Derek Bell: my first Le Mans – in a works Ferrari

Sports Car News

Le Mans legend Derek Bell made his first La Sarthe start for Ferrari in 1970. As he tells Damien Smith, it was far from a happy debut

Derek Bell driving the Ferrari 512 at the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours

Bell in the Ferrari 512 on his 1970 Le Mans debut

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Porsche, Audi, Toyota, Peugeot, Glickenhaus, possibly Acura, perhaps McLaren and maybe more: the Le Mans 24 Hours sure is back in vogue as we head towards the Hypercar era. But with all respect to these motor sport grandees, there’s another new entry that promises to be the real game-changer when it returns in 2023: a factory Ferrari team is plotting its comeback and a first bid for outright victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe since 1973.

It’s a big deal. In fact for Le Mans, there’s none bigger.

So who will drive? There are plenty of current sports car aces, and probably a bunch who would now like to be, who will be coveting a seat in what will surely be the highest-profile motor sport campaign the other side of Formula 1. Britain’s James Calado, an AF Corse mainstay, class world champion and Le Mans winner, must fancy his chances after putting in such sterling service over recent years in the GTE category. But nothing can be taken for granted, two years ahead of the comeback of the century.

Plus, in Ferrari’s case, maybe drivers should be warned to be careful what they wish for. A factory drive with the most famous, most celebrated builder of performance cars in the world isn’t necessarily a blessing, as a string of racing drivers from every decade since the 1950s would tell you (if they could). Derek Bell is among their number. The five-time Le Mans winner and indubitable national treasure will always be most associated with Porsche, but he’ll be forever proud of his status as a bona fide factory Ferrari ace too – even if he readily admits it did him very little good.

“I left Ferrari [mid-1969] and had nowhere to go,” says Bell today. “When I signed [in 1968] various people including John Wyer and Ken Tyrrell told me driving for Ferrari ‘will ruin your career, it won’t go anywhere.’ In those days we didn’t have managers, it was a gut feeling and really I was a farmer’s lad. I had no bloody clue. I went with my heart as we all ultimately do. I had the opportunity.”

1970 Ferrari 512Ss in the Pits at Apron, Le Mans 24 Hours. (Photo by: GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ferrari line-up in the pits – Bell’s car is No7

GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Two world championship grand prix starts at the end of 1968, non-championship appearances at the Oulton Park Gold Cup and ’69 Silverstone International Trophy, a Tasman winter and a bunch of Formula 2 races in red didn’t amount to a great deal for Derek, at a time when Ferrari was riven by political turmoil, financial strife and union unrest. By the British GP in ’69 the dream was over and he was driving a four-wheel-drive McLaren in what turned out to be a one-off.

Bell says he could have made his Le Mans debut in a Wyer GT40 following a test for the team, only for Ferrari to block the opportunity. Instead, Le Mans had to wait until 1970 when circumstances led to an unintended and short-lived return to Ferrari – not that Bell truly cared about either at that stage of his life. “Le Mans was a race I’d never really wanted to do, I had no ambition to do it,” he says. “We all wanted to be F1 drivers.”

Still, in May 1970 Derek accepted an invitation by Jacques Swaters to drive the Belgian’s yellow Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512S alongside Hughes de Fierlant at the Spa 1000Kms – his first taste of the fearsome 8.76-mile road course. He could have no clue about the path he was starting down and where it would lead.

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“I’d met Jacques during my time at Ferrari,” Bell recalls. “I went quite well and was as quick as some of the works drivers, although in the race we didn’t do very well. The car caught alight when we refuelled, 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.” Bell and de Fierlant finished eighth, seven laps down on the winning JWA Porsche 917 of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman.

“From there, Mr Ferrari got in touch with Mr Swaters and said ‘I want Derek for Le Mans’,” Bell continues. “Ferrari had done nothing for me, but Jacques said ‘you’ve got to do it because if you don’t drive for Ferrari he won’t give me any spare parts for the 24 Hours.’ I thought I’d better drive for Ferrari in that case.”

