Derek Bell MBE, the reigning World Sportscar Champion, won Le Mans 24-Hour race in June for the fifth time. This is an achievement exceeded by only one man (his former driving partner Jacky Ickx, who had six successes – three of them with Bell) and, at the age of 45, Bell is by far Britain’s most successful sportscar driver. After the race, the Englishman talked to us about luck, skill, and his compatibility with co-drivers Hans Stuck and Al Holbert.
“I believe in luck, up to a point, but there must be more to it than that,” says Bell. “It’s ironic, isn’t it, that we had two cars written off before the race, so Jochen (Mass) had our car, and we had Vern Schuppan’s? I’m sure they’re all exactly the same really, as the car we drove was super, as good as any I’ve driven at Le Mans. I can only believe that we make the best driving partnership, Hans, Al and myself. We’re very compatible. I don’t have to worry about the car being there when it’s my turn to drive.
“We are the team to beat, and I don’t mind being in that position at all, but I don’t ever take anything for granted. I knew that a Porsche would win this year, but I didn’t know it would be ours.”
As well as winning the 24-Hour race for the fifth time, Derek Bell also set another unique record: in 1986 he and Al Holbert won the Daytona 24-Hour race in January, and Le Mans in June, and they pulled off the same double in 1987. The is 96 hours of real endurance racing, unbeaten. Even if Bell never wins again at Le Mans, he was won seven 24-hour races in total, and, of those currently competing, Stuck and Holbert are the only multiple winners who stand a realistic chance of beating that.
Bell’s first Le Mans victory was in 1975, with Jacky Ickx in the Gulf Mirage DFV. In 1977 and 1978 he led the race for Renault-Alpine, but failed to finish, and in 1980 he drove a works Porsche for the first time to 13th place. The 924 Carrera GT was never going to be a winner, certainly not when it burned out three exhaust valves before the race was over, but this first drive for Dr Porsche’s team was the lift-off point for his professional career.
In 1981 he and Ickx won handsomely at Le Mans in the Jules-sponsored 936, a perfect run during which the cover was never lifted from the engine. Mass, on the other hand, had a variety of problems and finished 12th in a supposedly identical car.
The following year Ickx and Bell led a crushing Porsche 1-2-3 victory, only the second race in the 956’s life, but in 1983 they were very narrowly beaten by Vern Schuppan, Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert. In 1984 Porsche withdrew its entries in an argument with FISA about rule changes, and in 1985 Bell and Stuck finished third (to the Joest and Lloyd cars) in a works Porsche which was less than totally compatible with its engine management system.
Since 1981, therefore, Bell’s record at Le Mans has been first, first, second, third, first and first — removing all vanity from the claim that his is the partnership to beat. What, we asked, are the ingredients for winning 24-hour races?
“You have to remember, all the time, that it’s a 24-hour race and not a sprint, subduing the racer instinct. We drove bloody hard, of course, and had a terrific race with the Jaguars. When Brundle passed me we had a super half-hour, or 40 minutes; it really was exhilarating, drafting down the straight, and I haven’t had such fun for a long time. When he caught me in the morning though, we were four laps ahead and I didn’t really want to get into a race.
“But I didn’t want to let him get away, either, because he might have been on my tail again and then it would have been three laps. I just kept him in sight, but then I saw smoke coming out of his car and I thought ‘there’s no point in getting excited about this, he’s not going to last another nine hours’. Sure enough, he stopped three laps later with his engine blown.”
One hour into the race the Porsche challenge had been decimated. Two of the Rothmans entries had been written off before the race even started, and Mass’ car retired early with engine failure. Everything, absolutely all of the factory’s hopes, rested on the Bell/Stuck/Holbert car. How did the drivers feel?
“We were terribly worried, of course. Just us, against three Jaguars which seemed to be going well. I could only think ‘is it going to happen to us?’ I kept asking engineers, ‘is our engine alright, when will we know?’ and they’d reply that we’d know soon. In the evening it was clear that our engine would be alright, and I stopped worrying about it when it got dark. The I started to get confident that we’d win.
“The Jaguars had never finished Le Mans in recent years, and you’ve got to finish the race, strongly and without any problems, to stand a chance. I always thought, and Tom Walkinshaw did, that it would take three years. They finished fifth this time, so we’ll have to see what happens next year. That should be interesting, if we have a new car.
