Interview: Derek Bell

Bell talks the 917, 956 and 962 racers.

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April 14, 2016

Derek Bell is best known for his five overall victories at Le Mans (four of which came while driving Porsches) and his three overall wins at the 24 Hour of Daytona (of which all three were won in Porsches). Some readers may also remember him as the guy who got his first shot at Formula 1 at the wheel of a Ferrari in 1968. While this all sounds quite glamorous, Bell actually started from a far more humble background.

Born on October 31, 1941 in Pinner, Middlesex, England, Derek Reginald Bell spent his free time as a youth working on the family farm. But the nearby Goodwood racing circuit proved to be far more interesting to Bell. In 1964, at the age of 23, he started his racing career by competing there in a Lotus 7. Over the course of just four years, Bell moved up through the formula car ranks. His talent piqued the interest of Enzo Ferrari, who let him have a go at an F1 car at the 1968 Italian Grand Prix.

While some saw Bell as an F1 star in the making, he was unable to secure a quality full-time drive. He competed in just 19 Grand Prix from 1968-1974, only scoring points in one. He also competed at Le Mans from 1970-1974 with unremarkable results. When the opportunity to run a competitive Mirage GR8 with Jacky Ickx at Le Mans in 1975 presented itself, Bell took it. Not only did they run well—they won the event overall.

From 1980-1994 Bell only raced Porsches at Le Mans. He won while co-driving with Ickx in 1981 and 1982 in a 936 and 956, respectively. He won back-to-back again in 1986 and 1987 in 962s with co-drivers Al Holbert and Hans-Joachim Stuck both years. On this side of the pond, Bell’s three victories in the Daytona 24 came at the wheel of 962s in 1986, 1987 and 1989. Bell also won the World Sportscar Championship title in 956s and 962s in 1985 and 1986. He last competed at Le Mans in 1996.

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Since mostly retiring from active competition, Bell has worked as a brand ambassador for Porsche and Bentley. He is currently based in Florida where he lives with his wife Misti and son Sebastian, and is involved in a Porsche sales business locally.

Excellence: How did you get involved in racing?

Bell: I grew up on my family’s farm in Sussex. Like many young boys, I was attracted by technical things and had started driving a tractor by the age of nine. My family was not landed gentry—ours was a working farm. I grew up helping out here and there, but I always knew this was not to be my future. My real calling was five miles up the road at Goodwood, where the thrilling sounds of the first post-war racing could be clearly heard and had captured my imagination from an early age. While hoeing the sugar beets and pitching hay with a stick in my hand, I could hear the drivers shifting gears and knew where they were on the track—of course, that’s before they banned all the ‘noise’… I guess it got into my blood just through hearing.

Excellence: So you went to see the races?

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Bell: Luckily my dear stepfather, a great racing fan and an excellent driver, would soon take me to the races. So although there was no family member for me to emulate in racing or support me, racing and the roaring sound of the cars had become my obsession. Determined as I was, I managed to get closer to the cars: I used to wave the yellow and blue flags because being a marshal for the local motor club was the only way I could get near racing cars. And that is really how I got involved with Goodwood. I’ve always had this passion.

Excellence: Your first and last victory took place at Goodwood. So it must be a very special place to you.

Bell: It is indeed. It’s where it all began and where, on March 13, 1964, in my Lotus 7, I drove my first ever competitive race in pouring rain—and won! From there I went up to Formula 3, winning my first time out, followed by eight victories in my second season in a Brabham. A season in Formula 2, and then in my fourth year, I went straight into Formula 1 with Ferrari. You see, everybody, in every country, did Formula 3—that is how we learned. The cars with which we competed were the so-called 1.0-liter ‘screamers’ with 120 horsepower. It was probably the strongest series in the world at that time. If we survived, we became top drivers.

Excellence: You later excelled as a sports car driver, but it is no secret that you would have loved to have raced more in F1.

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Bell: Formula 1 is the ultimate. Anybody that’s driven F1 would agree with that. To drive an F1 car to the limit, with its sophistication, with its balance, its precision—it is the ultimate! You’ve got the latest, best technically advanced machine, with the latest tires, the best engine, piloted by a young aspiring driver. In other words, at the end of the day, you’ve got the best package.

Excellence: Isn’t it with regret that your successful years took place in the less glamorous and lucrative world of sports cars?

