will do so as if he were saying so for the first time in his life.

The cynic would say that Derek is merely a professional, doing the job he's paid to do and, like most things he turns his hand to, doing it rather well. And while it is a fair if somewhat uncharitable observation, it rather begs the question of what he should do instead: the tedious and hackneyed `I'm a bored genius' routine beloved of so many other racers? Besides, get to know Derek a little and you'll know that professional is not an act for Bell. Professional is Bell.

But, if you want, I'll give you a reason to dislike Derek Bell. On October 31 this year, he will be 60 years old. This is absurd, even more so, in my book, than the fact that Sir Stirling Moss hits 72 six weeks earlier. Derek's sleek mane is finally greying but, save the crags on his face — which have more to do with the fact that it was once on fire — he looks the same in a video I have of him driving a Porsche 956 around the Nurburgring 18 years ago. But it is Le Mans that we are here to discuss, his five wins and some of the 21 other times someone else gat to stand on the top step.

"When I first went there in 19701 was not intimidated by the place nor frightened by it. I guess I was young and didn't scare that easily. To me it was more than just another race, but I still considered myself a Formula One driver, and while sportscars commanded a much higher profile than they do today, my heart was set on F1. Besides, I was far from happy.

"I was sharing a works Ferrari 512S with Ronnie Peterson whom I had been racing in F2, and while that was fine, my F1 contract with Ferrari was dead in the water and I wanted to race for Jacques Swaters in whose private 512S I'd come fourth in the Spa 1000kms. When Ferrari was asked why he never rehired me, he simply said, 'I never rewarm cold soup'. "For the race we got no direction from Ferrari at all. I'd expected to be told at what pace to run, what strategy to use, how best to treat the car and so on. Nothing. We weren't even told what revs to use. We just got on with it as best we could. "Early on Saturday evening, I was coming up to overtake a slower car going into White House. He was in the middle of the road but, as I tried to go inside him, he started to edge over to the apex and I only got through by putting the car on the grass between the kerbing and the guardrail — and White House was a corner approached at 180mph! I got through, looked in the mirror and saw carnage." The ensuing accident wiped out three of Ferrari's five finest 512s and the fourth, Derek's car, lasted less than a lap, pulling up on the Mulsarme Straight with engine failure. It was an ignominious start to his Le Mans career.

By fairly stark contrast, he could have won it in 1971. There probably wasn't a seat in the race better than inside a JVVA Porsche 917 with Jo Siffert as your teammate. Best of all, there were no works Ferraris as Maranello had decided not to campaign its distinctly promising 512M, concentrating on the 312P in readiness for the 1972 3-litre formula which would render the 5-litre Porsche and Ferrari instantly illegal.

The 917 proved a vastly superior car to the Ferrari that Bell had driven the previous year: faster, lighter and better prepared. With special Le Mans bodywork, it pulled 246mph on the Mulsanne, its air-cooled flat-12 motor howling along at 8100rpm, just 100 revs short of the point where it would spread itself all over the track.

"We ran very near the front for 3 hours but, in the end, an oil gallery cracked and it started pouring oil out quicker than we could pour it back in. It gave up after 18 hours."

It wasn't until 1975 that Bell finally reached the podium but, when he did, he didn't stop climbing until he reached the top step.

"It was my third consecutive attempt to win Le Mans driving a John Wyer Mirage-Ford and, to an extent, you could say that we only won because the Matras, which had won the last three times at the track, weren't there. Certainly the Mirage was not as fast as the Matra, but it wasn't a bad car and I got to do basically all the development. "Le Mans was the only race it did in 1975 and I was both touched and amazed when Jacky Ickx who had already won Le Mans for Wyer in a Ford GT40 in '69 wrote to John asking if he could drive and whether I could drive with him.

"The car itself, the Gulf GR8, was fine but our endurance tests showed that the engine had a vibration point at 9000rpm and wouldn't last more than three hours if taken to the 9500rpm we routinely used in the past In the end, they tuned it so we didn't have to rev it much past 7500rpm and it never gave us any trouble save an exhaust manifold which needed changing. 'Jacky was fantastic, insisting that I took the start and drove the car over the line at the end as I'd done all the development work. The only problem we had was an inexplicable graunching noise that was traced after the race to a broken suspension pick-up point."

It had taken six attempts to produce that first win and it would take six more before the next, during a period when Derek's career spiralled downhill. He raced for Alpine-Renault at Le Mans in 1977 and '78 (he led for 17 hours in '77) but retired both times. He was back with Mirage in 79, but the car fell increasingly off the pace and finally died one lap from the flag: "I'm not ashamed to say, I sat there with tears rolling down my face. All that effort and it was all for nothing."

The big break didn't come until 1981 when Porsche entered three 936s. Derek was already contacted to Steve O'Rourke to drive a BMW M1 and Derek still feels a sizeable amount of the credit for his extraordinary success with Porsche in the years to come was due to O'Rourke releasing him from the contract. By 1981, the 936 was a museum piece having first won Le Mans back in 1976. Derek didn't even see the car until they unloaded it in the paddock at Le Mans but, he remembers, "Within three laps of practice I was going round there faster than I ever had in my life. The thing simply flew.

"The race itself was the Le Mans dream. Jacky and I led from start to finish and the engine cover never had to come off."

