I was recently graced with the opportunity to interview Derek Bell, and it was an absolute privilege! He is one of the original gentleman racers, and he is extremely inspiring. He is one of the few drivers who raced for both Ferdinand Porsche and Enzo Ferrari. His accomplishments at the Le Mans 24 Hour race are unmatched and as a 5 time winner of the race, he is the only driver to be awarded the Spirit of Le Mans and the freedom of the city of Le Mans. He is a true legend of motor racing.
Derek and I first chatted at the recent Top Gear Festival where he entertained us with stories about the making of the movie “Le Mans” and racing in the rain at the actual race. Derek set aside 45 minutes to talk to us but I know we could’ve spoken for hours, he is truly a fascinating man to listen to.
Derek, what was it like driving the 917 at the Top Gear Festival in South Africa?
The Bailey’s 917 was a beautifully built car and it definitely looked the part. The engine was quite different to the original V12, this car had a turbo V6, which was for me quite disappointing. The tyres were unfortunately older tyres so I couldn’t get a great feel of the car. The car was in general great, but the old tyres meant it lacked feel. It didn’t roll much and didn’t have very many vices, which was nice, although it did have heavy steering. There were some changes made while I had the car over the three days and I felt it start coming into its own by Sunday.
In your opinion, what is the main difference between the old and new Kyalami circuits?
What I like about the new track is that they kept the name and parts of the old Kyalami circuit. The track isn’t as fast as it was and like most modern day tracks you have a lot of corners leading into corners. Still, having corners like Sunset still part of the track gives it character. Unfortunately, like most modern tracks, overtaking is difficult and at the new Kyalami, there are much fewer overtaking opportunities. The straight has been taken away really and a lot of the speed has been taken out of the track. I am very happy that they have salvaged the track’s old character. As a new track it is a very good compromise.
What made the 917 such a special car to drive?
Coming across from the Ferrari and all the struggles that that car presented, the 917 was for me an absolute pleasure to drive! As a sports car it was just that much better. I unfortunately only did one year in the 917 but I did enjoy it.
What made the Kyalami 9 hour such a special event?
Well, it was the last race of the season for the International drivers, so drivers clamoured to be part of the Castrol 9 Hour. It is like no other race really. It was a non-championship race so the pressure was off and in a lot of ways it was fun. The support the race had in South Africa was fantastic! There really was a magnificent fan base. As a driver you always felt so welcome and you always stayed over in South Africa, visiting places like Knysna, the game farms and Cape Town. It lent itself to that. There was always so much to do when you came to race the 9 hour. The atmosphere at the track was absolutely fantastic! I think if they carried on having the 9 hour it would be viewed with similar esteem to the Le Mans race.
What made the Le Mans 24 Hour race such a special race?
I actually preferred Formula One until I won at Le Mans. Then I realized why Le Mans was so special. There are 13 to 18 Formula One races in a year but there’s only one Le Mans. When you win it more than once you become part of the history of Le Mans, so it is very special. I was also awarded the Spirit of Le Mans, I am not sure why but it was something unique to be awarded.
What was it like working and racing for Enzo Ferrari?
You raced for the manger but you did feel like you drove for Enzo. I raced for Ferdinand Porsche but you raced for the factory not him, but at Ferrari you raced for Enzo. Input in the racing was slight but the drivers were where Enzo’s interest lay. I remember testing and once I was in the car being told ‘if you crash this car it will be the last red car you drive, you’ll only be driving green ones’. Testing at Maranello, I remember Enzo putting out a chair and sitting trackside at one of the most difficult corners in order to watch the session. It was very different. Being part of the group that raced for Enzo was very special, because it was such a small and elite group. I remember being told meeting with Enzo was more special than meeting with the Pope! What he did could never be done again. He was Enzo, and it was a special time.
You drove a Lotus powered John Player Special car at the Top Gear Festival. Your first drive in a Lotus powered race car since 1969, what was that like?
It was a wonderful experience! I always admired that car. I never raced it, I never wanted to because the Lotus had the reputation of breaking! It was something I never had the opportunity to drive before, but to drive that Lotus, the John Player Special, was a fantastic experience! It felt like a great car immediately, it just felt right on track. I felt at home in it. To drive a car like that with that much history was extremely special.