Goodwood Revival: Five-time Le Mans 24 winner Derek Bell looks back on his illustrious career

Derek Bell at the 2016 Goodwood Revival. Photo: Nick Dungan
Derek Bell at the 2016 Goodwood Revival. Photo: Nick Dungan
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As a child on his family’s farm in Pagham, West Sussex, Derek Bell grew up close enough to Goodwood to be able to hear the roar of the cars as they raced around the track.

But what began as childhood fantasy soon became reality for Derek, as his talent behind the wheel was spotted early on. 

And fittingly it all began close to home, at the track he grew up within earshot of. He won his first ever race in a Lotus 7 at the Members’ Meeting at Goodwood on March 13, 1964.

He ultimately went on to win five 24 Hour Le Mans races, making him the most successful British driver in the race to date, the Daytona 24 three times and the World Sportscar Championship twice.

Next month, Derek will be returning to Goodwood for the annual Revival – the three-day celebration of the golden age of motorsport.  Every year since 1998, the event at Goodwood has welcomed the biggest names in historic motorsport, with thousands of people embracing the spirit by turning up in vintage outfits.

By 1968 Derek was racing for Ferrari in Formula 1, but his driving career was soon to take a turn towards the race which would bring him his greatest successes.

He recalls: ‘In 1970 I got my best result in Formula 1, finishing sixth in the American Grand Prix, driving for John Surtees. 

‘That same year I had my first sports car race because one of the Ferrari dealers in Belgium, a wonderful man called Jacques Swaters, he gave me a drive at the Spa 1000km in the new Ferrari 512 in May 1970, we did that – and we did quite well.’

But Enzo Ferrari wanted to tempt Bell back to his team for Le Mans. Derek wasn’t keen, but some backroom chicanery saw him back in the Ferrari fold.

‘I had to drive for Enzo again at Le Mans and I drove with a wonderful guy called Ronnie Peterson, one of the top up-and-coming drivers, and I guess in a way I was as well, which was why everyone was after me.’

Goodwood Revival 2016, Derek Bell's helmet. Photo: Drew Gibson

Goodwood Revival 2016, Derek Bell's helmet. Photo: Drew Gibson

The pair failed to finish, but it was during this race that another deal was struck which would result in Bell’s driving being immortalised on the silver screen in Steve McQueen’s fictional version of Le Mans.

‘Jacques was asked by a film company, Solar Productions, which was Steve McQueen’s company, to provide them with his car –  would he lease him his car –  the 512 –  for the film? Jacques said: “Yes, but if it is going to be used, I want Derek Bell to drive it because I trust him with it”. 

‘So that was it – I joined the movie soon afterwards. I had no aspirations to be an actor, but it was wonderful to work on the movie and to be based in France at Le Mans,which became my second home.’

Bell went on to compete at Le Mans 26 times in 27 years, winning in 1975, ’81, ’82, ’86 and ’87.

‘Steve and I became close friends,’ Bell adds. ‘We shared a house for the last two and a half weeks of the film with his family and my family. We became friends, and I felt very lucky to be working on the film. 

'I didn’t act though, I was driving for the Ferrari driver competing against Steve.’

When Bell won his first Le Mans in 1975, it confirmed his belief that sportscars were the way to go for him.

‘It was absolutely spectacular,’ he says of the win. ‘I never had a dream to win Le Mans, my dream was to be a Formula 1 driver – I think it was for all of us, and I think it still is. 

‘Whatever one likes to say, I still believe they are the best drivers in the world – the ultimate. And then we go sideways into sportscars because it is a different talent and a different style of driving.’

For Bell, the relationship between the team-mates in these endurance races was key. As with Jacky Ickx, who shared his first three Le Mans victories.

‘It was always good with Jacky, we’re still close now and go out of our way to see each other.

‘It was a great team effort, and when I was with Jacky, or (Hans-Joachim) Stuck and Al Holbert (his team-mates for the fourth and fifth wins), or my son Justin with Andy Wallace when we came third, we all had a great respect for each other and we knew each other’s strengths and we weren’t about to be bloody idiots and let the other person down.

‘I can hardly remember any of the team mates I had ever screwing the thing up – they were good. And I would say 99 per cent of the time, I picked the drivers, or I had a say in who it would be, and they were always good – I wasn’t going to drive a car just for the sake of it.

‘Jacky taught me a lot and I gained a lot from driving with him. With Stucky, he joined me because, I learned afterwards, he said to me, Porsche put me with you because they wanted you to help mature me, so I wasn’t so ragged and so wild.’

During that era of motor-racing there was a high rate of attrition, and numerous fatalities. Derek believes this closeness to death strengthened the respect and camaraderie between the drivers. 

‘There’s this unique aspect, which you don’t have in any other sport, apart from motorcycling, where death is a major player – we have a great respect for those who survived and obviously great respect for those who didn’t.'

The Goodwood Revival is taking place from September 13-15. Tickets are now limited for Friday and Sunday and are available from £59. Hospitality packages are also available from £252 per person. Visit goodwood.com.