Bell: Not in the least! Sports cars are a sort of heavier version of a Formula 1 car. Because they have to last 24 hours, they have to be built stronger and have different weight regulations. In retrospect, I would have loved to have completed at least one full season in Formula 1 for one of the top teams. But by now I had been driving for Porsche and was intermittently invited to do Formula 1 races for McLaren, Brabham, Surtees and Tecno at short notice as a replacement for another driver. Needless to say, I was always very committed.

Excellence: What made you race for Porsche?

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Bell: The 1970s were difficult years in sports car racing. It was in 1970 that I was invited to drive a Ferrari 512 at Spa and at Le Mans. Subsequently, I got a call from John Wyer who was running the Gulf Porsche 917s in the World Championship to do a test. Following that test I was offered a contract for 1971 to drive with Jo Siffert in one car and Pedro Rodriguez in the other. They were a Porsche works team. The other team was called Porsche Salzburg, which was with Dr. Ferdinand Piëch.

Jo and I promptly won our first race in the Buenos Aires 1,000 kilometers in January 1971. Together with my teammate Gijs Van Lennep (Siffert having been killed during the season) I also won the last race in that year, which was a non-World Championship race in Paris. And I am pleased to say that our two-car team won more races than anyone else that year. This was also the year in which I tested in the 917 Longtail in April and then went on to compete in Le Mans.

Excellence: Where of course you recorded incredible speeds.

Bell: I did speeds on the straights of up to 247 mph. The 917 Longtail to me still is the fastest and most spectacular car I have ever driven. Nevertheless, it was the original 917 that forever endeared me to the Stuttgart brand. We had a hell of a year. And I vividly remember being told, ‘Once you’ve signed for Porsche, you are with Porsche for your life.’ So I always remember that.

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Excellence: Let’s talk about Le Mans. Surely, there can hardly be anyone who knows the place better and feels more at home with the course and its unique atmosphere.

Bell: Le Mans is simply phenomenal. And the car in which I was most successful was the near invincible Rothmans Porsche (956/962) that won the premier event so many times. There was also the ‘Jules’ Porsche 936 with which I triumphed in the 1981 Le Mans.

Excellence: No wonder Porsche regard you as one of their all-time best works drivers, praising you as one of the most versatile and popular competitors of your time. To quote from a speech by former Porsche CEO Matthias Müller on the occasion of your 70th birthday: “Derek Bell made motorsport history with Porsche. Whether it was in a 917, 936 or 956—he was always one of the fastest and, above all, most reliable drivers.” At the same time, you have never been a man who minced his words…

Bell: Being a racer all I wanted to do was to win, which was somewhat different to Porsche who were keen developers. I openly criticized developments that I thought would impair our team’s chances. One such case was the frustrating experience with the PDK transmission system, which nowadays, of course, is a big success story and works perfectly.

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Basically, it never satisfied us. We won 500-kilometer races, but the transmission would not last to do 1,000 kilometers or 24 hours. I remember saying, ‘This is crazy. We are trying to win the World Championship, and here we are trying to develop something that isn’t going to finish the race.’ To which R&D boss Helmuth Bott replied: ‘Derek, we have to justify every race we do and that is by developing something for the future. That is why we go racing.’

Excellence: And that, of course, up to this day, is Porsche’s raison d’être for racing in the first place—from race track to road car.

Bell: And that is a very important point. However, as a racing driver bent on winning, I simply wasn’t motivated by the idea that performance should ever be secondary to developing something new. But as far as I remember there only ever were two issues in ten years which made me feel I had to speak out.

Excellence: During your amazing Rothman’s era in the 962 you also had the opportunity to drive with Al Holbert.

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Bell: He certainly was the greatest all-round driver I ever worked with. Al had become the director of motorsports for Porsche USA, and I was extremely lucky to get invited by him. That was because we had driven together in 1980 in the 924 Carrera GTR at Le Mans. In the famous Löwenbräu Porsche, Al and I won a total of 17 races. We were the top team in America for five seasons.

Excellence: Taken together with your victories in the Rothman’s car, that means you have 35 wins to your name over that time, making you the most successful sports car driver of his era…

Bell: Yes, I remember none other than Professor Bott telling me: “You are the winningest driver we’ve got!” But coming back to Al—he owned and managed his own team and above everything else was a top engineer. That meant that he also developed components for the car. Moreover, he was an astonishing test driver and I had the good fortune to drive with him and win around twenty races, including three Daytona 24 Hours…

Excellence: …which actually makes you an eight-time 24 Hours winner in an era when competition was high. Let’s remember: there was a tremendous contingent of top-class European drivers (Jochen Mass, Hans Stuck, Klaus Ludwig, etc.) racing in the sports cars series in America, and this helped make sports car racing probably as internationally popular as Formula 1.

