Bellís Ďrubyí anniversary
Last week, a familiar voice on my phone. "I thought youíd like to congratulate me.
Itís 40 years since my first race. I thought you knew all those things!" Oh, Derek!
As in Bell. Good lord, 40 years? "Yes, I drove a Lotus Seven at Goodwood, 13th
March 1964. I won, too."
Offhand, I canít think of any other famous racing drivers who won their debut event,
and went international the following season in Formula 3. And is there any other
professional driver out there with a curriculum vitae covering four decades, and
still giving the youngsters a hard time in touring cars?
Volvo, one careful owner
Bell, now 62 years of age and on his own admission, not that good on single laps
(which costs him positions at the start), prepares to drive a Volvo S60R in the
American Speedvision series, still with an on-board camera and a microphone
enabling him to give viewers on-board coverage of the events. Itís a change from
the Audi A4 Quattro that heís driven in previous years, "but Volvo USA asked me if
Iíd be interested, and of course I am." The Volvo has a turbocharged five-cylinder
engine and four-wheel drive, so itís not going to be a back-marker. However,
Bellís car wonít be prepared in time for the opener at Sebring, so he will deliver
the commentary from a chair thatís doing precisely zero miles per hour.
Life isnít slowing down for Britainís finest long distance driver. He was calling me
from a London hotel, preparing an after-dinner speech, flying next day to his
second home in Boca Raton, Florida, to be with his wife Misti for her birthday,
back to England next week for a dinner and speech in Crewe, than back to Florida
for the Sebring 12-Hours. OK for air miles, Derek?
He is still a íconsultantí to Bentley Motors, although the role has changed to
íambassadorí since the great Le Mans 1-2 victory in June, a relentless round of
speeches, dinners, dealers, presentations, just about every aspect of public
relations. Bell doubts that Bentley will return to racing in the near future in any
shape or form, although there was talk of interest in a GT programme in June,
when adrenalin in Crewe flowed like wine.
You could write a book about Derek Bell. In fact Formula One doyen journalist
Alan Henry did, in 1988, possibly thinking that his professional career was
drawing to a close. Perhaps it was, in terms of victories because the Porsche 962
was past its prime, and was narrowly beaten by Jaguar at Le Mans.
Reeliní in the years
He was, though, the only man to have won World Championship races in the
Porsche 917, with Jo Siffert, in the Porsche 936, with Jacky Ickx, and in the
Porsche 956 and 962. He and Al Holbert were the only men to have won four
consecutive 24-hour races at Daytona and Le Mans in 1986, at Daytona and Le
Mans, again, in 1987. Ninety-six hours, unbeaten. Incroyable, as the French say,
and he is a Freeman of the City of Le Mans.
Five Le Mans victories went to Bell, one fewer than Jacky Ickx, but it could have
been six had not his Renaultís engine failed on Sunday morning in 1978, after he
and Jean-Pierre Jabouille had led for 17 hours. He won the FIA World Endurance
Championship titles in 1985 and again in 1986, and for that was awarded the
MBE, one of the proudest moments of his life.
Bellís safety record was almost impeccable. After his first two seasons in F3 and
F2, when he admitted to having rather a lot of crashes which his step-father,
Bernard (the Colonel) Hender usually paid for, he steadied up and got into the
habit of winning. He has the enviable record of 26 starts at Le Mans, 20 finishes
(14 of them in the top six), and no accidents at all.
In fact (and Iíll write this quietly, because he is still competing) Bell has never even
hurt himself in a racing car, which is a great testimony to his enormous skills in
bringing the cars home in one piece, at winning speeds.
Bell drove single-seaters up to Formula One level (nine Grand Prix starts between
1968 and 1974 in Ferrari, Brabham, Surtees and Tecno) and his best F1 result
was sixth place in the US Grand Prix in 1970, in a Surtees TS7. Somehow Bellís
single-seater career never properly took off, but his 42 major endurance racing
victories, in World Championship and IMSA racing, mark him as a specialist long-
distance man par excellence.
For a man of mature years, Bell retains an enormous love of motor racing, an
enthusiasm that compares that of many drivers still in their first decade. Long may