“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.”
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.