Derek Bell and Ferrari: post your questions for our next podcast
Derek Bell and Porsche is a combination that brought such success for so many years that it's difficult to imagine it could have been any other way. But in 1968,…
The last time I saw John was in the Interlagos paddock after the Brazilian Grand Prix. He was bemoaning the fact that, because of a clashing commitment, his boy Jenson wasn’t able to go to the awards night of the magazine I mustn’t mention (especially in my first despatch for Motor Sport’s website). John still wanted to go but without Jenson having a table there, he wasn’t sure what to do. No problem, I told him, I’d get him onto mine.
“Oh great,” he brightened, the leathery creased-up smile back on his face. As it turned out, McLaren then took an extra table out and John was invited to join that. He was never short of offers because he was just one of those rare life-affirming characters everyone loved spending time with; funny, irreverent, with lots of outrageous stories, fantastically indiscreet but at heart just plain nice.
He somehow combined being a total extrovert with genuine humility and beneath the gregarious party animal was not only a heart of gold but also a lot of racing savvy and personal wisdom. At the end of a stressful day of F1, away from the pressures of the track, Jenson still relied heavily on both.
He was a jokey, loud, slightly ‘wide’ persona apparently towed along in his son’s slipstream, glass of red in hand, loving every minute but never in the way. Of course it was Jenson’s career that had washed the former car dealer up on a beautiful beach in the south of France, the latest Ferrari in his underground garage.
All the decades of flirting with insolvency and here he was barely comprehending just how right it had suddenly become – he was, as he might have put it, ‘living it large’. But that was just the completion of the circle – for it had been John’s sacrifice, tenacity and paddock smarts that had put Jenson on that career path in the first place.
It had been John who’d initiated Jenson’s career, with the purchase of a kart for the then eight-year-old boy. John, who had called time on his own rallycross career by then – no mean pedaller, he was runner-up in the ’76 British championship – recalled his son as hyperactive. “So I bought him a little trials bike to ride round the garden on,” he recalled, “but watching him on that scared the living daylights out of me, so I bought the kart, thinking it would be a bit safer.”
John was by now divorced from Jenson’s mum, so taking the step of actually racing the kart gave father and son something to do together at weekends. Tony Purnell – who was part of the karting scene at the time and who later founded PI Research and went on to manage the Jaguar F1 operation – reckons that played a major part in Jenson’s underlying quiet self-belief.
“Just as with Anthony and Lewis Hamilton, so it was with John and Jenson. The father was separated from the mother and karting was what the father and son did together and in both cases the son was the absolute centre of their world. The father holds the son in such high regard that the boy’s whole inner confidence of ‘I’m the best’ is just reinforced.”
But being from a motor sporting world already, John was able to be much more than just a karting dad. As it became obvious just how gifted Jenson was, John knew he needed to do right by him – and crucially he knew how to do that. He prepared the engines himself and those tricks he didn’t already know he soon found out. They were so good, he soon had a queue of customers.
“But by the time Jenson got to about 13 we were starting to have arguments at the races,” recalled John, “and because I didn’t want the karting to spoil our relationship I stepped back, got someone else to run him. I then concentrated on running younger kids.” One of whom was Lewis Hamilton…
John trod that line perfectly between wanting the best for his boy and being overbearing – an object lesson to all racing dads. It enabled Jenson to grow, become his own person and is surely a big part of why he is unusually well-balanced for someone of his achievements.
As Jenson’s career in car racing took off and attracted funding, John became more than anything a supporter – never getting in the way, never interfering but always there after the day had ended. His knowledge of the sport, his nous and his understanding of his son’s personality and driving traits were total. Jenson called him ‘The Old Boy’ or ‘Papa Smurf’ and would smile and raise his eyes, long-suffering, to the ceiling when asked about whatever contentious, lairy thing Pop might have said or done this time.
Obviously, John was immensely proud of his boy – and was always there for him. They’d arrive at and leave the track together, typically John walking on ahead, Jenson and girlfriend Jessica following a few steps behind. But as Jenson went about the job, John was left totally to his own devices.
There’d be just the odd look between them as Jenson was striding to the McLaren debrief room, maybe, or they might watch the GP2 race together on the big screen in the motorhome. But generally, John was there to chill – and he was friends with just about everyone in the paddock.
There was a time when Jenson had decided to relocate from Monaco to the gentler environs of Guernsey, home of his business manager Richard Goddard. Jenson asked if John fancied joining them. “You must be joking!” he laughed. “No, I’m quite happy where I am, thank you. Might take the Ferrari down to Corsica next weekend.”
He thought the whole idea was hilarious. “Two bachelors together – in Guernsey!” he mock-sneered, nudging you the way he did to telegraph the punch line. “What they going to do? Have high tea?” He good-naturedly predicted it would last a matter of months. He was spot-on; Jenson was back in Monaco by early spring.
John was a good-looking dude when he was younger, a wheeler-dealer car salesman, and even in the ‘70s when he took up rallycross. But he’d put a lot of hard miles on the clock since and in the F1 paddock his face had that ‘lived-in’ look. It was a face that had seen its share of hard times, hard play and regular hard liquor. Jenson made sure the Old Boy visited the Mayo Clinic in New York for an annual MOT and he’d had a heart by-pass a few years ago. It didn’t seem to have slowed him any. He lived it full and large right to the end.
It won’t be the same in the paddock without looking forward to finding John at the end of the day, to join him in a glass and just chat – and laugh.
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