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Bell: Al and I thrived in this challenging environment. Al was an unbelievable man to work with. We were pretty much invincible. Sadly though, Al was tragically killed leaving the last race that he and I competed together in Columbus, Ohio in 1988. Going to see his son that night, he crashed as he took off in his plane. He was such a meticulous and particular guy. The Head of Weissach, Helmut Flegl, who came over for the funeral asked me whether I could possibly do what Al had done. But at that time I was still racing back in Europe. So that was the end of Porsche cars racing in America as part of GTP (Grand Touring Prototypes).

Al had the next year already firmly planned. On the morning of what was to be his last race, he had picked up his mechanics, flown out to Columbus and had a practice session. He then did his duties as head of competition for Porsche USA, had meetings with the owners about the future, and so on. I remember we needed a new car in January to keep up with Nissan. But Porsche had flatly declined saying it was going to cost too much. So Al said he’d do it for a tenth of the price, and they of course agreed. Later that day he took me into a corner of his workshop to a big box and said that he wanted to show me something. He lifts the lid of this big box and inside there was a beautiful one-eighth-size model of a car. And he said, ‘This is the car in which you and I are going to race next year.’ And that night, he died.

Excellence: Apart from your extraordinary time with Al Holbert, you raced with your son Justin who inherited dad’s racing genes. You partnered him twice in your personal Mecca of racing.

Bell: I have the fondest memories of these races. The first time was in a Porsche 962C in 1992, and just when I thought I really had done my last Le Mans in 1994 (in the Kremer K8 Spyder-Porsche), I got a call from Justin about a month before the race: “Come on, Dad, you’ve got to drive with us at Le Mans.” ‘Oh, blimey,’ I thought. I wasn’t too confident about doing it. But to race with Justin again is a great opportunity—so, why not?

To cut a long story short, in the pouring rain we miraculously finished third, along with Andy Wallace, in a McLaren GTR in spite of a problem with the clutch. I had managed to lead the race for 16 hours. To finish third, on Father’s Day, with your son, is pretty spectacular… To stand up there before 100,000 people cheering and waving was very special.

Excellence: In the past you’ve said that Porsche is your history. But you also act as brand ambassador for Bentley.

Bell: Yes, Porsche is my history, so I’m not going to go off with Lexus or any other brand, because they’re not part of my life. In no way would I ever consider driving rubbish. With Bentley, things were somewhat different and directly connected with my love of Le Mans. I worked with them on their endurance program and the launch of the Continental GT. It was fantastic being able to continue my career with Bentley. I love it because it is British and I love being part of that sort of era…even though as an Englishman I really should have gone back to the farm…

Excellence: The Porsche Precision Driving School—how did that come about?

Bell: In the mid-eighties, Peter Schutz, who was then Porsche CEO and particularly active in the USA, said, “If you ever have any ideas about events we should be doing around the world, will you please let us know.” I thought about it and a few weeks later I got in touch with him saying: ‘I think you should have a driving school, Peter.’ And that was it!

Excellence: So do you still drive for Porsche?

Bell: On an average I drive a Porsche 962 somewhere in the world once a year, at Daytona, Sebring, Goodwood, Nürburgring, Le Mans or wherever. For instance, at a big Porsche Club Great Britain event at Brands Hatch last year, featuring the fascinating story of the iconic marque, I found it great to be hammering around in the very first Porsche with which I won Le Mans and the last Porsche that I won with at Le Mans. The first was a 936. The last was a 962.

Talking of which—i.e., the 956 and 962 projects—this is really what excites me about Porsche: to drive one from the beginning and one from the end which had had a tremendous amount of development done on the chassis and engine, and had gone from 2.6 liters to 3.2, was quite something and showed that things had changed dramatically. That is the amazing thing about Porsche. If they have to develop something that takes time, they will spend an awful lot of time with it if it isn’t functioning properly. But you know it is going to work in the end. I mean, you know it will.

Also from Issue 237

  • First Drive: 2017 911 Turbo S
  • 918 Spyder vs. McLaren P1 vs. Koenigsegg
  • Market Update: 924/944/968 & 928
  • 1972 911S Targa
  • 964-based Ruf RCT Evo
  • 2016 Boxster Spyder in Hawaii
  • Porsche 356 SLs
  • Classic Porsche Tool Kits
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