The perils of racing in a road car - Derek Bell Column - October 2013

29th September 2013

McLaren remains the last manufacturer ever to win the Le Mans 24 Hours with a production car. Victory for the F1 GTR in 1995 really was a remarkable achievement; an overall win for what was in essence a road car, albeit an exceptionally special one, simply wasn't in the script.

And yet it happened. That was also the last year that I got to stand on the podium at the Circuit de la Sarthe, having led the race in the Harrods McLaren before eventually finishing in third place. The 1995 running was only the fourth time I ever drove a GT car in the great race.

What's more, my first attempt had been aboard a true Gran Turismo in the accepted sense. Back in 1972, I had contested the World Championship for Makes with the Gulf Racing Research team, this being the same year that the engine capacity limit for top-flight sports-prototypes was pegged back from 5.0 to 3.0 litres. Our new Cosworth DFV-powered Mirage M6 was deemed to be too short on miles to run for Le Mans so I was without a drive for the 24 Hours.

I was then recruited by my old friend Jacques Swaters to steer his Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona. My wingmen would be Teddy Pilette and gentleman driver Richard Bond. We would be up against several other Daytonas in the Group 4 class, including those from Scuderia Filipinetti and Charles Pozzi.

To be perfectly honest, racing a GT car was really a bit of a comedown, but a drive is a drive and I was grateful for it. As I recall, we were running somewhere in the top ten towards the end of the race when I was collared by an animated Ferrari mechanic who informed me that: 'You can get third in class ahead of Mike Parkes if you pull your finger out when you get in the car.'

I’m paraphrasing, but with his words ringing in my ears, I decided to make a real go of it as I took over for the final stint. You have to remember that the 24 Hours was an endurance race in those days rather than the round-the-clock sprint it is today, and dear old Jacques always was a bit on the cautious side. He figured that it was better simply to finish the race than to take a risk and not finish at all.

Jacques said to me: 'Derek, I would rather you took things easy. Don’t push too hard.'

I responded with something along the lines of: 'OK, well, let’s see how things go and whether we can make up any ground.'

Once I was back out on track I set about hauling myself onto the tail of Parkes’ Filipinetti car. Our Ferrari had been handling appallingly for much of the race and it was now raining but, while going down the Mulsanne straight for the final time, I reasoned that I could get a tow and slipstream past Parkes before out-braking him into the right-hander at the end. Our car was wallowing all over the place, but I thought I had it all worked out and timed to perfection. However, as I lined him up in my sights, a slower car got in my way going through the kink.

That was the end of that: in the blink of an eye, I’d lost 150 yards. We crossed the line in eighth place overall and we finished fourth in class.

Afterwards, the mechanics discovered a broken rear anti-roll bar, which accounted for why the Daytona was such a horror to drive. However, what I remember most about that race was what happened subsequently.

As I have mentioned before, I used to own a Ferrari 275GTB/4, a car that I’d imported from Italy when I was a member of Scuderia Ferrari. It was a fabulous car, and in hindsight I never should have sold it, but I’d replaced it with a Daytona, which also happened to be a magnificent road car. Shortly after the end of the race, my wife of the time and I set off back to our hotel. After a little while, Pam said: 'I think you’re going quite quickly.' I looked at the speedometer and she was right – it was showing 160mph!

I was sitting in exactly the same driving position as I had been during the race, I was using what was basically the same gearbox, and I still had adrenaline coursing through my veins. I had barely noticed the switch from the race car to the road car. That in itself speaks volumes about the Ferrari Daytona. It might not have been such a great racing car but it really was one hell of an all-rounder.

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