Scalextric Meets Derek Bell MBE
Over the last year or so, the team here at Scalextric have spoken to several stars within the world of motorsport. We get in contact with a driver of a car we have produced and pop out to see them for a chat. Normally we carry out some research, look up key moments in their careers and remind ourselves of their major career highlights. However, for our most recent interview, the research was much trickier.
This was because we were meeting someone whose career has spanned five decades. They’ve won more Le Mans 24 Hours races than any other Englishman and held the outright record for a time. They have also tamed some of the sport’s wildest racing cars and shared seats with some absolute icons. They have starred in a major Hollywood film (almost running over the star in the process!) and have had lunch with the famous Enzo Ferrari, not to mention driving for the Scuderia itself.
We are, of course, talking about Derek Bell. An undeniable legend of the sport and if I’m being honest, rather a unique figure for me personally as a hero of mine (and my dad’s). With a career spanning for such a long period of time, this year sees the release of the C4026 Harrods edition McLaren F1 GTR that Derek drove in 1995, which is reason enough for us to sit down and have a chat.
On a rather warm July day, I was lucky enough to be invited down to Derek’s home on the south coast, a lovely property in the sleepy village of Pagham. Quizzing Derek on a number of aspects of his driving career, I began by asking him how his penultimate Le Mans went, the race in which he drove the Harrods McLaren partnered by his son Justin and friend Andy Wallace. After such a glittering history of racing, does this particular outing stand out in his memory?
Oh obviously! The ‘95 one is the most memorable race of my career because we led the race for 16 hours through the pouring torrential rain and all through the night in that amazing car. It was a road car not a race car, with my son Justin and the wonderful Andy Wallace, who was such a major support, really a major driver in the team. I was retiring that year then suddenly I was invited back, ‘come on Dad you’re going to drive!’ And so, to drive with your son and to finish third and be on the winner’s rostrum on Father’s Day is pretty special.
Did the weather make it even more memorable?
Oh, it did. It was terribly difficult. Though the car would not have lasted more than five hours had it been dry, that is why we dropped to third. At the end it started to dry out and this particular component in the transmission would not stand to be beaten about in the dry conditions, in the rain it didn’t get stressed. I can’t say exactly what part it was, as there has been some doubt about that, but we knew before the race that we had a problem.
They had entered six-hour races prior to this and they couldn’t complete more than 300 miles with them as this car had this weakness and the guys that owned them, there were six of them in the race, they were a million pounds to buy. But then McLaren wanted to have this part of the transmission changed to ensure they finished Le Mans, which really is the jewel in the crown, but of course, nobody had bought these McLarens with the intention of doing the race and really it should never have done as well as it did.
During the night in that awful rainstorm, did you regret that decision to come back and have another go?
No, it never crossed my mind because I’ve always found rain very demanding but very acceptable. I was always frightened about it, because you never know, anything can happen in the rain as it is almost like driving on ice, but I was always quite good in the rain!
I won the first race of my life at Goodwood in a Lotus 7 in the pouring rain. And so, because of that, it gave me the confidence to drive faster in the rain. But then I was often paired with great drivers like Hans Stuck and Jacky Ickx who were probably the greatest in the rain, but I was never far behind them.
Would you say they were better than Pedro? [Rodriguez – for evidence of his wet weather prowess look up the 1970 BOAC 1000KMs at Brands Hatch!]
Well then again that was an incredible drive too. I had some super drives in the rain, not always here, sometimes in the USA. Afterwards they would come and say how great a race it was, and I wouldn’t know! I’ve never compared myself to being as good as Pedro, or as good as Jacky Ickx or Hans Stuck, but race wise from what I’ve read and heard from team managers I was as quick as them, and the results certainly back that up! They may punch in a couple of quicker laps, but I got consistently quick laps.
I understand that in that race at Le Mans in ‘95 you handed the car over to Justin, went to the motorhome, only to be greeted by him shortly after stating that he’d handed the car over to Andy as the conditions were just that dreadful! Is this true?
Very nearly yes! I mean I was the old man, brought back just for the race and I remember getting out of the car and getting to the motorhome during the night, but it was dark for so much of the race that year that I’d got out after a heck of a stint and Justin got in. He disappeared out and after about 35 minutes he walks back in! I was like ‘what the hell are you doing here?!’ as he should have done a double stint. He said, ‘I’ve spooked myself, I spun.’ And once you’ve done that at Le Mans you’re done. It’s not like going through a corner and whoops! You’re going through a sweep and then you are thinking where the hell am I going and the car just goes off and nobody could save that sort of incident.
