The Story of Derek Bell

Legends of Le Mans – Derek Bell in the Brands Hatch paddock

We would like to take a look back at some of the highlights of the legendary race. Each article in the series will be dedicated to a certain individual, car or other feature in Le Mans history that are particularly meaningful to In the first article in the series, we take a look at the career of Derek Bell.

When ever anyone takes a glance at British sports car racing, Derek Bell is the name which leaps off of the page. The farm boy went from Pagham in England to traveling the world with Porsche and several other teams taking on the toughest races in the world. But before we begin with the Le Mans efforts of Britain’s Derek Bell, I feel a little back story should be put in place. Derek was born in Middlesex in 1941, and began racing cars in 1964. Although it is Porsche that is teamed with the Derek Bell name, it was a Lotus that he made his car race debut in at Goodwood in March of 1964, and it was his first win as well. From there, Derek Bell went on to drive in Formula One for Ferrari, making his debut for the team infront of the Tifosi at the 1968 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. As well as the prancing horse, Bell also had outings for Surtees and McLaren.

Two years after making his Formula One debut for Ferrari, Bell made his Le Mans debut for the same team. Derek Bell was paired with Ronnie Pietersen for the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the duo only managed 39 laps before the course of their race was run. 1970 was also the year that Derek Bell made his way onto the silver screen. Working with Steve McQueen, Bell was one of the drivers in the film ‘Le Mans’. As the film was shot in 1970 during and after the race, and the roll meant that Bell had to drive the Porsche (rather than the Ferrari he had been driving in the race) this gave Bell a perfect opportunity to hone his skills and circuit knowledge at Le Mans, as well as learn the Porsche 917, the car he would be racing at La Sarthe the following year.

In an unassuming start to such an illustrious career, It took Derek Bell until 1972 before he first took the checkerd flag at Le Mans, fourth in the GT class and eighth overall in a Ferrari 365. Bell finally got his big break when the Gulf Mirage team decided to pair the Brit with Belgian, Jacky Ickx, for the 1975 24 Hours of Le Mans. In a close thought race, the soon to be legendary duo of Ickx and Bell managed to complete the race one lap ahead of the #5 Ligier of Jean-Louis Lafosse and Guy Chasseuil.

Although 1975 was the first of many for Bell, he would have to wait another 6 years to taste victory at La Sarthe again. 1980 saw Ickx and Bell reunited at Le Mans for the first time since their 1975 triumph, but this time, in the #11 Jules Porsche 936. The partnership was successful once again and took victory by 14 laps overall and a staggering 42 laps in class. By this time, Bell had secured a works driver roll with Porsche. What was to come next was something very special – The Porsche 956.

At the car’s La Sarthe debut in 1982, it was to help Bell and Ickx claim the race win on it’s first attempt at the endurance classic, as well as being a second consecutive win for Ickx and Bell. As well as being the first of the Porsche’s to cross the line, Bell and Ickx took the #1 Rothmans Porsche 956 to pole position. 1983 was less straight forward in Bell’s attepmt to win three times in a row along side Ickx at Le Mans. Early mechanical issues put the defending winners on the back foot for almost the whole race. It was the #3 Porsche that inherited the lead, but only just managed to hold onto it. The sister car of Schuppan, Holbert and Haywood suffered massively with overheating issues towards the end of the race. Derek Bell was charged with hunting the #3 car down for the win, but only just missed out on claiming the win. The Brit managed to claw his way back to the lead lap, but finished a mere 17 seconds off the lead after a fantastic 24 hour long recovery drive. Derek Bell claims this to be one of his favorite outings at Le Mans.

