Derek Bell at Le Mans in 1995
Derek Bell, Britain’s most successful Le Mans driver with five outright wins and another five podiums from 26 starts, was to finish third in 1995, driving the Harrods-sponsored McLaren F1 GTR run by David Price Racing. The following extract is Derek’s description of that race, taken from Ultimate McLaren F1 GTR.
‘I thought I had retired from Le Mans after the Kremer Spyder drive in 1994,’ says Bell. ‘I briefly led the race before the Dauer Porsches took over — our Dunlop tyres weren’t great.’
In 1995 his son Justin, then 27, was invited to drive the Harrods F1 GTR #06R, although the David Price Racing-run car missed the first three rounds.
‘Justin was driving with Andy Wallace, and three weeks prior to Le Mans they asked me to join them,’ continues Bell. ‘Until race week I hadn’t driven the car.
‘The weak link appeared to be the clutch, and it was thought that it probably wouldn’t last more than a few hours as these cars were normally doing four-hour races. So we felt we hadn’t got much chance of doing well, plus the car was totally outclassed by the prototypes. But I was back at Le Mans!
‘No-one had realised how good the car would be in the rain. From a personal angle, I normally prepared for Le Mans from January 1st onwards, working towards that ultimate fitness level in June. That year I was in good shape, as I was racing in the USA anyway, but I wasn’t happy that after all these years of preparation I wasn’t in the rhythm of training for Le Mans.
‘So I went to Le Mans, with David Price, for whom I’ve always had great respect, looking forward to the chance to drive again with Justin. We had been at Le Mans together in 1992 in the ADA Porsche 962 with Tiff Needell. To drive with Andy Wallace was also a great opportunity.
‘In practice and qualifying we obviously all had to drive laps, but I seem to remember the plan was that Andy would go for the fastest time, and Justin and I would save our talents for the race! We qualified seventh in GT1, but we were way off the really good prototype times.
‘The race began in the dry and we ran sensible times with the other McLarens, but by mid-evening it was raining heavily and it continued through the night. At 22.00 we found ourselves in first place and, with all sorts of incidents around us, the West McLaren or ours held that position most of the night, although Justin spooked himself with a wild spin on a fast part of the track — it can happen out of nowhere in the rain at Le Mans and you never know why.
‘He missed his next stint and waited for the morning daylight conditions. He wasn’t happy but it was a wise decision. Conditions vary so much, unlike any other circuit, and as parts of it are public roads there are awful ruts in the surface. I recall that a week later at Goodwood Festival of Speed, one of the McLaren people told me he had seen us flicking to opposite lock as we tried to keep the car straight on the Mulsanne!
‘For a while it was a bit nerve-wracking, seeing my son getting into that car time after time in the bucketing rain, which is how it was from seven at night until five in the morning. I went to shut the door on him and he looked up at me as if he was asking, “Dad, what’s it like at Tertre Rouge, what’s it like at Arnage?” I just looked at him and went “Aaaah” and slammed the door on him. My other team-mates and I used to give each other tips, but with my son I just couldn’t!
‘At mid-morning we were still leading, and I had a rare session in the dry. As I went out, I was 26 seconds ahead of JJ Lehto’s McLaren. I was 53 years old and he was considerably younger, so I was thinking that the world was going to see the young superstar catch up and overtake the old man! So I just drove my heart out and after my one-hour stint I had pulled out six seconds over him. That felt really good, as you can imagine.’
Later in the morning, approaching noon, there were problems engaging gears as the clutch thrust bearing started to fail. The Harrods car slipped back to third place as the team did a hurried repair job.
‘We were really disappointed as we felt we could have won the race,’ continues Bell. ‘Everybody says that, even Gordon Murray. I do think it was my most memorable race, racing with my son and with the great Andy Wallace, a wonderful, wonderful driver, finishing on the winners’ rostrum at Le Mans, and on Father’s Day. It was unbelievable.’
That still was not quite the end of Bell’s Le Mans career.
‘I was invited back the following year to share the same car with Andy and Olivier Grouillard. We finished sixth after gearshift problems: the dry race put a big strain on the McLaren gearboxes.’
They managed to avoid a gearbox change, although they had only fourth and fifth gears for the last four hours.
‘Then that really was it — 26 Le Mans 24 Hours! Who would have thought that?’