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.
Win number two at Le Mans in a 936 and Ickx in 1981
“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.
Bell loved the 956 he and Vern Shuppan were second at Spa in 1982
“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.
With Brian Redman and Steve McQueen on location in Le Mans, 1970
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.