Derek Bell’s dazzling Porsche career shows how the greatest never give up
May 09, 2018
You might expect a professional racing driver who’s won Le Mans five times and represented Ferrari in Formula One to have led a charmed life, but Derek Bell drove as many terrible cars as great ones during his long career and for many years he struggled to make racing pay. Just 18 months before hitting his winning streak at Le Mans, scoring four victories for Porsche between 1981 and 1987, Derek came close to quitting the sport. He was hired to race on merely six occasions in ’78 and by mid-’79 had reached the conclusion he “really wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Derek faced this crisis despite winning Le Mans in 1975, in a Mirage GR8 shared with Jacky Ickx - “but you have to remember,” he says, “sportscar racing was in the doldrums back then. There was little factory involvement away from Le Mans.” Career survival depended on becoming a have-a-go hero in almost anything and anywhere. “For several years,” Derek admits, “it became a case of ‘Have race licence, will travel’.”
This wasn’t the first time Derek had struggled. “I won a fair few races on the way up to Formula One,” he recalls, “but getting there was one thing, staying there something else entirely.” A contract with Ferrari, initially for Formula Two, lead quickly to his first Grand Prix at Monza in ’68, but the Scuderia already had Ickx and Chris Amon in its F1 line-up and “was in disarray. I had signed to drive for the most glamorous team in motorsport but had nothing to race. I was then released from my contract.”
Derek next took the step of writing a letter to sportscar team manager John Wyer of JW Automotive, for whom he had tested a Ford GT40 at Thruxton in ’68 with a view to racing at Le Mans. That plan had been scuppered when Ferrari refused to release Derek from his contract, and now it was the turn of Wyer’s lieutenant, David Yorke, to make things difficult: he wrote back to Derek stating “We have no idea as to your current ability and therefore do not require you at the present time.”
“Deflated” by this rejection, in 1970 Derek raced an Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512S in the Spa 1000km and Le Mans 24 Hours, sharing the car in France with highly-rated ‘SuperSwede’ Ronnie Peterson. These performances appear to have prompted Wyer and Yorke to re-evaluate Derek: the following year he was recruited by JW Automotive, chosen over Peterson and Peter Gethin after all three had tested a Porsche 917 at Goodwood. This was, he admits, “a huge boost” at a time when his F1 prospects were fading.
The next setback, however, wasn’t long in coming: the 917 programme ended after the ’71 season, and so too did Derek’s contact with Porsche. He didn’t hear anything serious from the Zuffenhausen team until late ’76, and by then he was entangled in the Alpine-Renault programme which brought only the disappointment of two successive retirements at Le Mans.
When at last Derek was free to accept an invitation to race a factory Porsche it was 1980, the year the team went to Le Mans with three humble 924 Carrera GTs. The prospect of driving a production-based car didn’t much interest him, but Derek heeded the advice that this might put him back on Porsche’s radar. It did, but now there was another snag: by the time Porsche asked Derek to drive at Le Mans in ’81 - and this time in a proper racing car, a 936 - he had already signed a contract committing him to eight races, including Le Mans, in the Procar BMW M1 of Pink Floyd manager Steve O’Rourke. Ever the honourable gentleman, Derek was “torn over whether or not to jump ship.”
Fortunately O’Rourke recognised the magnitude of Derek’s opportunity and graciously released him from his contract. And so started the era that defined Derek Bell as one of the greatest sports car racers of all time. In the 936 in ’81 Derek scored his second Le Mans win, once more sharing with Ickx, and in ’82 he at last landed a full-time Porsche drive, in the new Group C 956. Derek bagged his third Le Mans win that year, again with Ickx. Victories four and five at the Circuit de la Sarthe were notched-up in ’86 and ’87, now in a 962C shared with Hans Stuck and Al Holbert. Derek was also jointly crowned with Stuck as World Sportscar Champion in ’85, won the Daytona 24 Hours in ’86, ’87 and ’89, and became a star in the USA in Holbert’s Porsche team, sweeping to 19 IMSA victories.
For good reason, then, Derek Bell’s name is synonymous with Porsche. Though the ’80s were the highlight, the Bell-Porsche association lasted all the way from 1971 to 2000. The story of those 29 years is told with illuminating honesty by Derek and author Richard Heseltine in Porter Press International’s new book, Derek Bell - all my Porsche races. This combines brief race-by-race summaries with Derek’s revealing insights, overviews of each significant era in Derek’s Porsche career, and more than 200 evocative photographs. What impresses most, as you read-through or dip into this book, is that there’s only a story worth telling, and a great story at that, because Derek stubbornly persevered whenever Fate obstructed his path.
By Phillip Bingham