Indeed, analysis of its race performance reveals that not once during the 24 hours did the 936's wheels stop turning for more than four minutes. "You'd think I'd have great memories of 1982, the year we won first time out in the Porsche 956. In fact, I think the greatest race I ever had at Le Mans was 1983 and I didn't even win it. In 1982, apart from a problem with fuel mixture early in the lace, it was a rerun of the year before. I think we got back into the lead shortly after midnight and that was that: a straight mm to the flag followed home by the other two works cars. We could tell even then that the 956 was going to change the rules of sportscar racing. It had full ground effect and was electrifyingly quick on the track. "We so wanted the hat-trick in 1983 and it went wrong as early as the second lap. Jacky was dicing for the lead with Jan Lammers, they touched going into Mulsanne and Jacky had to take to the escape road. By the time he had regained the circuit, almost the entire field had gone through. It took us 14 hours of slog to make up the time we'd lost, but on Sunday morning I slipstreamed past the leading 956 of Vem Schuppan into the lead. "It lasted just seconds before the engine stopped dead. lam not mechanically minded but we'd been told that if this happened it would be one of three things.

I managed to get the cover offusually a three-man job and change all three components. I then hit the button and heard the engine whoosh back into life. I got the engine cover back on God knows how and rejoined the race. We then got back onto the pace until Jacky brought the car in for the final stint and announced that the brakes were finished. It would take 10 minutes to change them so I just jumped in regardless and headed off.

The lead car was three minutes ahead. I hadn't a hope but I drove as fast as I could and broke the record at least twice in a car with shot brakes and I got the deficit down to about 20sec by the flag, which Al Holbert took just before his engine seized." It would be Jacky Ickx's last Le Mans. Derek barely mentions his fourth win, in '86, either when we meet or in his autobiography, where it receives slightly less than a line of text. The 1987 race, his final win, by contrast has him more than a little fired up.

"The Jaguars were out to get us. The XJR-8 was the class of the field and was winning everything at 1000Icm level. The Porsche 962 was getting long in the tooth and not only was our chassis not up to theirs, we were not as fuel efficient either. Then, in the first two hoursjochen Mass burned a piston when the engine management took a dislike to the fuel the organisers had supplied. So it was our car versus three state-of-the-art Jaguars with 22 hours to run."

But Bell's suspicion that the Jags might not yet have fully developed their Le Mans legs soon proved correct as, one by one, they hit trouble as the 962 sailed round to a relatively straightforward victory. The next year, five Jaguars ganged up on Porsche and had their revenge. But Bell was only denied his sixth win because 19 team-mate Klaus Ludwig ran out of fuel and had to bring the car in on the starter motor, losing more time in the process than that which separated the car from the winning Jaguar at the flag. Derek has many other proud Le Mans moments: qualifying his Kremer Porsche on the front row in 1994 aged 52 in particular, but though he last raced there in '96, it was the 1995 race which would provide Derek with a most suitable parting shot "I was brought in by Dave Price to race a McLaren F1 GTR with Andy Wallace and Justin, my son. I came to the project late and was not as fit as I would have been had I had proper time to prepare. The McLarens were pretty new, fast but had proved to be fragile and no-one really gave them much of a chance. The conditions were absolutely appalling and the car had no downforce at all. I remember Andy came in during the night and told me it was all he could do to hold kin a straight line.

"What amuses me about that race is all anyone seems to talk about was how quick JJ Lehto was in the car that eventually won. Don't get me wrong, JJ is clearly a great driver, but if he was that quick that year, how come he was chasing us?

"I can remember Justin coming in after his stint and telling me that was the worst time he'd had in a racing car in his life. But I can remember when it was my turn to drive, I was able to open up a small gap to JJ which I didn't think was too bad." Not bad at all Derek. You are 24 years older than Lehto who had been Michael Schumacher's team-mate the year before. "Anyway," muses Derek, "it all turned to shit in the end when the clutch played up and removed a certain win. We came home third so I still got to stand on the podium at Le Mans with my son and now it is a moment of which I'm inordinately proud. Back then, knowing what might have been, it was a bitter disappointment." Bell was offered a plum drive at Le Mans this year, a good seat in a prototype with a strong chance of doing well.

He turned it down to work — not drive — with Bentley. "I think that's it now. I could have done it this year and I think I'd have been fine. Certainly my racing in the States [where he pedals a 450bhp Audi S4 saloon] suggests the pace is still there, but do I have 24-hour fitness now? I could get it if I worked out twice as hard as I do, but I am certainly not going to put myself through that just for the hell of it.

"If I did the 24 Hours again it would have to be in a car with a good chance of winning. I never went to Le Mans — or any other race — just to make up the numbers. So yes, though I don't rule it out completely, I think I have competed at Le Mans for the last time." There's more than a moment's reflection at this thought Derek describes his relationship with the race as "love-hate" and he's adamant that the Daytona 24 Hours (which he has won twice) is the tougher event But as the eyes at last lose their grip on mine and focus instead somewhere on a racetrack in northern France I can sense he feels unfinished business remains.

Curiously, I don't think it's the sixth win that bathers him. Not once during our hours of conversation did I pick up a sense of dissatisfaction that this outright record belongs not to him but to his three times co-winner Jacky Ickx. I think it's simpler than that and it's the same thing that keep him racing dozens of time every year as he stands on the doorstep of his seventh decade.

Derek Bell is a racer — perhaps not in the Moss sense where the wheel-to-wheel combat is all — but in another and no less important way where the thrill comes instead from driving further and faster than anyone around you. This may not make him the greatest racing driver in the world but it does set him apart and make him, if not unique then at least a very special racing driver. And on the human scale, a ladder many racers struggle to climb, he's high er than most too.