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An extract from Drivers on Drivers

Interviewed by Philip Porter

You did a lot of filming with Steve McQueen for the film Le Mans. How good a driver was he?

‘He was, I think, a lot better than we all thought. At that time, 1970, I’d been racing for just five years and I wasn’t really an expert on who had talent and who hadn’t. I had a pretty meteoric rise from Formula Three to Formula One in the space of two years, but I wasn’t a good judge of people’s driving skills, because it all happened too fast. So during that year we did the movie – we started that in June-July. 

Steve McQueen

‘Steve drove with us, but of course I wouldn’t get in the same car as him ever. With Jo Siffert, we did a lot of shooting together and he would drive Steve’s car or else he would drive the second Porsche. I was always in the Ferrari. We knew you shouldn’t go too fast, because we didn’t want to blow the cars up, we didn’t want to damage anything. And how well were they prepared? People got pretty nonchalant: “That car’s prepared.” Well, what’s this pool of fuel under the car on the floor that might go up in flames at any time?

‘So preparation wasn’t incredibly good. But nonetheless, Steve did drive with us a lot and he was driving a 917. I never saw him driving a Ferrari but the 917 was an easier car to drive. In a way, anyone could drive a 917. You get in the Ferrari, and it’s very clunky. I always said that when I drove the 512 it was a bit like driving a truck. But the 917 was very driver-friendly, although if you put your foot down, you could spin the wheels and go out of control. So Steve, fortunately for him, was driving that. I never heard of him having any accident. If he had an accident while we made the movie, we’d have known about it because he would have got hurt – you don’t have a crash in a 917 without getting hurt.

‘I always had respect for him. On one occasion when we finished a shot, I’d kept my foot in it because I was getting a bit bored of going through White House seven or eight times. On the seventh time, I just didn’t back off as much and Steve being Steve hung on. We then all jumped out of our cars waiting for the director at the Ford Chicane and, I’ll never forget it, Steve was as white as a sheet. And he said, “What happened there? That stupid bastard Derek just went through the corners nearly flat out.” I said, “You didn’t have to follow me. You could have backed off if you didn’t like it.”  He didn’t, he kept his foot in it and he didn’t have a moment but it did frighten him. So, I think he was very good. 

‘He drove my Formula Two Brabham on the Bugatti track [at Le Mans]. We were on our way to a race somewhere in central France, and leading the Championship. But he didn’t push it; he drove very modestly. And then I realised that he was 10 years older than me: I was 30, he was 40. Although he had raced various cars, I didn’t realise how many because he just didn’t talk about that sort of thing. But he drove that F2 car with respect. Some guys would have gotten in that and driven the s**t out of it and risked spinning off. But he didn’t. He had respect for the car, understood racing and that it was my car.  

‘We would only do sections of laps [during filming], you’ve got to realise. If we did a run on the Mulsanne Straight, we’d only use part of it. They’d shut it off [to the public] so we could run there for two hours and we’d come out of Tertre Rouge, and go down there nose to tail. I had that frigging great camera, stuck out on a boom out the side. And when it swung in, it put the car up in the air – the whole nose lifted from the weight of it. That is why I drove and not Steve, that’s when I used to stand in for him on things like that. Some of the stuff we did wasn’t easy – you had to be a racing driver to do it because you had to be able to judge whether it was safe or not.’

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