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For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ringside Seat
“He’s like Mick Jagger, always reckons he can do one more gig” reckons Misti Bell, speaking of Derek who might, just might have packed his helmet for the last time during the Rolex 24. The car didn’t last long enough for him to drive a stint, a brake disc shattering on his Riley Pontiac with son Justin at the wheel, and he waved goodbye to the faint chance of a fourth Daytona 24- hour victory.  At the age of 66, Derek suggests that he might compete in the odd historic race, but the days of international appearances have passed. “This is not the way I wanted it to finish” Derek told Autosport’s Gary Watkins, “but I guess it is.” The blond-haired sportscar legend, with Peter Pan looks and a ready impish grin, struggled in qualifying and decided to call it a day.

Derek is, without question, the greatest Englishman ever to compete in endurance racing. His career spans Ferrari 512 and Porsche 917 sports cars, the Gulf-Mirage era, Renault’s turbo effort at Le Mans, Porsche 936, Porsche 956 and 962, Kremer Porsche K8, Ferrari 333 SP, and the McLaren F1 GTR which earned him yet another podium, with Justin, in 1995. The latter was one of the proudest of his career, on a par with any of his five outright victories at the Sarthe.

This is not a resumé of Derek’s career, which began in amateur racing at Goodwood in March 1964, in a Lotus 7, a wet race which he won, first time out. He quickly climbed to Formula 3 and Formula 2 with the backing of his step-father’s Church Farm Racing team, and turned professional within three years when Enzo Ferrari offered him a Formula 2 drive in the Monza Lotteria. Then, between 1968 and 1974 he competed in 16 Grands Prix for Ferrari, McLaren, Surtees and Tecno, with a single World Championship point to his credit, driving a Surtees to sixth place at the US Grand Prix, Watkins Glen, in 1970.

La Sarthe
Derek’s single-seater career was completely eclipsed by his entry to endurance racing, first in Jacques Swaters’ privately entered Ferrari 512M at Spa in 1970, then in a factory 512M at Le Mans. He managed to avoid a multiple all-Ferrari pile-up at the White House, only to have his engine fail at Mulsanne a minute later! Filming with Jo Siffert in the Le Mans production possibly eased the invitation to join John Wyer’s Gulf Porsche 917 team in 1971.

Immediately, he was in awe of Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez on the banking. “There is a white line on the banking, and I saw that they had their left front wheels below the line and their left rear wheels above it, so they were actually drifting at 215 mph. It was quite incredible! They showed me where the bar was, the level I needed to get to, and when I was at ease with the car I could do those things too, but it didn’t come straight away.” (Blue and Orange, the Gulf history in motor sport).

By the time they went to Spa he was ready to claim pole position, at a touch over 160 mph on the closed-road circuit, prompting Pedro to suggest “really, Derek, you should drive with me!” That was taken as a huge compliment, of course, but with weeks both Pedro and Seppi were dead, and the 917 era came to a close. That season with Gulf earned him two major victories, the Buenos Aires 1,000 Kms with Siffert and the Paris 1,000 Kms with Gijs van Lennep.

Derek spent the next three years struggling with the DFV powered Gulf- Mirage with two notable successes, winning the Spa 1,000 Kms in 1973, with Mike Hailwood, and at Le Mans in 1975 with Jacky Ickx. They raced on Sunday trying to mask some horrible noises, and lurches, in the rear suspension on right-hand corners, and it was only when the GR8 was stripped down in Slough that a complete fracture of the left-rear wishbone was discovered!

Some plum drives followed the departure of Gulf Oil after the Le Mans victory. Alfa Romeo’s Autodelta invited Derek to race the flat-12 powered 33TT12, and he and Henri Pescarolo won three World Championship races at Spa, the Österreichring and Watkins Glen.  Carlo Chiti’s team lowered its tent at the end of 1975, but Renault offered Derek drives at Le Mans in 1977 and 1978. “I drove with Jean-Pierre Jarier in 1978, we had pole position and during the night we built up a huge lead. In the morning we were several laps ahead and the car was running like clockwork, but then Jean-Pierre came to the pits with a lot of smoke, a piston had gone, and it was all over.”

Weissach Bound
Derek’s invitation to drive the Porsche factory’s 924 Carrera GT at Le Mans in 1980 was significant for three reasons, even though he finished in 13th place with the engine running on two cylinders, sounding like an old tractor. He had built up a reputation with privately entered 935s and had a tentative invitation from Bob Akin, a potential winner, when the opportunity to drive the 924 arose. “It won’t be a winner, will it?” No, it won’t be a winner. “I need to think about this, I’ll get back to you.” Next day he was back on the ‘phone. “It’s a chance to drive for the Porsche factory, and to work with Norbert Singer. I’ll take it.”

