Lunch with... Derek Bell

He’s the English gentleman who’s scored more sports car wins than even he can remember, although no one will ever forget his record at Le Mans and Daytona
By Simon Taylor

Derek Bell is, quintessentially, an Englishman. He has raced with enormous success in the USA, where he is a popular figure; his wife Misti is American, and he spends much of the year at his waterside house in Boca Raton, Florida. Many of his greatest victories were scored in German cars, and he has been a works driver at the most famous Italian team of all. But there’s always been something frightfully British about his approach to life, which mixes professionalism and a fierce will to win with an old-fashioned belief in friendly good manners towards team-mates, fellow competitors and spectators.

So it’s appropriate that we meet in his 17th-century thatched house on the Sussex coast, hard by the family farm where he grew up.

He still retains 60 acres around it. Then we walk across the nature reserve of Pagham Harbour and along the shoreline to the Crab & Lobster at Sidlesham, where we sit in the sunny garden eating a stew of locally-caught fish and quaffing good English beer.

Even Derek has lost count of how many sports car races he has won, although five Le Mans 24 Hours, three Daytona 24 Hours and two World Drivers’ Championships will do for starters. His career has lasted 46 years – so far: last season, at the age of 66, he was running in his umpteenth Daytona, only for his Riley-Pontiac to fail before his first stint. Ask him if he has retired yet, and he says he probably has – then moments later he mentions in passing the Porsche 917 he’s racing at Laguna Seca this month, and his likely rides at the Goodwood Revival.

After almost half a century of racing, a life chock-full of different tracks, teams, personalities and happenings good and bad – any chat with Derek can only scratch the surface. We spend more than four hours over lunch, walk back to his house, sit in the late afternoon sunshine by his swimming pool, and the stories keep coming. Finally I have to take my leave and, driving back to London, I remember more dramas, more people, more races we didn’t get to.

As a teenager at agricultural college Derek scraped up the funds to take a few Jim Russell Racing Drivers’ School lessons at Snetterton, one at a time, driving to Norfolk in his side-valve Morris Minor. Jim Russell himself marked him out as a man to watch. Later he bought a Lotus 7 with a friend, and won his first race, at Goodwood. “It was a handicap, in teeming rain. I started off with lots of much faster cars behind me, like Hugh Dibley’s Brabham BT8, and I waited for them to come steaming past, but they all spun off.” In 1965 came his first single-seater, an elderly Lotus 22/31 which brought some success in club races, and for 1966, helped by his stepfather Bernard ‘The Colonel’ Hender, he decided on a serious F3 campaign in Europe. “The Old Man was marvellous. He said, ‘Give farming a rest for a bit. You can always come back to it when you’re 40, but you can’t go motor racing when you’re 40.’ As it turned out, I was 40 when I won Le Mans for the third time…”

Derek’s first choice of F3 car, a Lotus 41, was a mistake. It was never competitive and, trying to beat the Brabhams, he had several accidents. So for 1967 he joined Peter Westbury and Mac Daghorn in a three-car Brabham team and scored some excellent results, including a win at Zolder, third at Monaco, and second at Albi half a length behind the Matra of local hero Henri Pescarolo.

“After that the only way forward was Formula 2. The Old Man had paid for three years of F3, and very reasonably said I had to find the money from now on. I wrote hundreds of letters to prospective sponsors, and had one reply – from Avis, who sent me a badge saying ‘We try harder’. In the end the only option was the NatWest at Bognor Regis. Amazingly they lent me £10,000, but the Old Man had to put up the farm as guarantee.” So, armed with a Brabham BT23, his mechanic Ray Wardell and a truck with Church Farm Racing painted on the side, Derek embarked on a European F2 season.

“The first race I actually started was Hockenheim. I qualified fifth on the Saturday, went back to the hotel in Speyer, and found myself having a cup of tea with two of my heroes, Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill. They’d both been having problems with the Team Lotus 48s – Jimmy qualified seventh, Graham 15th – and Jimmy said, ‘Tomorrow, when you lap me, don’t get too close.’ I couldn’t believe it, my hero saying that to me before my first F2 race, but he said, ‘I’ve got a really bad misfire, and they can’t seem to cure it.’ Next day it was wet, cold and miserable. Jimmy and Graham gave me a lift to the track and dropped me off in the paddock, and I never saw Jimmy again. The race was a two-parter, and I finished fourth in part one ahead of Piers Courage. I think Jimmy was lying eighth when he crashed. I knew nothing about it until I saw his mechanic, Beaky Sims, walking through the paddock holding one of Jimmy’s shoes, and then the word went round.

