Knowing what to do with an old flame - Derek Bell Octane Column - August 2012

30th September 2012

By definition, racing drivers are not sentimental. The last race is forgotten as 
you’re too busy thinking of the next one. It’s a case of moving onwards and upwards, or maybe even sideways, but there’s no looking back – until you become a former racing driver, that is.

For many of us there is no such thing as retirement, as the buzz you get from driving a racing car cannot be replicated anywhere else; it’s hard to stay away completely. Nostalgia begins to seep in, which is why I recently found myself testing a Porsche 962C at a sodden Dunsfold Park. I was getting in a little practice ahead of my return to Le Mans for the Group C/GTP support event that runs prior to the main 24-hour race.

I haven’t competed at the Circuit de la Sarthe since 1996, when I shared the sixth-place-finishing McLaren F1GTR with Olivier Grouillard and Andy Wallace. I was still in the hunt, despite being in my 50s, but I decided then to call time on a race that had come to mean a lot to me. That was my 26th outing in the endurance classic and it would be my last.

Except the romance of the place has never really gone away. I have always loved the build-up to the race, having stayed in the Hôtel de France in La-Chartre-sur-le-Loire most years since 1971, when I drove for the JWA/Gulf squad. It was the team manager John Wyer’s regular haunt and had been ever since his Aston Martin days, with the entire works team decamping there each June. The hotel has been in the same family for four generations, and photographs of the great and the good of the 24 Hours’ glorious past line the walls. The sense of history is palpable. Also, the village square has latterly become a Mecca for classic car lovers on the Friday before the start. It was there in June 2011 that I got chatting to Martin Overington, which, in a roundabout way, led to the invitation to race his Porsche.

I must admit that I did chew over his proposal. In recent years, I have enjoyed myself enormously driving historic GT and Touring Cars at Goodwood, but there’s a world of difference between steering something old on its bumpstops and skimming along the asphalt in a Group C car with ground effects. Did I really want to be strapped into a sports-prototype and hurtling along at more than 200mph? I had been there and done that and in many ways felt that I had got it out of my system. But the 962 played such an important role in my career and I have always said that I would drive one any place, any time – so why not at Le Mans? Martin’s is an ex-Kremer Brothers car, and a 2.8-litre version at that, so it will be giving away a few horses to the many larger-capacity machines. A win will be out of the question but most of all I want to savour the experience of driving a car for which I have a great passion, on the circuit it was designed for.

I haven’t campaigned a proper 962 in 20 years, not since I shared the ADA Racing Porsche with Tiff Needell and my son Justin during the ’92 24 Hours. Obviously, driving alongside Justin was a wonderful experience; one of the happiest memories of my career was standing on the podium with him and Andy Wallace after we finished third in the ’95 running with the Harrods McLaren. The Le Mans 24 Hours is a part of me but the wins aren’t the only highlights of my many outings there. And I hope my return run in the one-hour race will feature among them.

Being reunited with a 962 is a bit like going out with an old flame: you instinctively know what to do. The same cannot be said of the other car I will be racing at the same venue in July. I have some prior experience of pre-war cars, having driven Bugatti Type 35s and various Alfas and suchlike, but I have never raced one. In addition to owning the 962, Martin is very much a Bentley man and I will be sharing his 4½ Litre at the Le Mans Classic.

This is an alien realm for me, but I am thrilled at the prospect as I have been involved with the marque for the past 12 years on so many levels. I had the privilege of piloting the mighty Speed 8 LMP1 on many occasions; more recently I have been a partner in a Bentley dealership in Naples, Florida; and I have been involved in countless promotional events, including driving a Continental Supersports at 160mph on a frozen lake in Finland. However, I have never raced one, which is why I am greatly looking forward to becoming, in my own small way, a ‘Bentley Boy’.

As to whether I will race there again, well, we’ll see. I expect these will be my last competitive outings at Le Mans – but I have said that before.


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