You may have hit a little bit of deeper water at a certain time and it's something you have to realise as you drive in the rain. If you go through 20 seconds after someone else the water will be deeper. Another time you go through maybe two seconds after and the water has cleared, so you think ‘oh, its stable through here this lap!’ And then the next lap it’s not!
With the length of the circuit at Le Mans this can’t help?
Yes, that’s right. You’re going to go through 4 or 5 minutes later.
Moving back to our rendition of this particular car if I may, you must have had Scalextric models of your cars before but how does it feel to have this one done now, with both you and your son’s names on the roof?
It’s lovely! It’s very nice for all of us. And it is very flattering to see your name on a sportscar and it is such a pretty car. I was talking about it at an event in London two nights ago. Not as a Scalextric car, but the real thing, the Harrods McLaren.
Oh excellent! While I love this era of GT cars, the Ferrari F40s, Lister Storms and Porsche 911 GT1s, it was slightly earlier that you enjoyed the most success, how does this era of cars, the McLaren, compare to the all-conquering 956 and 962 Porsches?
Well it was a different car altogether because the 962s had proper ground effect, they were built as racing cars. Whereas this, the McLaren, was built as a supercar and I think nobody was more surprised than Gordon Murray [the car’s designer] when they took them out and raced it. They actually had to detune the McLaren for Le Mans, it had too much power. But I was amazed at how well it went, we had no idea that we would be in that group at the front and I think if the race had been in the dry then A) we would have been out of it early for the mechanical reason, but B) we would not have been quick enough round the corners. In the rain ground effect does work, but in really bad rain it isn’t much help at all because you are either going to grip or not grip and it is going to be a much more violent transition from gripping to not gripping.
In terms of comparing the F1 GTR to your previous cars it is probably more relatable to the Porsche 917 or Ferrari 512 then? Less aerodynamic grip, more power?
That’s right, much more like that, those eras.
But a bit safer?
Well yes but you didn’t think about it at the time. I drove a 917 longtail recently at Goodwood, and I mean it is different at Goodwood, but we never thought about it at the time because we didn’t know any different. As I said to people over that weekend, if I didn’t drive it there were 25 other drivers that would have leapt at it because it was the fastest car. Any driver wants to drive a winning car, that is why you go racing. You can drive the 917 and you’ll win races, or you can drive something else and not win, which do you want to do?
Was the 917 a difficult car to drive?
No not really. I knew nothing about sportscars at that time! My first race in a sportscar was in a 512 Ferrari at Spa, the second was Le Mans for Mr. Ferrari in a 512 and the third was at Kyalami in that same Ferrari. By then I’d tested for Mr. Wyer in the 917 at Goodwood and I’d driven it quite a lot with Steve McQueen for the film ‘Le Mans’ so I knew what it was like although I hadn’t raced it. We came to Goodwood and I did my test drive against Ronnie Peterson and Peter Gethin and somehow I got the drive. Thank God, as otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gone any further, but that’s the way breaks happened in those days.
Was it enjoyable working on the film with Steve McQueen?
Oh yes, unbelievable, it was amazing, we had a lot of good times and at that time I’d been at Ferrari for 18 months and was suddenly out of it after Ferrari pulled out of a lot of racing halfway through 1969. Thank the lord I was offered the drive in the other Ferrari for 1970 and at the same time I’d met Tom Wheatcroft up at the Donington museum while I was racing in New Zealand. He said anytime I wanted some help he’d love to join me so he very wonderfully, generously, supported me in my F2 Brabham with Wheatcroft Racing. We went off and I led the Formula 2 Championship all year right up to the end where I finished second behind Clay Regazzoni who was in the factory team. At the same time, I got to drive the 917. We also had Steve drive my F2 car at Le Mans during a test. It was a great era; I wasn’t sure where my career was going and then out the blue, I get the chance to drive the 917 for 1971 and my career changed. Although I have to say it changed because I was in the best team in the world suddenly and people said well, he must be quite good if he gets to drive for them.
I imagine the team boss at the time, John Wyer, was quite a character to drive for as well?