“The generally accepted view is that he went off because of a puncture, but my own theory is the misfire did it. You took that long fast corner at 150mph, but it wasn’t a critical place. Even in the wet we were going through it two abreast. But if your engine cut out suddenly mid-corner, and you corrected, and then it cut in again, that could send you off into the trees. Years later I talked to Beaky about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, we did have a problem with the fuel injection metering unit that day.’

“We were all pretty shattered by Jimmy’s death. We didn’t seem to be able to get through a month in those days without somebody getting slaughtered somewhere. As well as the chaps at the top like Jimmy, there were kids dying in F3 that nobody ever heard about. At one F3 race, at Caserta in Italy, three people died in an 11-car pile-up – Giacomo Russo, Beat Fehr and Romano Perdomi. Nobody remembers those names now. Three weeks later we were in Denmark, at Djurslandring, and Doug Revson, Pete’s brother, was killed. And in F2, three months after Jimmy’s accident, Chris Lambert was killed at Zandvoort when Clay Regazzoni collided with him. I’d known Chris since F3.

He wore glasses, and didn’t look like a racing driver: he looked more like one of those boys at school who always gets everything wrong. But in fact he was brilliantly fast.

“A week after Hockenheim I was third at Thruxton behind Jochen Rindt and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and third again at the Eifelrennen, on the bumpy Nürburgring Sudschleife. So F2 was going well for me. I realised just how well when I was summoned to Maranello. I had a meeting with Enzo Ferrari, walked across the road with him to the Cavallino Restaurant and had lunch. That was special. Michael Schumacher may have won five World Championships for Ferrari, but he never had lunch with Enzo…

“Then came a test at Monza in the F2 Dino. I was run with several Italian drivers, including Tino Brambilla and Mario Casoni, and fortunately I was quicker than any of them. So Ferrari produced a contract, but I didn’t sign it then. I wanted to keep my options open. But they entered me for the F2 Monza Lotteria, and I put it on pole. In the race I was coming out of the Parabolica in the middle of a huge slip-streaming group when suddenly, for no reason, my car spun. There was a huge pile-up – it wrote off three of the four Dinos in the race – and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud was thrown out of his Tecno and quite badly hurt. And I hadn’t signed my contract. I went miserably home thinking that was that, but Ferrari got hold of a film of the accident, and they reckoned I was hit from behind – anyway they didn’t blame me. Next time I was at Maranello, Franco Gozzi came over and said, ‘Il Commendatore was pleased with your pole position’ and gave me a bonus cheque!

“I’d also been approached by Cooper, who tested me in one of their Maserati-powered F1 cars at Silverstone. I thought it was a bit of a lorry, but their chap Major Owens, who ran the team for John Cooper, summoned me. An F1 contract at last, I thought, expecting a retainer of at least £10,000. As Owens droned on about how hard times were in F1, I modified my expectations down to £5000, and then £1000. When he finally got round to making his offer he proposed a three-year contract, with a retainer of £5! For once in my life I was rendered speechless.

“So I signed for Ferrari. The deal was £250 per F2 race, and if they asked me to do an F1 race it would be £500. I did five more F2 races for them that season, and I went to Modena for an F1 test – the old three-quarter mile track, walls and bushes all round. And it was raining. All the wet-weather tyres were on the truck coming back from the German GP, so I had to do it on intermediates, and on the outside of Turn 1 there was Enzo Ferrari sitting in his 250GT 2+2, watching from behind his dark glasses. Mauro Forghieri leaned into the cockpit and said to me, ‘You crash, it’s the last time you drive a red car.’ There were puddles down at the Esses, but the car felt simply wonderful, and the test went pretty well. So they sent three cars to Oulton Park for the Gold Cup, for Chris Amon, Jacky Ickx and me. I ran fifth until the gearbox packed up. Three weeks later I was summoned to Monza. My first Grand Prix – in a Ferrari, in Italy.” It was four short years since that wet Goodwood clubby in the Lotus 7.

“I qualified on the third row with Jackie Stewart and Denny Hulme, half a second slower than my team-mate Jacky Ickx. The car had a rear wing that moved hydraulically when you hit the brake pedal, with a manual override switch. But after five laps the engine went, and I had to park it. I was trudging back to the pits when I beheld the shocking sight of my team-mate Chris Amon, flying over the barriers and into the trees. I was sure he’d been killed, and on top of the other crashes that year I began to feel I should get out of this racing business. But back at the pits they told me Chris was OK, so I forgot about it.

