There are few might-have-beens in this man’s distinguished career. But riding the Prancing Horse, then slipping off into sports cars might have been a mistake. Not a huge one – the lure of the red cars was irresistible, but a catch that somehow slipped through his fingers. Hindsight, though, brings clarity of vision…
This is the man who started as a marshal at Goodwood, won his first ever race in a Lotus 7, caught the attention of Enzo Ferrari with his natural flair, raced the red cars in one of the team’s leanest periods, formed a partnership made in heaven with Jacky Ickx, and took five Le Mans wins and two world sports car titles.
Now retired and in rude health, more Peter Pan than pensioner, Derek Bell lives in Florida where he has a Bentley dealership, the result of his relationship with the company that goes back to the marque’s preparations for its Le Mans programme earlier this decade. He’s also its global ambassador, a Bentley Boy at large.
A true Brit deep down, Derek has kept his hideaway in Sussex and this is where we meet, on the edge of Pagham harbour. There’s a black Continental GT in the driveway and the man appears tanned and on his toes, a huge Breitling shimmering on his left wrist. The hair is all there, and it’s not all grey.
“I’m getting older by the minute,” he says, the famous boyish grin making those lived-in features even craggier than ever, “but I will always remember my time at Ferrari, the old man and all the shenanigans that went with being there.”
This was 1968. Young Bell had caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari with his drives in Formula 3 and F2, he and Mike Earle running a tight little privateer team called Church Farm Racing, sponsored by his stepfather’s caravan business. He was just so obviously quick.
“Well, they were good times and I won eight F3 races in my first season. These days I’d be straight into an F1 car, right? Well, we went to F2, and with 10 grand from the bank we bought a Brabham [BT23], two engines, a Transit van and a trailer. We had a workshop on the farm and Ray Wardell came as mechanic.” He pauses. “We did OK, came third in the first race at Thruxton behind Stewart and Beltoise, then fourth at Hockenheim until the clutch packed up. Not bad for privateers.”
That’s when the call came, via Keith Ballisat at Shell. He said Ferrari wanted to give him a test after the race at Crystal Palace. But Ickx crashed the car that weekend and it would be another two weeks before they called again.
“They wanted me to go to Monza and test the Formula 2 car there,” he recalls. “This was beyond a dream. I mean I was ploughing fields on the farm between races, dreaming that maybe one day I’d get to race one of the top cars. But never did I think I’d drive for Ferrari. There I was at Monza in the late morning and now it’s the big time. It was lonely somehow. I was used to my own mechanic being with me, and the Colonel [his stepfather, Bernard Hender] wasn’t there. But I remember so well the feeling of this bright red car, the smell of the upholstery, the buttons that hold the seat in the cockpit, the open-gate gearchange, the badge on the steering wheel.” He puts his thumbs and forefingers together, as if guiding that racing car with his trademark deft touch.
“I knew the track – I’d been there in F3 – and I drove as fast as I could. The engine wasn’t that good; not as good as Cosworth’s. You had to keep it really wound up. If you dropped the revs, there was no power and not enough torque. The Cosworth had more power low down. But I went for it and at the end of the day Signor Gozzi said: ‘We’d like you to race for us’. It was as though it was somehow pre-ordained.”
From here on, he says, it was a bit of a blur. Suddenly he was back in the rented Fiat and on the road to Modena.
“They put me in the Real Fini hotel just down from the factory. I’ve never enjoyed my own company much but I got on with it, ordered a meal and discovered this fantastic thing called tortellini. It was just so good – I’ll never forget it – and I wasn’t driving the next day so I sat in the bar and had a glass of wine with a girl who showed me a lot of leg.” Big grin. “Anyway, the following day I was due to meet Enzo Ferrari so I went to bed alone, wondering if I was on my
way to a grand prix drive.”
Meeting the Commendatore was not a disappointment. The events of the following day have not been experienced by the more recent employees of the scuderia.
“I was met by his secretary, a man in those days. It was said that Signora Ferrari was at best lukewarm on the idea of having girls in the Old Man’s office. It was weird, the whole place was deserted, the factory and the race shop entirely empty; silent. I was told that it was a national holiday. On a Wednesday? Turns out they were on strike which was not unusual in those days.
“We stood among the cars, all these gorgeous red Ferraris at shoulder-height on their production rigs. Suddenly the man himself walks around the corner, pale green raincoat draped over his shoulders; dark glasses and the perfect haircut – he’d just been to the barber. I was nervous,” smiles Derek. “I wasn’t that confident then, hadn’t been around much. A quick shake of the hand and we’re off to lunch at the Cavallino. He asked me if I rated Jochen Rindt. I said that yes, I did. We chatted via his interpreter and then it was time to go. No contract, but he wanted me to race for him: just unbelievable.”
Back home, Derek got back in the Brabham and had some good races. The contract came, not from Modena, but from Ballisat at Shell. He was to report for duty at Monza, for the famous Lotteria slip-streamer.
“People kept telling me that Ferrari killed its drivers. My wife was ill in hospital and my mother told me that if I signed for Ferrari then I’d never set foot in her house again. ‘Over my dead body will you race for them,’ she said. It was a stressful time.”
He did not sign the contract but took pole position at Monza, led the slip-streaming battle and the worries went away. But it all went wrong at the Parabolica. “It was two abreast all the way round – you know, typical Monza – and I came down a gear for the curve, floored it and lost it.
