A pivotal moment in my racing career - Derek Bell Column - April 2014

Date: 
23rd April 2014

I’m not sure when it happened, but I appear to have become ‘an elder statesman’ among drivers. As such, I get asked to perform all manner of ceremonial roles and this April I will be Grand Marshall of the 2014 Silverstone 6 Hours.

To be honest, I was delighted to be asked. I was fortunate enough to win this historic race during the glorious Group C era of sports car racing. In fact, this much-loved circuit was a constant thread throughout my driving career, from Formula 3 to Formula 1 via Touring Cars and all manner of one-off events. It is the home of British motor racing, and the 6 Hours a race that traditionally marked the start of the European season for us sports car professionals. We all wanted bragging rights, so victory here meant a lot. And nothing has changed.

I first competed in this classic endurance race back in 1977. I shared a flame-spitting Porsche 935 with fellow ex-Ferrari man Tim Schenken. Sadly, despite showing well in qualifying, we failed to make the flag.

A year later, I had another DNF in a different 935, and in ’79 I shared the monstrous Aston Martin RHAM/1 with Dave Preece and finished a miserable 13th. This was at a time when sports car racing was in the doldrums, so it was slim pickings for professional drivers because there were so few works seats available. Fortunately, matters improved greatly in the years that followed.

In 1981, for example, I finished second overall, sharing an ex-Procar BMW M1 with the car’s owner, Steve O’Rourke, and my old mate David Hobbs. Steve was the manager of Pink Floyd and a great enthusiast. He set up a programme of eight races for that season and I was delighted when he picked me to lead the team.

After that, Porsche offered me a drive in the works 936 sports-prototype for Le Mans. I was committed to driving the BMW, but this was a huge opportunity and certainly of the never-to-be-repeated variety. I was torn over whether or not to jump ship. I felt honour-bound to stay but fortunately the decision was made that much easier by Steve. I will never forget his generosity in allowing me to accept the Porsche seat, as it led to my second win in the 24 Hours.

That in turn led to me picking up a full-time drive with Porsche for ’82. The rest is history. So much of what happened in the second half of my career, my two world titles for starters, was down to my being released from that contract with Steve.

I would go on to make 12 starts in the Silverstone 6 Hours and finished on the podium six times, sharing cars with the likes of Jacky Ickx and Hans Stuck. The undoubted highlight for me, however, was winning in 1983 alongside Stefan Bellof with the Rothmans-liveried 956.

It was my first victory alongside the super-quick German and I can still recall the sense of elation at winning my home race in front of such a hugely enthusiastic – not to mention partisan – crowd. The 956 (like its 962C descendent) was a car with which I would become inextricably linked, and one of the most remarkable aspects of the 956 was its competitiveness from the get-go. It was a superb bit of kit and a car for which I retain great affection.

Of course, the 2014 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours marks the return of Porsche to the upper echelon of sports car racing after several years toiling away in the various GT categories with undoubted (and considerable) success. Porsche is a company that doesn’t do things by halves, so expectations are high for the radical new 919 Hybrid.

It is also wonderful to see such a big name as Mark Webber turning his attentions to racing with a roof over his head. It’s obviously too early to say whether he can anchor a win for Porsche on his debut with the team, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it. If there is one thing I can be sure of, the drivers at the sharp end are among the finest in the business, so expect to see some quality racing.

With Porsche, Audi and Toyota all fielding factory teams, and with the other categories all showing depth in numbers, it is just possible that sports car racing is entering another golden age. I certainly hope so. The level of engineering and technology invested in these cars is frankly mindboggling and, dare I say it, their designs offer more intrigue and greater divergence than you will find in any Grand Prix pitlane.

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Image © Anthony Fosh

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