“I did a couple more GPs for Ferrari, and that winter Chris and I drove 2.4-litre versions of the Dino in the Tasman Series. It was a lovely seven weeks: Chris, me, Jochen and Graham in the Lotuses, Piers, Frank Gardner. I had some good races. Tom Wheatcroft was down there looking for cars to buy for his collection. ‘Any time you need any ’elp, lad,’ he said, ‘give me a call.’

“My Ferrari contract covered 1969, but that was their disastrous year, crippled by strikes and financial problems. In Formula 1 they effectively only ran one car, and they more or less pulled out of F2 by mid-season. The only F1 race I did was the Daily Express Silverstone, when it poured with rain and our Firestones were hopeless. I finished ninth, Chris was 10th. Ferrari released me to drive the four-wheel-drive McLaren in the British Grand Prix, but that was pretty unmanageable, and broke its suspension a few laps into the race.”

Twelve months on from his fairytale signing for Ferrari, Derek’s career appeared to be beached. It was Tom Wheatcroft who came to his rescue. “We did the Tasman Series in 1970 with his Brabham, using a wanked-out old 2.5 DFV we bought from Lotus. The engine was rebuilt as a 3-litre and we did the Belgian GP, but the gearchange broke on the warm-up lap. Then John Surtees offered me a drive at Watkins Glen if I could supply the engine. Tom lent him the same old DFV and, even though I had to slow towards the end with a terrible transmission vibration, I was sixth – the only F1 point I ever got. But I also persuaded Tom to do an F2 season with a new BT30, run from Church Farm with Mike Earle, and we nearly won the 1970 European Championship: I won Barcelona, and I was third to Stewart and Rindt at Thruxton. It restored my confidence.

“I still wanted to be in F1, of course, and Tom and I went to see John Surtees. But Rolf Stommelen got there first with Ford Germany money, and all John could offer me was F5000, which I thought would be a step back. I drove Tom’s March 701 in the Argentine GP, got up to third before that old engine broke again. And the Questor GP in the US, with a Frank Williams March. The suspension broke.”

But it was a race that year at Spa which set Derek’s career on a new course. Belgian Ferrari importer Jacques Swaters asked him to drive the Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512S in the Spa 1000Kms. He’d never been to Spa before but, even though Derek’s co-driver Hughes de Fierlandt was considerably slower, they finished eighth behind the Porsche 917s and the works Ferraris – despite the car catching fire during a refuelling stop. “I couldn’t get out because the inside door wire had broken. A mechanic smashed the window with a fire extinguisher, got me out, they put the fire out, I got back in and carried on with singed eyebrows and a scorched face.” Although Derek thought of himself purely as a single-seater driver at this point, Spa opened his eyes to the possibilities of sports car racing. “I was going to drive the yellow 512 at Le Mans, too, but when Ferrari offered me a works drive with Ronnie Peterson Jacques told me to take it, even though I felt I owed Ferrari nothing after the way they’d dried up on me in 1969.

“It was my first Le Mans. All the reports, and the official sheets, said I crashed, but I didn’t. What happened was I was leading a group up to White House, three 512s, me, Regazzoni and Mike Parkes, all doing 170mph. We came upon Reine Wisell going slowly in his Filipinetti 512. I whistled through the gap with two wheels on the grass, and in my mirror I saw flames and carnage as Regazzoni hit Wisell, and Parkes ploughed in too. I carried on – and about a minute later my engine blew on the Mulsanne Straight. Four 512s out all at once, and of course everybody assumed I’d been in the accident too.

“After the race I stayed on at Le Mans for several months to work on the Steve McQueen film. My first wife Pam and my children Justin and Melanie joined me, and for a while we shared a house with Steve. I was stand-in for one of the actors, driving a 512 Ferrari along with Mike Parkes. Richard Attwood and David Piper were in the Porsche 917s, plus Jo Siffert, Vic Elford, quite a gang. We got $100 a day, $200 a day if it was dangerous work. We had to drive fast, to make sure it looked right. David Piper lost a leg, and I got bad facial burns when the Ferrari caught fire. So it was certainly dangerous. At weekends I’d go off and race my Wheatcroft F2 car. When my mechanic came through with the Brabham I said to Steve, ‘Have a go.’ He jumped in and enjoyed himself doing several laps of the Bugatti circuit.

