The moment Derek Bell met Jim Clark —one day before Hockenheim tragedy


An up-and-coming Derek Bell's chance meeting with Jim Clark, ahead of his first Formula 2 race, would go on to have greater significance the following day, when the two-time World Champion was killed at Hockenheim. Bell recounts the moment in the latest Motor Sport podcast

Derek Bell 1969

Derek Bell shocked by the loss of Clark but determined to push on

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The opening round of the 1968 European F2 Trophy, held at a rain-soaked Hockenheim, will always be remembered as one of motor sport’s darkest days.

After the death of Jim Clark, who had agreed to enter the race with Lotus instead of testing Ford’s new sports car at Brands Hatch, nothing else mattered. Not the hollow victory of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, nor the promising F2 championship debut of a 26-year-old from Pagham, Sussex.

For a brief and tragically unrepeated moment, the careers of Clark and rising talent Derek Bell, who regarded the double world champion as a hero, had intertwined.

A successful F3 season in 1967 had led to Bell’s arrival in Formula 2 the following year and the star-struck driver, who would later find unprecedented success behind the wheel of sports cars at Le Mans and Daytona, couldn’t believe his luck when he met Clark by chance for the first time at a nearby hotel the day before his final race.

As he tells Motor Sport in the latest Centenary Stories podcast episode, it’s a memory he still holds dear to this very day, and one which would go on to shape the rest of his career.

“Me and my step-father had been staying at a hotel just down the road from Hockenheim that weekend,” he said. “We were having a cup of tea [there] on the Saturday afternoon [after qualifying] when in walks Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill. My eyes fell out my head…there are my two heroes!

“It was unbelievable. We all sat and had a cup of tea and we chatted for probably an hour and a half. At a certain point Jimmy looked at me and said ‘Where did you qualify?’. So I went ‘Fifth, where did you qualify?’ He said ‘Oh, I was seventh’ and then Graham said ‘Oh, I was eighth.’ It was then I thought ‘Oh my goodness gosh, I’m ahead of Jimmy Clark on the grid!’

“It was one of the most remarkable moments of my life and it still stands out, particularly after what happened.”

Bell would retire from the race on lap 29 with a broken clutch. But his performances leading up to that race, which had included a brilliant win on his racing debut at Goodwood, had already attracted the right attention. Due, in part, to the void left by Clark’s death, teams were in desperate need of emerging talent.

Derek Bell 1986 US Grand Prix

Bell quickly became a hot property in almost every racing category

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“After Jimmy Clark’s incident, within two or three weeks I had multiple offers from big names,” said Bell. “I had John Cooper on to me to test in F1, which I did. I also had Ferrari onto me to drive in F2 and F1, and Colin Chapman had asked me if I wanted to hop in an IndyCar and test with Graham at Silverstone — with the chance to go to the Indy 500. Then on top of that I had John Wyer asking me to drive the GT40 at Le Mans in 1968.

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“Either I was the only one out there racing or I was the only one they felt they could pick on. But I was quite in demand.”

Ultimately, Bell chose to sign with Ferrari for 1968 after a successful test at Monza. Although he would shine in F2 — securing pole position on debut in the F2 Monza Lotteria and leading at Zandvoort before his gearbox broke — the Briton missed out on a full-time F1 drive after a spell of misfortune: retiring from Oulton Park’s Gold Cup, the Italian GP and the US GP all due to mechanical failures. Enzo later released Bell, who tried his F1 luck with McLaren, Wheatcroft, Surtees and then Tecno. Each venture would prove a disaster, as he scored just a single championship point in 16 entries.

Fortunately, Bell soon turned his attention to sportscar racing where he quickly found his feet: winning at Le Mans with John Wyer in 1975, before claiming further victories 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1987 and wins at Daytona in 1986, 1987 and 1989 — all with Porsche.

Derek Bell sprays champagne

Derek Bell enjoyed his best years as part of Porsche’s works Group C effort, scoring three Le Mans wins (here is 1982).

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But all the while, the memory of Clark’s death burdened his mind.

“It was a tragedy,” he said. “It’s something that really set me back mentally and I’ve always wondered why I had the mentality to stand people who I knew, liked and almost worshipped, getting hurt or killed and still carrying on.”

“Sometimes when I talk about it, I often remember that I never actually saw anybody dead. Maybe if I’d seen a guy laying over the top of a guard rail with a broken back or something it might have got hold of me and made me think ‘Oh my god that could have been you!’

“But I still never thought about stopping. I was reminded about it on several occasions. Well-wishers and friends and family would say ‘I say old boy, why don’t you take up something a bit more sensible? Why don’t you get a job and try and become a lawyer or a doctor? Do something useful in your life!’ But I was doing what I loved. Wasn’t I lucky? How many of us do what we really love?”