Derek Bell raced for Ferrari in Formula One and Le Mans, but the British driver’s long and winding CV still means that even some of the most dedicated Ferraristi aren’t aware of his strong ties to Maranello
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes
They do say you should never meet your heroes, but every now and again the mysterious “they” manage to get it completely wrong. As in this particular case. I’ve known Derek Bell for over 30 years now, and it’s been a privilege not only to spend time with a motor racing legend, to benefit from his wisdom and experience with my own driving, but most of all to have enjoyed innumerable entertaining moments in his company. It’s the combination of a glittering career, as well as an undimin
ished enthusiasm for the sport, that makes him such an invaluable ambassador for motor racing. I’ve seen him win Le Mans – five times – set a new UK land speed record in a 512M, and drive countless priceless historic racing cars to victory at Goodwood. And I’ve also watched, as well as experienced him explaining, with endless patience and good humour, techniques involved in driving a car around a circuit as quickly as possible. I was the beneficiary of such an act of generosity when he delivered a full day’s tuition to me around the Nürburgring prior to the 1,000km race there, back in 1981. It was quite a learning curve. As anyone who’s been there will attest, the ’Ring is a truly fearsome challenge, 22km of track spiralling this way and that through the Eifel mountains, punctuated by more corners than anyone can really remember, heart-stopping changes of elevation, the sense of peril underlined by the massed ranks of unfriendly looking trees lining the circuit. I managed to rent a BMW without revealing my true purpose, as the rental companies had finally wised up to the fact that any car destined for the Nordschleife invariably returned with every warning light permanently illuminated, as well as a dearth of tread on the tyres. Derek spent the entire morning explaining and demonstrating different lines, apexes and useful marker points. I think he might even have been particularly brave and taken a lap with me at the wheel. It was the ultimate tutorial and remains a highlight of my racing life. It might therefore seem a tad ungrateful of me, when I heard that there had been a murmur of unease in the Bell household when it was revealed that I was using Derek’s name as an alias while on tour, to immediately engineer the letter to which Derek refers towards the end of our interview.
I should explain that it is mandatory to use an alias to avoid an endless stream of wild-eyed lunatics arriving at the hotel entrance demanding that you listen to a demo tape, admire some lyrics, or pay them some long overdue royalties. It was irresistible. Soon a letter purporting to be from the manager of a smart hotel in Australia was winging its way to West Sussex enclosing a substantial bill for TVs hurled from the window, a food fight involving a lot of custard, and a depleted mini bar. To add extra value, I also mentioned that the staff had so enjoyed Mrs Bell’s dance of the seven veils in the dining room. My sense of guilt is still eclipsed by a childish tendency to giggle. But perhaps that sense of fun is one of the special qualities that permeate any dealings with Derek. He doesn’t have to promote his talent – it’s too obvious. Endurance driving requires special abilities that not every fast racing driver has. Exceptional mechanical sympathy, the ability to plan endless overtaking moves, the physical stamina needed for a race 10 times the length of a grand prix, dealing with night sessions, variable weather conditions, not to mention racing at speeds up to 390km/h. Derek is a master, as his remarkable CV confirms. My view is that any driver as successful as Derek in this arena undoubtedly qualifies for full hero status. On my next tour I promise to use a different alias in deference to a great man and great friend.
The Official Ferrari Magazine: Doing my homework for this interview, the scale of your career achievements really is remarkable. But not many people remember that you raced for Ferrari early on.
Derek Bell: It’s true. Actually the guy who looks after my boat was scraping the barnacles off the prop when he saw the Ferrari 458 we used in the photography pull up. He said, ‘But I thought you raced for Porsche!’ I had to put him right. I am very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had. I raced for Ferrari, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, BMW, all works drives… The guys today are usually tied to one manufacturer, and don’t have the same opportunities. They earn a bloody fortune, mind you.
TOFM: Different generations get misty-eyed about different racing eras, but that late-1960s/early-1970s period really stands out. They were such incredible racing cars, and there were great personalities in the sport.