“We all got on well because Steve wanted to be a racing driver, and none of us wanted to be movie actors, so we weren’t trying to climb on his shoulders. He was a brave guy. Before the insurance company stopped him, he was driving too. Once we were doing a sequence, me in the 512, Steve in a 917, Seppi in a 917. We went through White House at 160mph nose to tail, with Steve trapped between Seppi and me so he couldn’t lift off. When we got to the end of the shot and climbed out, Steve was pretty shaken up but he was smiling. Another time Seppi and I came through White House flat out and some idiot was lying on his stomach in the middle of the track with a camera. We were furious, and complained to the director John Sturges. Turned out it was Steve, trying to get a better shot.

“After I got burned I did no more filming, but then John Wyer came on the phone wanting me to test a JW Porsche 917 at Goodwood. There were three of us – Peter Gethin, Ronnie Peterson and me – and somehow I got the drive. The 917 felt hugely powerful but so easy, so light and nimble – this was 1970, remember, when they’d sorted out the early handling problems. By comparison, the Ferrari 512S was like driving a lumbering truck – although the later 512M was much better. So for 1971 I raced the 917, paired with Jo ‘Seppi’ Siffert. Pedro Rodríguez and Jackie Oliver were in the other JW car. Seppi and Pedro in the same team, what a pair. But they were both killed the same year. It was dreadful. So many people died in those days. It was part of the job description, going to funerals.

“Seppi was dynamic, a real street fighter. Of all the guys racing today, I think David Brabham is most like him. I was so pleased David won Le Mans this year. With Seppi I was the new boy, and he seemed to be happy with me. We won first time out at Buenos Aires, and went on to have a good season, helping Porsche win the World Championship. Seppi was very relaxed out of the car, never wanted to go testing. Pedro was more disciplined, but he could charge even harder than Seppi. Of course, they both desperately wanted to beat each other. When I got pole at Spa that year, three seconds quicker than Ickx’s Ferrari, Pedro said, ‘Derek, I theenk it is time you drive with me.’ When Pedro was killed I moved over to be number one in his car.

“With John Wyer it was like being at school, with him as the strict headmaster, always calling you by your surname. He had all his drivers down to a tee, and we all respected him. It was Frank Gardner who called him ‘Death Ray’, because of the way he looked at you if you’d displeased him. But he also had a wonderfully dry, sardonic wit. I remember going to the factory one day, and I was wearing a pink shirt and jeans. ‘Ah, Bell. A riot of colour again, I see.’ David Yorke looked after the drivers, and he was excellent, very clear and decisive. But for 1972 David moved to Martini, to advise them on how to set about F1. His idea was for them to sponsor Brabham, and if it had come off I would’ve been number two to Carlos Reutemann. But Martini’s link with Brabham didn’t happen for three more years, because Luciano Pederzani persuaded Count Gregorio Rossi that he should back an all-Italian car. This was the disastrous flat-12 Tecno, and I ended up driving it. Trying to qualify it for its first Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand the handling was dreadful, and they discovered that four of the nine bolts holding the chassis to the back of the monocoque had broken, so the car was bending in the middle. I only started two GPs with it, and both times the engine blew. It was a useless shitbox.” Apart from an unhappy few outings with Surtees in 1974, that spelt the end of Derek’s F1 ambitions.

But his sports car career blossomed. New rules outlawed the big 917 for 1972, but Derek stayed with JW, driving the Mirage M6 and its successors, and finishing fourth at Le Mans in 1974 with Mike Hailwood. In ’75 his Gulf contract only tied him to Le Mans, so he did the rest of the season with Alfa Romeo in the T33-TT12s, winning at Spa, Watkins Glen and Zeltweg with his old F3 rival Pescarolo. The cars were run by Willi Kauhsen, but the substantial figure of Alfa’s legendary racing boss Carlo Chiti was at every race. “Whatever the weather, he’d always wear his three-piece suit. He’d sit in the pits on a hot day in his shirt sleeves and braces, his trousers pulled up over his big gut, stuffing panini into his face, with a handkerchief on his head to keep off the sun, tied with a knot at each corner. A wonderful character.”

That season’s single Gulf race brought him his first Le Mans victory, with Jacky Ickx. “Jacky wrote to Wyer asking to join the team for Le Mans, and suggesting he was paired with me, which was nice. It was a nerve-wracking race, because for the last six hours the car was clattering and graunching at the back. In the pits they could find nothing wrong, but in fact a rear suspension bracket had broken. We just held on to win from the French Ligier. It was a hugely emotional moment to be on the podium. By then I understood how important Le Mans was.”

