Five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell is the latest ‘Ask A Pro’ to answer your questions. Check back soon for his answers.
Double World Sports Car Champion and five-time Le Mans 24 hours winner
A five-time Le Mans winner, three-time Daytona winner and twice World Sports Car Champion, Derek Bell has enjoyed a staggeringly successful career in endurance racing.
Making the transition from course marshal to racer in the early sixties, Bell rapidly progressed through the junior ranks driving for his stepfather’s team. He turned professional when offered a drive by Enzo Ferrari and went on to compete in 16 Formula One Grand Prix, including drives for Ferrari and McLaren.
But endurance racing was the arena in which Bell truly shone. Taking back-to-back World Sports Car Championships in 1985 and 86, he also won the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1986, 87 and 89. He formed one of the most famous pairings in motor sport history with Jacky Ickx, claiming victory in the Le Mans 24 hours in 1975, 1981 and 82. Bell claimed a further two victories in the 1986 and 87 editions of the French classic.
Bell has also been inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the Le Mans 24 Hours Drivers Hall of Fame.
Derek Bell answers your questions!
My dream is to race at Le Mans and I am looking to get sponsorship to continue my racing career. I am finding it difficult to get backing because I am not aiming for Formula One. What advice could you give me to find sponsors?
You still have to prove to teams you have ability, so single seaters fixes that. If you can get a seat in a low powered sports car series that is great, but which series that is I cannot tell you. If you have the talent though, you will shine.
Hi Derek. Thanks for answering our questions. My son is set on becoming a race driver but I have little racing experience to help him develop. What are the best methods to help him develop and where can I go to get him advice and training?
Derek, how important was fitness to a racing driver in your era and how has it changed since?
Fitness was always vital but not as much as now. I played rugby for my school and after that for Chichester City which was where I was living. I was playing in the first team but by Christmas I had to quit as I did not want to get injured as we would be racing in the Tasman series during the New Year. Growing up on the farm pitching hay bales and shovelling was always a benefit. Over the later years I always played lots of sport and would go to the gym regularly. I needed to be extra fit to make up the deficiencies in my driving skills I always thought I had. These days it seems it’s all the guys do, but good for them.Although we didn’t allow racing get in the way of having fun!
Hi Derek. Do you think petrol powered racing is going to be a thing of the past and hybrid or electric racing will eventually become the predominant formula?
I certainly hope not. As I said to a man from Tesla one day when he was pushing me to drive his car: “unless it sounds like a V12 and smells of Castrol R, I am not interested.” However, when I did give in I was most impressed. I believe we shall always have petrol powered cars. Can you imagine watching a rally stage without any noise?
What was your routine when competing in 24-hour races? Did you sleep or stay awake at the circuit?
I never slept at Le Mans as it was such a vital race. In addition, there were only two drivers for many years so it was never easy to sleep. I did catch a few moments of sleep at the Daytona 24 Hours however.
Who do you think is the best driver currently racing?
It is difficult to say but as an all-rounder, Fernando Alonso works miracles at Ferrari. Daniel Ricciardo has something special and Lewis Hamilton has the raw ability and talent to win at any time.
I am racing in karts at the moment and want to step up to cars in the future. What are the best methods of becoming a smoother driver and improving my lap times?
If you could race for any team now, which would it be?
In Formula One it would have to be for the best team now, but I always believe a car with Adrian Newey around it has to be the best ultimately. In sports cars I would have to say Porsche, their commitment and enthusiasm plus racing pedigree is the best.
What do you think of Formula E?
I am not sure yet. My main concern is that there are too many series for young drivers because at the end of a year who can determine the best. There are so many young drivers though, so what can we do. The Autosport Young Driver Awards are very enjoyable because there is so much talent to select from.
If there were no front wings and no downforce in modern Formula One, would cars be able to race as close as they did in years past?
Hi Derek. You raced both open and closed wheel cars, which route is best for developing your driving skills?
As I graduated through single-seaters to Formula One, I have always been adamant that single-seaters are the perfect place to be and everything else is a compromise. I think you need that time to perfect your driving.
How do you cope with a situation in which you and a team aren’t getting along?
Fortunately, I never had that problem. I don’t think I could have handled an atmosphere like that and believe it must be really mentally disturbing and affect your performance.
We don’t have many good facilities in the country where I am from but I want to become a racing driver. Are there any companies that could help me learn and develop into a racing driver?
There are racing schools all over the world, that is how I began racing. I do believe they cannot instil natural ability however. They can assist greatly particularly if you do not have the budget to begin racing as was my case.
Hi Derek. I am a long-time fan of yours and love the sports-car racing era from the late 60s to the mid 80s. Have you had an opportunity to driver a newer prototype or LMP1 car? And if so, how do they compare to the cars you raced?
Thanks for your comments, I have driven everything up until this latest era! It’s only recently that cars had as much grip and downforce in corners but I have demonstrated the 2003 Bentley Speed 8 all over the world which has been a wonderful experience. The main difference was the amazing braking and speeds of corner entry. They did lack the great power surge we had with 800 bhp and I was always used to the car beginning to slide as the power came on. That was something special!
How did you decide which area of car racing you wanted to go into?
I had no choice as I did not begin racing until I was 23. There was a limited amount of karting back then which I could not do. I certainly was lucky to have my era and survive to race in the best sports car period ever.
Derek, have you had to use degressive braking techniques and which car did you use them in?
I have to say I have never been one to lock up brakes that much but it happens from time to time when in sheer panic you keep your right foot down too hard. In sports cars we always had that compromise to not lock up the wheels otherwise we were going to lose time and have extra tyre changes apart from brake wear! As John Wyer used to say,you need: ‘Good hands.’
Did you enjoy making Le Mans with Steve McQueen? How good a driver was he?
It was a fabulous experience working on that particular movie. It was my first year in sports cars, my first race was at Spa 1000km and then Le Mans for Ferrari in the 512 as a sports car driver so I was somewhat new! But I drove the Ferrari 512 and the 917 Porsche during the film and signed with Gulf Porsche before the end of that year. Steve was a really excellent driver and there are many stories in my book about him. We even shared a house together! I was very lucky.
How did you manage to keep yourself motivated throughout your career even when you had been extremely successful?
I believe you are never satisfied so always want to win more. On reflection I should have been more satisfied sooner but maybe I would not have won as much then!
Did you ever feel scared in a racing car?
Only once. It was in 1970 at the Spa 1000km qualifying, when a Lola 2 litre with a young driver who had never driven more than Formula Ford and never outside Portugal, pulled across in front of me in the Masta Kink as I tried to take it flat out in the Gulf Mirage with Ickx behind me in the 312 Ferrari, at over 180mph! Read my book to find out more.
What was your proudest achievement in racing?
I’ve had many but the highlight had to be finishing 3rd with son Justin and of course Andy Wallace in the 1995 Le Mans in a McLaren. It was pretty special. Although being honoured with an MBE made me rather proud.
How did you hone your race craft in the early years of your career?
As I always tell people, the only way is to drive and drive but make every mile count. There were no simulators or computers in my day.
What is your favourite circuit in the world?
I always say Spa, new or old circuit, although I am not sure the latest changes are for the best. I lapped in 1971 in the Porsche 917 at 164 mph on the old circuit, fastest lap ever on a closed circuit at that time. So I guess that’s why it’s so special.
Who was the toughest competitor you ever raced against?
I suppose it would be Clay Regazzoni. I had to endure his amazing talents in F3 and then F2 when I was in a Brabham. I had to endure them again when both of us were at Ferrari in Dino F2’s.
As a young girl looking to make it as a racing driver, what is the most important skill to have?
The ability to beat every male out there!