1984 was boycotted by the Porsche works team in a protest in regards to the fuel consumption limit in place at Le Mans. Porsche however returned with Derek Bell in 1985, but without Jacky Ickx alongside him. 1985 was the first time that Bell shared driving duties with Hans Joachim-Stuck at Le Mans. The German would go on to be Bell’s most regular team mate at Le Mans. As well as being the first time out for the driver pairing, it was also the first time out for Porsche’s new 962 at Le Mans. Bell and Stuck put the #2 962 on pole for the race with a stunning 2;14:800 lap time, half a second ahead of the sister #1 car, but only came home in third position. However third was the highest placed of the new 962’s. Despite not winning Le Mans, Bell took his first World Sportscar Championship title alongside Stuck in 1985

It was 1986 and 1987 that Bell took his final two wins at Le Mans. Both of which in the 962 alongside Stuck and 1983 winner, Al Holbert. As well as winning Le Mans in 1986, Bell also won the World Sportscar Championship, this time out right. By 1988, Bell had won Le Mans no fewer than 5 times as well as the World Sportscar Championship twice. Other achievements include the BRDC gold start in 1984, 85, 86 and 87. The Royal Automobile Club Plaque d’Honneur in 1985, the Guild of Motoring Writers Driver of the year in 1982 and 1985 an in 1986, he was awarded an MBE for his services to Motorsport.

Come 1988, it was to be the final time that Bell would drive for the Porsche works team at Le Mans. Armed with the Shell Dunlop branded Porsche 962c alongside Klaus Ludwig and Hans Joachim Stuck, Bell finished the 1988 race in second place, a near half a lap behind the winning Jaguar of Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and future team mate, Andy Wallace. But we’ll get to that. In another one of Bell’s favourite races at La Sarthe, the number 17 Porsche was blocked while leading, preventing it from making a pit stop. The car was limped back to the pits and came into the box with an empty tank, after a very slow lap trying to get it back. This set the scene for another relentless recovery from Bell and his Porsche team back to the lead lap. Of course, it was the 17 Porsche of Bell, Stuck and Ludwig that took pole. Come the end of the race, a stunning 394 laps were completed by the winning Jaguar and the second place Porsche, which is more than we have seen at Le Mans in recent years.

Bell’s consistency at Le Mans meant that he finished in the top 3 overall every year between 1981 and 1988, 1984, with four wins, two seconds and one third place finish in the eight year period.

Bell continued to race at Le Mans right up until the end of the Group C era. Staying in the Porsche 962, but in privately entered teams such as Richard Lloyd Racing and Joest. He would however not find the podium again until 1994, when he took his Kremer K8 Spyder to third in class and 6th overall. His next overall podium would be his last, and arguably most memorable race in the endurance classic.

Derek Bell was joined by his son, Justin and 1988 winner, Andy Wallace in the Mach one Racing Harrods McLaren F1 GTR. Running on a limited budget in a car that had spent only one hour in a wind tunnel turning it from a road to race car, the team could not afford McLaren’s heavy duty gearbox. It did seem to be going well for the Bell’s and Wallace aboard the 51 McLaren, leading for about 19 hours of the race. However their standard gearbox gave in, forcing a change. Despite the gearbox change, the team managed to come home second in class and third overall in their McLaren, despite the very wet conditions that the race threw at the drivers.

Derek Bell returned to Le Mans in 1996 for the final time, again in the Harrods McLaren. despite managing an extra 30 laps, the1996 effort was only good enough for 6th overall and 5th in class behind the first ever LMP1 winner at Le Mans. 1996 saw the end to Bell’s Le Mans racing career, overall he raced at La Sarthe 26 times, with 5 wins and 10 trips to the podium. Add to that three wins overall at the 24 Hours of Daytona and Bell soon becomes one of the greatest endurance drivers the world has ever seen.

Bell’s affinity with Le Mans however didn’t end. After a career of longing for success in a British car, Bell became a Bentley Brand Ambassador, and in turn responsible for developing the Bentley that took overall honours at Le Mans in 2003,

Derek Bell was later added to the Motorsport Hall of Fame of America for his efforts in the IMSA championship and behind the microphone in their Formula One coverage in 2012. Then in 2013, Bell was inducted to the Le Mans 24 Hours Drivers Hall of Fame. His success both on and off track combined with his attitude to such a long racing career, with his true talents being revealed at Le Mans, Derek Bell truly is a Legend of Le Mans.

Pictures – James Clarke (WEC-Magazin)