The plan was to run a ‘British’ 924 for Tony Dron and Andy Rouse, who had finished first and second in the 1979 Porsche 924 Championship, an ‘American’ car for Peter Gregg and Al Holbert, and a ‘German’ car for Jürgen Barth and Manfred Schurti. Although this was to appear a low-key effort Porsche did want a professional in each team, and my boss at Porsche Cars Great Britain, John Aldington, was keen to have John Watson in the British car. Wattie, though, priced himself out, at £2,500, so the invitation went to Derek, who was quite unconcerned about the fee.

Gregg put himself out of the contest with a traffic accident on Thursday afternoon, probably going rather fast to a team briefing and colliding with a Frenchman who turned right across his path in a Renault 4. Suffering from concussion, Gregg was sidelined and Derek then partnered Al Holbert, who he knew only slightly up to that time.

Heavy rain before the start made driving conditions atrocious. Dron, racing for the first time at Le Mans, admitted being scared stiff, looking up at the tops of the trees to see which way the road was going. He did well to stay in touch with Barth, who knew the 13.2 kilometre Le Mans circuit fairly intimately, having won in 1977. After an hour and a half the three Porsche 924s went to the pits in convoy, Barth, Dron and Bell. Significantly, though, Derek had made up a full lap on his team-mates, one of the many occasions when he displayed his absolute mastery of wet-weather racing. What’s the saying? “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” Derek may have forgotten that, but it was his third opening, I believe, a demonstration of car control which impressed the Porsche people hugely…and Holbert.

After that, it was almost a given that he would renew his partnership with Jacky Ickx in 1981, driving the ‘Jules’ 936 to a magnificent victory, completely trouble-free (which is more than can be said of the sister-car, driven by Jochen Mass). For 1982 there was a full contract with the newly formed Rothmans-Porsche 956 team, Porsche’s first monocoque, ground effect cars built to the new Group C regulations.

Group C
As already stated this is not a resumé of Derek’s career, but an appreciation. It may appear that I am rushing through the finest period of his career, but a summary tells it all. The Englishman was in his prime, and became the most successful driver of all-time in the 965/962 period, achieving no fewer than 16 outright victories in the World Endurance Championship and 19 in the IMSA Camel GT Championship, a total of 35 big successes in seven years. These included three more Le Mans victories and three at Daytona. It is unlikely that any driver will match Derek’s record of four consecutive 24-hour victories, at Daytona and Le Mans in 1986, and at Daytona and Le Mans in 1987. Norbert Singer is reluctant to name a favourite among many great drivers he has been associated with, but reckons that “to my mind, that record alone proves that Derek was the perfect long distance driver.”

He was crowned World Sportscar Champion in 1985, with Hans Stuck, and again in 1986. This should have been a title jointly with Stuck, for they won all their races together and were tied on points, but some clerk in the FIA’s office in Paris deprived Stuck of his title on the basis that they drove against each other in the two-part race at the Norisring. Although neither scored points, Derek finished ahead of Stuck and was therefore awarded the title singularly, a fact which angered Derek more than it did Stuck.

On securing his second World Championship, Derek was honoured with a Royal award, being made a Member of the British Empire “for services to motor sport”. Americans may laugh, and this is indeed an anachronistic title, but the MBE remains a coveted distinction. He was, in addition, granted the Freedom of the City of Le Mans in 2002, and delighted the mayoral party by responding in French.

Derek won major races with Jo Siffert, Mike Hailwood, Gijs van Lennep, Jacky Ickx, Henri Pescarolo, Stefan Bellof, Hans Stuck and Al Holbert, never letting any of them down on the race track. “When I handed the car to Jacky and went back for a rest, I could be sure that I would get it back in exactly the same condition as before” says Derek of Le Mans. “And he says the same thing about me.”

He rarely qualified the car, not regarding himself as a one-lap specialist, but could rise to the occasion when asked. In 26 appearances at Le Mans he never, ever, put a scratch on the car, and adds that he never lost a position in a race through a driving error. There was a terrifying moment, though, when a slower competitor put his Porsche on the grass, all four wheels, at over 200 mph! As ever, an element of luck was attached to the skill of avoiding a huge accident.

When it comes to ratings (and I only pass judgement on performances in my era, which began with Motoring News in 1967), I would rate Derek Bell the equal of maestros Pedro Rodriguez, Jacky Ickx, Hans Stuck and JJ Lehto on wet circuits, when inherent skills and balance are at a premium, and a supreme performance can influence the result of the contest. In the dry, and in his prime, he would have conceded nothing to Tom Kristensen in my opinion, and it never bothered him that Ickx, Stefan Bellof and Stuck would assume qualifying roles. “Let them get on with it” was his philosophy, knowing how much they needed him as their anchor man in the enduros. Derek’s career spanned four decades and included eight 24-hour victories, and for that alone he remains the king of endurance racing.

Michael Cotton, February 2008

Head Man