He was yes, a most interesting man! So I did that for three years and ended up developing the Mirage and winning Le Mans with that. Of course the 1970s were a very tricky era for sportscars but I drove for Alfa Romeo in the T33 and that was a wonderful experience and I won some races with that. I won Le Mans that year in 1975 with the Mirage too.
You’ve driven one of my favourite cars ever, that glorious Broadspeed XJ12C Jaguar!
You like those animals, do you?! They sound wonderful, I drove one up the hill at Shelsley Walsh a couple of years ago, it was not quite suited! I drove a 962 up as well actually, a Rothmans car. Neither of them suited at all, but nonetheless lovely to do it.
Talking of driving things up hills, how was it to drive that lovely longtail Martini 917 up the hill at Goodwood this year?
It was amazing, I mean I couldn’t drive it very hard, though I was doing 150 in it up part of the hill, so it was quite quick. But I was being cautious as it hadn’t been driving in 48 years!
That car was in a fantastic livery, in fact you’ve driven some cars with real iconic liveries over the years, Gulf, Rothmans and Harrods with the McLaren. Do any really stand out, perhaps one that represents your career the most?
Oh, the Rothmans Porsche. We won so many races in it, to win three Le Mans in those and we should have won it in 1983, we didn’t enter in 1984 due to a disagreement with Porsche and the ACO. I was leading in 1971 till the engine began leaking oil. I was also leading in the Renault, we led by 10 laps by 8am. Then we had a problem with the turbo not getting enough lubrication at high speed. As it just sits there with hot air blowing and blowing as if you were at full throttle for over a minute in 5th gear and in that time the oil is blown down the bores, away from the rings. But the only place they found this out was at Le Mans with that long Mulsanne Straight.
If it was the Porsche that you enjoyed the most and are most fond of, are there any that have less favourable memories?
No, well, only one. The Tecno Formula One car. I’m not sure what it was called, they only built a handful, I drove the first one. A dog of a car. Which was a pity as it was right at the point of my career that I was going to have to get out of F1 if it didn’t work. The head of John Wyers’ team, David York, had spoken to the Martini brothers, as they were running with the long tail 917, and they had asked him to run a team for them in Formula One. So, they approached Brabham. I was going to drive a Brabham with Martini sponsorship with Carlos Reutemann in the cars that really were good. I was equally as quick as him in F2 and I knew that car was really my chance to win in F1 and get good results. But unfortunately, Tecno went along to Martini and said come on, we can build a car, it will be Italian with Martini on it. Won’t that be great! Of course, they got sucked in and within two years Martini had gone and paired up with Brabham themselves but by that time I was far too old.
Do you see Formula One as a missed opportunity, perhaps a bitter one?
No, I don’t feel bitter about it, I’d have loved to have done more. I got in Emerson’s Formula One car and I asked him, what was your favourite car? He replied that it was the Lotus 72 and I told him that was my favourite too! I’d driven it at Kyalami for Top Gear and I couldn’t believe how good it was. I only did 3-4 laps, but I realised the difference between a regular Formula One car and a World Champion’s winning car, it was just glorious. But no, if I’d have stayed in Formula One then I wouldn’t be here now probably. I’d have been killed somewhere along the way and I wouldn’t have had the length of career or the fun I’ve had along the way, I’ve had a blast! And a much longer career then I’d have ever anticipated. Even now it seems I’m one of the few that stands out as being there all these years.
It’s not just in Europe and the USA you’ve raced, but also Bathurst, so how does the Conrod Straight compare to the Mulsanne?
Oh, it is no comparison! It’s changed now anyway with chicanes, but it was much shorter. It was stunning because you come out of the mountain off the hill and head down. We should have won in the RX7, but we came second with Alan Moffat. The other car leading I’d just caught him up as the RX7 was going quicker and quicker and quicker. We caught up with the Dick Johnson car and it was just under half a lap and we were catching, going to pass him. Suddenly a Jaguar comes down the hill towards me! I realised something was up here and the road had been blocked! But Johnson was ahead of this so carried on and came up behind me and the race was stopped.
A big thank you to Derek, both for his time and agreeing to sign a car for us. If you’d like a chance to win this car, answer the question over on our Competition page.
We hope you have enjoyed this special Test Track Pit Stop blog and we’ll be back soon with even more Scalextric and motorsport news! Credit to Gary Hawkins for the great period and modern shots of Derek!
© Hornby Hobbies Ltd. All rights reserved.