DB: That era was very special. The cars were beautiful and rather dangerous. I was part of a group of drivers who were all on the way up. If you survived Formula Three – by which I mean lived through it and stayed alive – you had a good chance of going on to Formula Two and then Formula One. I did three races in F2 and was summoned to Maranello. So it didn’t take that long. It was glamorous, colourful and bloody dangerous.
Nick Mason: How did Ferrari approach you?
DB: In my third year of F3, in 1968, I won eight races. We scratched around and found the money from the Westminster Bank and off we went to F2. I was on the grid for the F2 race at Hockenheim in which Jimmy [Clark] was killed. I had dinner with him and Graham [Hill] the night before, breakfast the next morning, got in the car for the race and never saw him again. A few weeks later Colin Chapman asked me to race for him. Then I had an offer from Cooper to race in F1. And then Ferrari… this all happened in the space of six weeks. I didn’t know what to do. I went to Italy, tested at Monza in an F2 car. Somehow, I was the quickest. I don’t know to this day if I really was. That night I went to Modena, stayed at the Real Fini, and went to the factory the next day – there was a strike on, although they told me there was a national holiday that day – and then Enzo Ferrari came round the corner with his secretary. I remember it vividly. The Old Man walked towards me, with the road cars flanking him on either side on the assembly line. It was an incredible sight. The famous silver hair and the tinted glasses.
NM: A young British driver signing for the Scuderia…
DB: Imagine the fuss there would be now! But at the time, it barely made a small paragraph in The Times. Britain joins Ferrari – Pagham’s Derek Bell goes to Maranello.” Nobody got terribly worked up about it. Anyway, we went to lunch – the Old Man, [Franco] Gozzi and myself. Enzo used to pick me up in his car, just him, and we’d go for dinner. He’d put his arm round my shoulder as we walked around, and guide me long,
as if to say, “This is my new boy!” The Old Man thought the world of me, and I could never figure out why.
TOFM: The myth grows with each passing year. The new Museo Enzo Ferrari has various artefacts on display, including a pair of his trademark black glasses. He was a tough man, but you saw a different side to him, didn’t you?
DB: He was always a great gentleman with me. I always felt he was guiding me. I was there to build up experience in F1. My wife at the time had colitis, she was in hospital, and the Old Man asked me, in French, ‘how is your wife?’ It was early in the morning, and I said, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to her yet.’ So he immediately asked his secretary to call the hospital so I could talk to her. He was that kind of man. I had an audience with the Old Man the year before he died. I took my son Justin to meet him. I had to do it. At Ferrari, you were racing for the Old Man. Everyone was working or racing for Enzo. At Porsche, you were racing for the team, the mechanics. At Ferrari they cried when you won, and they cried when you didn’t.
NM: The bond with Ferrari was still clearly very strong. Even now, 46 years later, it’s clearly important to you.
DB: My first professional race was for Ferrari in F2 in 1968. My first F1 race was in a Ferrari in the Gold Cup at Oulton Park – I had Pedro Rodriguez in front of me and Jochen Rindt behind. My first grand prix was in a Ferrari at the Italian GP at Monza. My first Le Mans was in the Ferrari 512. When I look back now, it’s a fantastic thing to have done, something no one else managed. And yet people don’t know that I raced for Ferrari.
TOFM: It wasn’t a great period for the Scuderia, sadly… What was the issue with the 312 F1?
DB: I was at Ferrari at the wrong time. Even Mauro Forghieri told me that, a few years ago when we were together at the Amelia Island concours. Ferrari withdrew from racing in 1969, which seems incredible looking back. The cars simply weren’t competitive. I had the potential. I’d beaten everyone up to that point, apart from Jackie [Stewart] and Jochen. I was never as quick as those guys, even if they were more experienced than me, but I was up there with them. They were the kings. [pause] Actually the 312 was a bloody good car, it just wasn’t quick enough. It handled well, didn’t spring any surprises on you. It was lovely, in many ways. It just needed more grunt, and I needed a full season in it. It had the adjustable rear wing, I remember. Coming up to curva grande at 170mph [275km/h], and you had to push a button on the wheel to drop the wing a bit to give you more downforce, and carry on down to the Lesmos. Amazing.
