De Cad’s heroes – after a Formula One baptism of fire – driving for Ferrari at Monza – Derek Bell went on to become one of the finest sports-car drivers of his generation heroes.
All it took for this month’s Hero to realise that he had to race was his first outing at Goodwood in his Lotus Seven, back in 1964. His maiden win in that wonderful little car sealed his decision to pursue a serious career. After his first visit to the bank, Derek Bell also realised that it wasn’t going to be an easy undertaking.
Winning races in a Formula Three Lotus, however, and living from hand to mouth on the proceeds from starting and prize money was the ultimate maturing programme for anyone determined to see it through. By 1967, Derek Bell was ready for Formula Two. At that point, I think this was one of the best formulae of all time: excellent mechanical grip, enough grunt from a 1600cc Cosworth FVA powerplant, and the added benefit that established drivers such as Jochen Rindt, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill would take part – thereby demonstrating whether or not you were any good.
Derek’s efforts got him noticed by Il Commendatore, who provided his first Formula One outing at the Italian GP at Monza in 1968. Best to read about his experiences at Ferrari elsewhere because it didn’t work out as well as it should have. Suffice to say that I think he was well out of it. Bell came second in the 1970 Formula Two Championship, and made his sports-car debut at Spa that year in no less a beast than an Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512S. I must have said this before, but the old Spa road circuit did bring out the best in any driver. Derek eventually won there twice.
John Wyer summoned him for the Gulf Porsche 917 team to replace the departing Leo Kinnunen for 1971. Driving for Wyer was a serious step up because he settled for nothing less than total dedication to the job of winning. What Derek learned that year set him up for what became an exceptional career in endurance racing, especially in 24-hour events. His first victory at La Sarthe came in 1975, driving with Jacky Ickx in a Wyer-entered Gulf Mirage. Just getting a DFV motor to spin over for 24 hours was a feat in itself and required exacting mechanical sympathy from both drivers. So started a string of five victories at Le Mans.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. After drives for Gulf in various Mirages and then for the Alpine-Renault team, Derek was without a major factory deal by 1981. His good chum Steve O’Rourke was taking time off from his day job managing Pink Floyd to hit the race-tracks in his BMW M1, and suggested that Derek might like to at least have a contract to keep his hand in during the season. They kicked off at the Silverstone Six Hours. David Hobbs got roped in, too. They won the class and, as a result, it occurred to Porsche that Derek was much needed for its forthcoming Group C programme.
Perhaps being a professional racer is akin to being an actor. You’re only as good as your last performance, and even then you can get left behind. If Derek was feeling a little left out, it certainly didn’t show in his driving and love of the sport. But it cannot have felt good that season, seeing other drivers get the best seats. Steve was asked if he would consider nullifying Derek’s contract so he could take up the Porsche offer for the rest of 1981. Being the gallant man that he was, Steve didn’t have to think twice and Derek won his second Le Mans.
Fortune does indeed smile upon the brave and, after a further three Le Mans victories and three at Daytona, he’s still racing in historic events with just as much enthusiasm as when he started all those years ago. He’s also the hardest-working racer-turned-ambassador that I know.
Bell sweeps through the Esses in the Gulf Mirage, on his way to his first victory at Le Mans in 1975.
Born 1941 From Pinner, Middlesex
Career highlights Five Le Mans 24 Hours victories (1975, ’81, ’82, ’86 and ’87); three wins at Daytona 24 Hours (1986, ’87 and ’89); twice World Sports Car Champion (1985 and ’86).