The first of Bell’s 26 Le Mans starts proved memorable, for all the wrong reasons – despite sharing a works 512S with no less than ‘Super Swede’: Ronnie Peterson. “We knew each other from F2, it was wonderful to drive with him,” says Derek. “Bloody brilliant driver.”

“I thought I’d get words of wisdom, but they told us nothing”

Today, Le Mans in 1970 is recalled as a halcyon edition, thanks to Porsche 917 vs Ferrari 512S – and a certain movie starring Steve McQueen, which Bell famously played a significant part in helping to make through the summer months that followed. But the experience of racing for Ferrari in the 24 Hours itself is one that he sums up merely as “hilarious.”

“We had the team drivers’ briefing at our hotel,” recalls Derek. “We were all standing around there waiting, all eight of us” – there were four works entries – “and I thought I’d really get words of wisdom now: what revs to use, watch out for the gearbox and so on. But they told us nothing. I thought there’d be a strategy, with a car running as a hare. It didn’t turn out like that at all. Ronnie and I walked out knowing sweet nothing.”

1970 Le Mans 24 hours race start

The grid scrambles away – Bell’s car is seventh along in the throng

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

His recollections of the start will raise hairs on the neck of anyone who loves McQueen’s ‘Le Mans’. “I did the start and sat in the car with my seatbelts on. No running across the track because the year before Jacky [Ickx] had walked across in protest. You could see the clock and we were watching for the flag. You had it in first gear with a stone behind the wheel, they dropped the flag, you turned the key, VRRRROOOM – and off you’d go, taking off with the wheels spinning almost before the engine was running. That’s how it was.

“I didn’t have a brilliant start, but I’d never done a start in a sports car before. Nor had many coming out at that angle. It’s a miracle nobody spun. And that was it. I handed over to Ronnie, we were running in the top eight. Again, because we weren’t given any rules we ran it at whatever pace we thought.”

Back in the car early on Saturday evening as rain arrived, Bell’s first Le Mans finished all too early. “I was leading a group of Ferraris, Clay Regazzoni and Mike Parkes behind me,” he says. “I hadn’t done many laps, so I wasn’t comfortable, put it that way. We came out of Arnage and as I accelerated towards White House there was a car on the grass on the right – Reine Wisell in his Filipinetti 512. He gradually pulled across on me, going a lot slower. I thought ‘s***’: there was nowhere to go but the grass and a bit of track. What I didn’t know was he had oil on his windscreen and didn’t know where he was.

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“I missed him with two wheels on the grass and two on the track, shot through, then looked in my mirror and there was shit flying everywhere. Regazzoni was along the guardrail, I was the only one that carried on. Debris everywhere apparently. Anyway I carried on past the pits and then half-way down the straight, bang: the engine blew up. It was a piston, which seemed a pretty regular occurrence to me. I learnt 20 years later from an engineer who said sorry to me, that because I was the new kid on the block I was used as a guinea pig.

“I got a ride back on a motorbike and when I got to the Ferrari pit they said ‘are you all right? We saw the smoke from the accident.’ I said I was fine. ‘But you were in it.’ No, I was out front, it was all behind me. They said they never saw me go by because they’d been looking for a group of cars, not one on its own. They’d seen the explosions. Four 512s out at once… people have written that I was in the crash, but it wasn’t the case.

“That was the end of my first Le Mans, rather sadly. Then I came back the next year with a long-tail John Wyer 917, which was a different thing altogether.”

Bell would race a Ferrari at Le Mans once more, this time for Swaters in 1972 when he drove the Ecurie Francorchamps 365 GTB/4 Daytona to eighth overall, fourth in class – his first finish at La Sarthe. A year later the works Ferraris raced at Le Mans for the last time – at least until 2023. Derek Bell, for one, wouldn’t miss them.