The (new) golden age of sports car racing - Derek Bell Column - January 2014

Date: 
30th January 2014

The arrival of each new year brings with it a period of reflection. That, and a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead in the coming months. In recent years I have been involved in all manner of anniversary celebrations, some of them associated with a particular car, others an individual race or even a circuit, but 2014 marks a milestone that is altogether more personal. In 1964, I made my first race start aboard a Lotus Seven and the rest is, well, history. Half a century later, I’m just as in love with motor sport as I was as a fresh-faced wannabe, the difference being that I’ve come out the other side of a frontline career. I am now what is euphemistically known as an ‘elder statesman’.

Reviewing my time in racing only serves to remind me of just how fortunate I have been, and just what an absorbing career I have had. After that first club race at Goodwood, I spent much of the 1960s pursuing my goal of becoming a Formula 1 driver. In those days, the ladder to fame and racing glory was clearly delineated. These days, there are myriad junior categories, all of them feeding off one another to the point that few – if any – have full grids and quality drivers throughout the pack. Way back when, it was altogether clearer: finance, talent and luck permitting, F3 led to F2 and then a seat at the top table. I won a fair few races on the way up to Formula 1, but getting there was one thing, staying there something else entirely.

Fortunately, though, I was able to grab opportunities elsewhere. Perhaps the most important turning points of my career came in 1970 when I was invited to test one of the JW Gulf Porsche 917s. That led to a seat with this legendary team, which was run by the highly respected (some might say feared) John Wyer. And that opened the door for me to the demanding and specialised world of sports car endurance racing.

In turn, that led to five wins at Le Mans and a whole lot more besides, for which I am truly grateful. My spell with Wyer’s team also led to an association with Porsche, a marque with which my name has been linked one way or another for more than 40 years. And it was the chance to drive a factory-run 936 sport-prototype at Le Mans in 1981 that led to a reversal of fortune, my career having been in the doldrums in the years immediately prior to landing the seat. Becoming a works Porsche driver meant a lot to me, and winning the 24 Hours at Le Mans that year led to the most rewarding period of my life in motor racing, not least two world titles.

However, Porsche changed tack at the end of the 1980s and turned its attentions to IndyCar racing. I never understood the reasoning behind the move, and it wasn’t a successful episode. I felt that Porsche rather left the door open for other manufacturers to succeed in sports car racing, and during the 1990s it made only sporadic appearances as a top-flight works team.

Indeed, there hasn’t been an outright win at Le Mans for the marque since 1998, with various one-make series and GT racing having become Porsche’s metier since then. Looking ahead, I’m delighted that Porsche will be taking on the big boys in 2014 with its new 919 Hybrid. I’m also intrigued to see how its star signing Mark Webber gets on.

Mark’s last time in sports cars famously ended with his Mercedes flying through the air at Le Mans and descending to earth with a bit of a bump. That was more than a decade ago, but I wonder if the memory will loom large when he returns there in June. Either way, a driver of his calibre adds kudos to the FIA World Endurance Championship.

If anything, I think sports car racing is about to enter what could, in time, be seen in hindsight to have been another golden age. With Porsche, Audi and Toyota all fielding works teams, and with a number of privateer squads running LMP1 and LMP2 cars, I’m hoping there will be plenty of action in 2014 and that it isn’t a walkover for one particular marque.

Now that Ferrari is openly admitting that it’s evaluating a return to sports car racing – having vacated the scene in 1973 as a works team, let’s not forget – and Renault is also looking seriously at a factory bid via its Alpine brand, the future for the category appears far rosier than it has for many a year. Porsche, Ferrari and Alpine back at the forefront of sports car racing. Now that would be worth celebrating.

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