NM: Tell me about the Ferrari 512. Obviously it’s a car we both know rather well. When did you first race one?
DB: At Spa, in 1970 I think. I’d never set eyes on the place before! Jacques Swaters, who I’d met previously, hired me to drive the yellow 512. I was 20 seconds quicker than my teammate. I remember going through Eau Rouge for the first time. [pause] You’re making me think about now. You’re put in the car, you’re a racing driver, what’s bloody wrong with you! So you drive it, the best you can. The 512 was a great car at Spa, because it was good on high speed tracks, but it wasn’t as nimble or as good at changing direction as
the Porsche 917, for example. There was no radio, so you had to wait three minutes to get the lap time. The car caught fire three times at fuel stops, they had to pull the doors off to get me out. But we carried on. You wouldn’t do that these days.
TOFM: That car and the Porsche 917 are two of the all-time greats, genuinely iconic racing cars for motorsport fans.
DB: Yes, and designed without wind tunnels. How the bloody things didn’t take off is a mystery. We tested all sorts of little bits and pieces on the 917 without ever thinking the bastard would take off. I was never nervous. Norbert Singer [Porsche boss] got his slide rule out, measured a few things, and began laughing. I said, ‘Why are you laughing?’ And he said, ‘It’s better that you don’t know.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll be racing the
damn thing, I’d like to know.’ ‘Well, allowing for tyre grip, the top speed is 246mph [395km/h]…’
TOFM: Nick’s 512 is the one that caught fire while you were filming the Steve McQueen film, Le Mans. What happened?
DB: Steve and I were driving side by side for the camera car [a specially modified Ford GT40]. I came through the Indianapolis curves and the car suddenly exploded. Woooof! I was doing maybe 80mph [128km/h]. So I’m braking, frantically trying to get my belts undone, get the door open, the filming light in the passenger footwell has gone up as well, there was fuel sloshing about. It seemed like an age before I got out. There was no one around, until this guy appeared out of the trees. ‘Get the bloody fire truck!’ I shouted… TOFM: Like Enzo Ferrari, McQueen is someone whose legend seems to grow every year. What was he like?
DB: Steve was great, such a genuine person. I hate reading nasty stuff about him. He had a rough upbringing, though he never talked about it. He was a man’s man, and he loved cars. He wanted to be a racing driver and none of us harboured any desire to be an actor, which he loved. He just wanted to talk about racing, and there were no hangers-on to bother him. I remember I was on track filming a sequence, with the 917 and the 512, and we came blasting past Maison Blanche at some speed. Suddenly I spotted this figure hunched in the middle of the track, with a movie camera. We went past either side, with inches to spare. When we got back to the pits, I wanted to know who the hell had authorised it. Of course, it was Steve himself, and he’d just grabbed the camera. Watching Le Mans on a big screen, it’s more impressive now than it was then. It’s only Rush that has managed to eclipse it, I think. I loved that film, they did a really good job. I knew James [Hunt]. I went to his wedding. His first wedding…
NM: I think what’s interesting in sports car racing is that there’s a sublimation of the driver’s ego, to an extent. Is there a difference in the mindset between the F1 driver and the endurance racer?
DB: Definitely. A single-seater driver is more single-minded. In sports car racing, you have to be a team player. Of course, in F1 the drivers are team members, but only on their half of the garage. That said, in sports car racing now it’s changing. There is intra-team rivalry, with team-mates fighting each other to get pole, not just for their car. I think it’s unpleasant. In my day at Porsche, we’d have had our knuckles rapped if we were bashing into each other. We were never as desperate. There’s too much information now, too. They interrogate every lap. We used to get out of the car, the guys would say, ‘well done boys, good work, what happened in the third hour?’ We never analysed it too much, maybe to our loss. But we still had great racing.