“We had a few problems of our own. The boost gauge packed up early on, and I took the car from Hans not knowing how much boost there was for about six hours. Then the battery went flat when we were following the pace car, and we changed it again later. And the windscreen was rattling all the time. The rain was coming in round the edges and across the glass on the inside. We’d had that in practice, but we didn’t know where the water was coming from; I thought it was coming in round the door. We were right on the fuel limit, while the Jaguars were well inside, but that didn’t bother me. Something always happens to get you back on your correct consumption.”
In one way the victory was a bitter-sweet occasion. “At one point during the race, when I was out of the car, Professor Bott (Porsche’s technical director) told me the team would be withdrawing from the championship. I had my mind on the race, and it didn’t really sink in. I was amazed to realise that they didn’t tell Hans for another week, it’s hard on us because we are contacted drivers.
“We are Porsche’s factory drivers, but we may not race a works car again until Le Wans next year. We hope to do a deal with Reinhold Joest for the remainder of this season, but we can’t talk seriously about year. How can he say to a sponsor, ‘I’ve got Stuck and Bell driving for me’ when we might be recalled at any time? He can’t, that’s all there is to it, so I’ll concentrate on my IMSA programme next year, leaving myself available to drive the works Porsche when they ask me.
“Really Hans and I are in a sort of limbo-land now. We may not win this year’s World Championship, and probably won’t be in a position to win next year’s either. I find that very hard to accept, but the factory has good reasons, I know.
“I can be just as happy driving in the States, in Al Holbert’s team anyway. The trouble there is not the racing, which is good, but the name of the series, IMSA. The name just doesn’t register with people in the same way as NASCAR, for instance. If they’d call it the American Sports Car Championship, which it is, then everyone would know what it was!”
Bell remains deeply unhappy about the World Championship fuel consumption formula, and far prefers the uninhibited American sportscar formula. “We are racing drivers, not computer operators, and you forget what real racing is until you drive in America. I imagine that Formula One is like that as well. Surely there must be some clever people out there who can come up with something better after all these years.
“In America you can get into a really good race without worrying about the consumption, and if you run short you can dash into the pits for a bit more, and that’s your penalty against the Jaguars which don’t have a fuel consumption problem. There are so many different types of car in IMSA, with so many different engine sizes and configurations, and really they’re pretty equal too, without a consumption formula. It’s equalised by car weights, and although we moan about the regulations the formula works pretty well, and we have wheel-to-wheel racing.
“With this fuel consumption formula you have to change your driving style pretty dramatically, and I don’t think it’s real motor racing.
“At Stowe corner, at Silverstone, you back off at 250 metres and get very exciting on the brakes at 150, scrambling round the corner without losing too much speed; and your turbocharger is off the boost, as well. It’s not nice, because in qualifying you hit the brakes hard at 175 metres, change down, brake again, and drive round cleanly, and it’s far more satisfying.
“It affects the way the car handles, too. Stucky sets it up in qualifying, but for qualifying speeds naturally. In the race you’re going two or three seconds a lap slower, and driving in a completely different way, and the car handles like a bus! If we could use that extra 50 horsepower in the race we could kick the back out, tuck the front in, and go round the corners the way the car was designed to.”
Time and again Bell refers to the element of luck, which he feels wasn’t always on his side. Cynics say that there’s no such thing as luck, that every team makes its own destiny, and to a large extent that is true. Even so, there is often an extra ingredient that can’t be explained, as Bell found at Le Mans in 1981 and again in 1987.
“I think Jacky’s luck must have rubbed off on me” says Bell, referring of course to his former partner Jacky Ickx. “I used to dread not driving with him because I knew damned well that everything was going to go right for him. It always did.
“Before I drove with Jacky regularly I used to have the most dismal luck when I needed it most. I led Formula Two races which I didn’t finish, I was never in the right Formula One car, and I led the Nurburgring by miles in the Gulf-Mirage until something went wrong. I never thought I had any luck at all!
“Jacky had it all right. I raced with him for a couple of seasons with Porsche, and he won the World Championships. I didn’t, and I was getting bitter and twisted about it. But now I do have that luck.
“I drove with Stefan Bellof and he was a brilliant driver, helped me no end, and then Hans Stuck. Two star drivers who led the way, and gave me a lot of confidence. Al is brilliant too, his record shows it. He’s fast in the sprint races and easy on the car in long distance events.” Holbert now has three Le Mans successes, and two at Daytona.
“If I got the chance to drive a works Porsche again next year with Hans and Al, I’d really look forward to it. I do enjoy these 24-hour races, though they’re a form of masochism. If you have the best car, and a good chance of winning, of course you enjoy it. Now, though, I wouldn’t like to change the team in case the magic was lost. I’d feel we didn’t stand such a good chance of winning, and I think that would take the edge off it.” MLC