In 1977 and ’78 Derek did Le Mans for Renault – “a great young team, so enthusiastic. In ’77 Jabouille and I led for 17 hours, but then the engine let go. Same thing in ’78, but our team-mates Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud won.” His relationship with Porsche was renewed with a 924 at Le Mans in 1980, and for ’81 he was back with Ickx for a copybook run in the Porsche 936 to score win number two. For 1982 the new 956 had arrived, and with it came win number three. It could easily have been three in a row in 1983, but this time things didn’t run to plan. Ickx was taken off on lap two by Jan Lammers’ private Porsche 956, but he and Derek worked back up the field to lead by 6am. Then brake discs started cracking. More time was lost but, despite inadequate and unpredictable braking, Derek staged a brilliant late charge back to second place, failing to catch their team-mates by barely a minute.

“Jacky Ickx and I developed a special relationship. Some people said he was a prima donna, but we always got on very well. People think of him as a great sports car driver, but of course he was a brilliant F1 driver as well, runner-up in the World Championship two consecutive years. The reason I liked driving with Jacky was that he was always lucky, always had this amazing good fortune. All the engineers and mechanics loved him, and because they knew he was the best they gave him the best equipment, the best effort. If you were with him you got the best too. I always wanted to be with somebody who was as good as me, if not a little bit better. Jacky was an outstanding professional, brilliant in the wet, and he always pushed the car really hard – yet he had mechanical sympathy.

“John Wyer always used to say: to be a good long-distance racer you have to have mechanical sympathy. You have to treat the car properly. Nowadays there’s no worry about wheelspin and over-revving, or missed gearchanges, and they have power steering and even air conditioning. And the cars are more reliable anyway. But you still have to be able to be extremely quick without taking risks, without having accidents. I never had an accident in a works Porsche – I spun a few times, but I never lost a position through driver error. In fact, in my entire sports car career I only once went off the road. That was at Le Mans in a Rondeau: I went out with brand new tyres, forgot they weren’t scrubbed in and slid off at the first chicane. But I got myself out and carried on.

“For me, the three greatest long-distance drivers I have ever known were Ickx, Hans Stuck and Al Holbert. Stucky came in when Ickx retired, and actually he was even faster than Jacky – as fast as Stefan Bellof, in my view. He’s a vivacious, carefree Austrian lunatic, and he always threw the car around with gay abandon, but he never seemed to damage it. He was far more exciting to watch than anyone else in the rain. When he got pole position he’d come down the pitlane screeching and waving and yodelling with delight. But he never put a foot wrong, and he was incredibly quick.

“Al Holbert couldn’t have been more different: quiet, contained, deeply religious, very well-organised and but also brilliantly fast. He was a superb engineer and a wonderful guy, head of a dealership, head of a racing team, ran an Indy operation. In September 1988 we were all in Ohio for an IMSA street race at Columbus. After Friday practice he decided to fly home to take his son to a football match. His Aerostar crashed on take-off because a door came open. He was only 41, and it was a real tragedy.

“Stefan Bellof was the fastest, wildest man I ever drove with. I always thought he would settle down, and that when he drove for Tyrrell, Ken would be able to help him mature. For the 1983 Nürburgring 1000Kms he put our car on pole with a lap in 6min 11sec, the first time anyone had averaged over 200kph around the ’Ring. In the race I handed the car over to him in the lead, and he started to go quicker and quicker. In the pits I said to Professor Bott, ‘Don’t you think it might be an idea to slow him down a bit?’ Then we heard he’d had a massive crash at Pflanzgarten. John Wyer wouldn’t have stood for something like that: it was a completely unnecessary accident. But when Stefan got back to the pits, unhurt, he laughed it off. When he had his fatal accident at Spa he was driving for Brun and he tried to pass Ickx’s works car for the lead at Eau Rouge. Jacky was completely blameless – he was staying on line, and giving Stefan plenty of room coming down into La Source. But at Eau Rouge it just wasn’t on.”

The Porsche 956 was replaced by the 962, with more cockpit length to comply with new rules to get the driver’s feet behind the axle line. “When I’m asked what was my favourite car, I have to say the 962. In Europe and America I must have won over 30 races with it, and after a bit you stopped realising how good it was – just get in it, drive it and win. It was brilliant. Add together the 956 and the 962 and I just don’t know how many races I won. About 37, I suppose. Of course I loved the 917, because it had around 600 horsepower: today’s cars have that and more, but they’ve got so much more grip. When you put your foot down in the 917 you had huge wheelspin, clouds of rubber smoke, you’d be sawing away at the wheel, always lots of drama. And in the rain you’d be going down the Mulsanne Straight with armfuls of lock on… that doesn’t happen with today’s cars, sadly.”