I don’t know what happened but there were cars everywhere. I think I was hit up the back. All the Ferraris were out. There was a fire and it was all on the TV back home. I was summoned to Modena by Gozzi who told me that the Old Man was so pleased with my pole that he was giving me $1000 in cash. So I signed the contract.”
At Zandvoort Derek took pole again, won his heat and lined up alongside Clay Regazzoni for the final. He was leading when Chris Lambert crashed and the race was stopped. “We didn’t know that Chris had died but the race was re-started and I retired when the gears jammed. It was always second to third, the lever jammed in the gate, but they told me I was shifting too fast. It was never the car and always the driver.”
Now it was time for the big one, the test in the F1 car at Maranello. Young Bell was on the verge of realising his dream.
“Yes, it was exciting. It was raining, which was alright with me. The muletta was wheeled out into the drizzle, on dry tyres. There weren’t any wets, just those grooved things. [Mauro] Forghieri came over, told me that if I crashed then I would never drive a red car again. Great, thanks! But rain never frightened me and out I went, fast as I dared, right on the limit. Two laps in, I noticed a 2+2 Ferrari parked on the grass at the first corner. The Old Man was sitting there, watching me.” He looks thoughtful. “What a day.”
The maiden F1 race came at Oulton Park for the non-points Gold Cup. “I liked Oulton, but now I was surrounded by people like Rindt and Rodríguez, Ickx and Amon. Anyway, it went well. I was up at the front, Pedro ahead of me, which was OK as he never looked in his mirrors, with Jochen behind me. Then the bloody ’box jammed in the gate again, not in the selectors. I was so frustrated.”
The Autodromo di Monza was yet again the scene of his next milestone: his first proper grand prix for the scuderia, teamed with Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx. “It was the crowd I remember best,” he says. “The tifosi clinging to the trees, the hoardings, anything they could climb, and all of them screaming for a Ferrari victory. Wow, what an atmosphere. I qualified well, made a good start and was reasonably happy until the fuel pump broke. This was getting tough. I wanted more success, I wanted to do a lot better, and was aiming higher. I was trudging back to the pits when Amon flew off the road at the Lesmos, jumped the barrier and disappeared into the woods. I wanted to go and see if he was alright, and at the same time I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t get across the track anyway. Then Chris just appeared, out of the trees, shaken up but otherwise fine.”
Right through 1968 Derek had continued in F2, his own Brabham now raced by former hillclimb king Peter Westbury, and there was one more grand prix to come, this time at Watkins Glen where he replaced an injured Ickx. That man again. “I’d never been to America, let alone the ’Glen, so this was another new experience. I qualified near the back and was beginning to feel hacked off with Ferrari, becoming aware that I was being used; a pawn in the politics. They never let me practice properly, always two laps out, then back in for some fiddling thing. Forghieri told me that I was to play it safe, get round and finish. He said he wanted to tell Enzo Ferrari that I had a good race, whatever that meant. Anyway, I got up to sixth before the engine blew up. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be an F1 star by this point. So many were dying, and Ferrari was going nowhere. The cars were outdated and there was so much politics.”
The chance for a last bid for glory came in the Tasman series. Teamed up with friend Chris Amon, Derek felt he had one last chance to show his speed and ability.
“We did seven races in six weeks with only one engine, the V6 Dino, for each car,” he remembers, “but it was great to drive with Chris and he knew all the circuits. We had a good time. It was fun, and we did well, especially in the rain at Warwick Farm where I was very quick and just lost out to Jochen Rindt. At Lakeside, for the Aussie GP, we came in first and second and Chris won the championship. That V6 engine was underpowered, the Lotus a much quicker car, but we did a good job against much more modern opposition.”
But the writing was on the wall. For 1969 Derek was back out in the F2 car but Ferrari, as only it can do in such operatic style, dramatically pared back its programme. The cars were uncompetitive, the engines outdated and the Commendatore decided to re-group and, unknown to Derek, build a new sports car for Le Mans. He was out.
“It was incredible, really, and such a let-down after all the excitement of driving for the most famous team in the world. But not that many people have raced for Ferrari and I always consider it to be a feather in my cap, something to tell the grandchildren,” he laughs. “Maybe dear old Ken Tyrrell was right all those years ago when he said that going to Ferrari was the biggest mistake I ever made. John Wyer said the same thing to me when I had to refuse a drive in the GT40 in 1969 as the Old Man wouldn’t release me from my contract. ‘They’ll ruin your career, old boy’, he told me in those grandiose tones of his. But hey, I had nowhere else to go at the time. And it was beyond a dream.”
But here comes the spooky part. Mr Ferrari had seen Derek at Spa in the new 512, entered by Jacques Swaters, and been impressed by his speed. So he called the Belgian and told him he wanted Bell to drive the works car at Le Mans. Naturally Swaters wasn’t keen, but was told that if he hindered the process, he could forget about further assistance from the factory. And so it was that Derek had his maiden outing in the 24-hour enduro, in June 1970.
“I know, it’s extraordinary. I mean I had no idea that this car was on its way, “says Derek. “But I’d missed out on the GT40 ride the previous year so I was damn well going to do Le Mans this time, and in a Ferrari. Sadly the car blew up on the Mulsanne but it was great to race with Ronnie [Peterson]. What a driver. Good memories.”
You’re probably getting the picture. There are five ‘firsts’ in here. Ferrari provided the equipment for his first professional race, first F1 race, first world championship grand prix, first major sports car race and first Le Mans.
Just think how happy Porsche insiders must be that Mr Bell slipped from the Prancing Horse. Not always given the recognition he deserves, Derek Bell MBE is one top bloke. Good on you, boy, as he would say.