Apertures: Generous Genius - Derek Bell’s Life At Speed

Apertures: Generous Genius - Derek Bell’s Life At Speed

Written and captured by Richard Kelley.

Derek Bell remains a unique hero to those friends and fans who have followed him through motor racing’s brightest and darkest moments. Now into his eighth decade, the five-time Le Mans winner remains a gracious and generous genius, not to mention a wonder of facts, figures and memories.

Be it a small get-together or a special gala, Derek always has a smile, a quip and an outstretched hand that makes every fan feel they’ve known him forever.

To understand Derek Bell’s gritty determination, one needs to learn his three simple equations. The first is: the amount of effort (multiplied by) the invert of time (equals) results.

© Richard Kelley

To say that Derek Bell worked hard to become a multiple Le Mans Champion is a vast understatement. As a young lad, Derek worked on a farm. One day, he saw an ad for the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, so he applied. They said yes, but as he was paying, they mentioned the track was at Snetterton, 180 miles from the farm.

The racing school charged a pound a lap and 10 pounds to “learn” a corner, driving through it in a battered Lotus 18. Faced with a budget of only earning 20 quid a week, he was limited to track time, so Derek had to make each fraction-of-a-second of each session count.

Ten years later, the young farm lad was racing Ferrari’s F2 Dino 166 for the Commendatorie, followed by a Ferrari works drive at the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours.

© Motorsport Images

Derek’s second equation is: trusted co-drivers (multiplied by) trusted cars (plus) perfect pace (equal) 5 Le Mans victories.

His proof? Among them, his flawless Le Mans victories in the Porsche 936/81 “museum piece” victory, and John Wyer’s Gulf Mirage GR-8 both shared with Jacky Ickx.

With Al Holbert, Derek used this formula again to become the most successful 956/962 driver across the World Championship and US IMSA series, with 32 victories.

© Motorsport Images

Derek's final equation is his most personal: facts (multiplied by) imagination squared (equals) spine-tingling emotion.

I witnessed his most forceful formula during an evening keynote speech at the annual Amelia Island Concourse d'Elegance. As honorary grand marshal, Derek chose to open his presentation with a simple video.

The stage’s immense screen revealed a simple onboard camera scene - the entire windscreen of a Porsche 956, Derek’s nomex-gloved hand and rain. 

Steady, gloomy and relentless rain.

© Motorsport Images

That evening's 1800 guests, already supplemented with plenty of adult beverages, were about to experience Derek's kick-off video feature: an at-speed point-of-view beside his claustrophobic Bell Star over one hot lap on the rain-soaked tarmac of Le Mans.

A few women gasped audibly as Derek slashed through the Dunlap Bridge curves before his Porsche turned onto the Mulsanne. Derek instantly increased his speed by multiples of 50 each shift. By then, it was difficult to judge which had become louder, the Porsche's howl or the backdrop of the audience's increasingly nervous coughing and gasping.

Just as the Porsche's incredible velocity seemed never-ending, Derek's 956 knifed into the kink without warning, his boot absolutely flat on the throttle. That's when a woman shrieked, and the audience's tension burst into nervous laughter, followed by tumultuous applause that only hesitantly subsided when Derek stopped at his Porsche pit stall.

As Derek casually switched off the engine on screen, the audience exhaled - they had survived as part of his spine-tingling reality.

He thrives in the company of enthusiasts. His eyes lock on to your own and you know his eyes have guided 956/962 rockets through torrential rain at sub-orbital speeds, and you haven’t. In return, his fans will testify without pause that Derek Bell is not from this planet.

© Richard Kelley

My images of Derek here always remind me of his combination of humanity, knowledge and absolute insistence on giving your best all the time, always accompanied by a wink and a smile. 

Thanks for the memories, Derek.

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