Derek has done Le Mans 26 times in all. His last two victories came in 1986 and ’87, both times with Stuck and Holbert, forcing the pace to break the Jaguar XJRs. One race he won’t forget in a hurry was 1995. The previous year, after finishing sixth in a Kremer Porsche, he said he’d done his last Le Mans. Yet the following year he was tempted back, at three weeks’ notice, to drive a McLaren GTR with his son Justin and Andy Wallace, the Harrods-sponsored car run by Dave Price Racing. The weather was dreadful: Le Mans veterans said it was the worst in the history of the race.

“Unless you’ve driven Le Mans at night, in heavy rain, you’ve no concept of what it’s like. The Mulsanne Straight is a piece of cake, as long as you don’t aquaplane, and the chicanes are well illuminated. But you come out of Arnage, second gear, third, fourth, fifth, over a brow and up to the Porsche Curves, and at 165mph you can’t see in the dark where the track ends and the grass begins. That’s the worst place. But you just have to keep the power on. That year we’d got the car into the lead, and I’d handed over to Justin at about 11.30 at night, pitch black, the rain coming down, and I hadn’t been in the motorhome long when Justin walked in. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked him. His eyes were big and round. He said, ‘Dad, I’ve never been so frightened in my life.’ Dave Price, to give him his due, saw Justin had scared himself, hauled him out, put Andy Wallace in. Justin felt terrible about it, but he didn’t have the experience that Andy and I had. I told him, if he’d crashed it would have been the team’s fault.

“During the night I did two and a half hours out there in the rain, and by 4am we were back in the lead. I got out, Andy took over, but after an hour he was back in again. He said he’d had it, he couldn’t concentrate. So I took over again. I drove a lot of hours in that race. I was 53 years old, and I was knackered. During the morning it dried out, but JJ Lehto in the long-tail car couldn’t get a tenth of a second off me. It really looked like we were going to win. But with two and a half hours to go I started having problems selecting gears. I had to chug out of the pits in top gear and leave it there.” The lead was gone, and with it the chances of Derek’s sixth Le Mans victory, although he, Justin and Andy did bring the car home third.

Derek has won the Daytona 24 Hours three times, and he believes it’s more challenging than Le Mans. “The great thing about Le Mans is the Mulsanne Straight, which – even with the chicanes now – does give you a chance to relax your muscles and move your shoulders around. Daytona has nothing like that. The G-loads on the banking are punishing, and on the infield you have a sequence of very tight corners, usually crowded with cars of widely differing performance. In 1990 I had the biggest crash of my career, in a 962. We’d just refuelled, and I was high on the banking, about six feet from the wall, when a tyre burst. The car hit the wall, went up in the air and flew a long, long way. Then it came down, and carried on upside down. The top of my helmet was scraped away by the track surface. Finally it stopped, and I could smell petrol, so I switched it off and pushed the fire extinguisher button. By the time they got to me I’d passed out from the halon gas, because halon works by taking the oxygen out of the air.”

So many other stories – like the Broadspeed Jaguar XJC12s, which Derek and Andy Rouse brought home to second place at the Nürburgring, by far that ill-fated car’s best result. Problems and arguments within the works Porsche team, developing the PDK transmission and ABS braking. Formula 5000 in the US and Australia, and the Hexagon Penske F1 car in British events. Helping out with the three-year Bentley Speed 8 programme at Le Mans, which resulted in victory in 2003. Racing Alpine BMW CSLs, Kremer and Loos 935s, IROC Camaros.

For more than 40 years Derek Bell has earned his daily bread by campaigning an extraordinary variety of cars, and always he has believed that his first duty in any race is towards his team.

“To be a successful endurance driver, you have to temper your personal ambitions with the requirements of the team. That’s how it works, and you must accept that from the first.” Had Derek’s cards fallen differently, he might have had a great Formula 1 career. But his natural ability to work with people under pressure – team-mates, team bosses, engineers, mechanics – and to display all and more of the speed but maybe not the egotism or arrogance of some of his contemporaries, have helped him become, quite simply, the most successful Briton ever in long-distance racing. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap.