Derek Bell is a member of an extremely exclusive club as one of the five winningest drivers in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He has won the race five times, as have Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela, surpassed only by Tom Kristensen with nine victories and Jacky Ickx with six. He first competed in endurance racing in the spring of 1970 at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit at the wheel of a Ferrari fielded by Jacques Swaters, the marque's Belgian importer. He did so barely one month before taking the start in his first 24 Hours also with Ferrari. The following year, he joined John Wyer's Gulf team and shared with Jo Siffert the wheel of the #17 Porsche 917 LH, the same car he drove last weekend at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
What influence do you think the 917 had on other Porsche prototypes like the 936 or 956 that later claimed the top step on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
"I think the 936 certainly was a development of the 917 because they kept going through that era with a tubular chassis. But in all honesty, after the 917, that was the end of that era because of the 3-liter regulations that followed after 1971."
"From being a Formula 3 driver and a Formula 1 driver briefly, suddenly I was driving in the world's greatest race in a new car."Derek Bell
For your first two participations in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1970 and 1971, you successfully drove the Ferrari 512 and the Porsche 917, the two biggest rivals of the era.
"To me at that time, every race was another incredible experience. From being a Formula 3 driver and a Formula 1 driver briefly, suddenly I was driving in the world's greatest race in a new car. I was supposed to drive for Mr. Swaters at Le Mans but Mr. Ferrari said no, I had to race for the Ferrari factory team. So I went to Le Mans. It was not like today with the simulators and the in-car films you can watch on TV or on your computer, and I had never seen a film of Le Mans, I had no idea where the corners were. It was the same for my teammate Ronnie Peterson, who had never been to Le Mans either. It was a different mentality from Formula 3, Formula 2 and Formula 1. I remember reading books about the history of the Jaguar era and it was all about strategy: you would go fastest, you would go medium and you would go slower. And the slow car would hopefully come through when the others had problems."
In 1971, you joined the Gulf team. How did you get on with Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriguez and Jackie Oliver, your teammates at the wheel of the outfit's two Porsche 917 LHs?
"I knew Jo, I knew Pedro. Jo and Pedro were incredibly fast and I was in awe of their speed, but with John Wyer you had to be as good as the other drivers and I knew I had to get up to their speed. I knew Jackie since we had raced in Formula 2. But I did not realize how experienced he was. I really was the new kid on the block, I had no experience. Jackie had already done a lot of racing for two or three years before me. When Jacky Ickx and I were in the Ferrari team at Le Mans in 1970, I knew he was younger than me, but I did not sit in a racing car until I was 23, and Jacky actually had since he was 16 or 17."
Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx would go on to become one of the most outstanding duos in the history of the 24 Hours. In 26 participations, Bell joined forces with the Belgian driver four times, won three of his five victories at the race with Ickx and represented Porsche as many as 14 times.
PHOTOS (Copyright - Louis Monnier/ACO): CHICHESTER (WEST SUSSEX, GREAT BRITAIN), GOODWOOD FESTIVAL OF SPEED. Derek Bell drove the Porsche 917 LH now housed in the 24 Hours Museum at one of the most famous collection racing car events in the world.