NM: You won at Le Mans five times, Daytona three times, at Sebring. You must have developed a very different relationship with each of these great cathedrals of speed.
DB: Oh, absolutely. Le Mans is the one. I had, and always will have, the greatest respect for the place. Going through the big tunnel when you arrive, it has a very sombre feel, and you know that you’ll be making history the next day because your car is going to be doing 239mph [384km/h]. Because you know what the car is capable of. Even so, you’re treading into the unknown each time. The ’Ring is different, it has a distinctly German atmosphere, with its 170 corners, or whatever it is, and of course it’s completely terrifying Spa is another place that hasn’t been ruined. Kyalami. Sebring still has something very special about it. Very few of them are still around now as they were. The Mulsanne straight used to run for four miles. That was a minute with your foot flat to the floor.
TOFM: With the rule changes in F1 and the WEC this year, do you think motorsport has become too complex? You’re a driver, not a computer operator, aren’t you?
DB: At the end of the day, a guy just wants to get in the car and go. The new cars are complicated, but they’re still racing cars. All they have to do is drive them as fast as they can and someone else will tell them how they’re doing. I don’t mean to sound flippant, I know a huge amount of effort goes into it. We’ve all had to adapt to changes. [pause] Never mind the current F1 cars, I was just sitting in the 458 Italia looking at its steering wheel and thinking to myself, ‘where’s the starter button?’ But for all that, I don’t begrudge the drivers today. I don’t think they have the good life that we once had. I can remember racing at Buenos Aires with Jo Siffert, where we won in the 917; the next weekend there was a test at Daytona, then we raced at Bogota in F2, then there was Sebring, then back to Bogota again… I can’t actually remember whose car I drove to be honest.
TOFM: All these great names you’re talking about, they’re true heroes to many of us. And yet so many of them died racing. That must have done something to you, as a man. To lose so many friends and colleagues.
DB: You would think so, wouldn’t you? But the truth is that you really attuned yourself to live with it. From the first moment I stepped in a car, it’s what I did. It was commonplace for people to die. In those days, you could not afford to go off the road. If you suffered a mechanical problem, or a tyre exploded, it was quite often fatal. But yes, we did get hardened, I suppose. I’m actually quite a sentimental and emotional
person, so how the hell did I do it? In 1971, both Jo and Pedro died, in my first year racing prototypes. I went to Jochen Rindt’s funeral. [pause] You live with it.
TOFM: I don’t want to embarrass him, but for a musician Nick turned out to be a pretty good racing driver. Didn’t Derek show you the ropes around the Nürburgring?
NM: We spent a day there, I recall. I did the 1,000km race there in a Lola.
DB: He developed very well. He’s an intelligent lad, you see. You raced the Rothmans Porsche 956, the third car, at Mosport in Canada and didn’t make any mistakes. Nick has great passion and great consistency. He never really talks about it because he’s such an unassuming man, but you forget just what he achieved in that car. At the Nürburgring, you just have to show someone round, and hope they have the sort of mindset that can interpret it. It takes longer than two laps to get it. It comes by degree. And Nick got it.
TOFM: And Nick repaid you by checking into hotels while you were on tour with Pink Floyd as Derek Bell.
DB: I was flattered for a while. But then I soon realised that nobody knew who the hell I was anyway! [laughs] Nick, you did once send me a forged letter from a very irate hotel manager, together with a bill for damage for a trashed room. That reminds me of when Hans Stuck and I won the World Sports Car Championship at Fuji in 1986. The celebrations that particular night were rather raucous. I remember that a bed got thrown out the window with a mechanic on it. He was on the ground floor so he didn’t go too far.
Words N I C K M A S O N & J A S O N B A R L O W
Photography B R I A N S M I T H
Da issue 25, may 2014