Enduring the test of time is no easy feat. Earning the admiration of time; even more so. Accomplishing both – where do you even begin?
“Hello lads. You look like you’re well ready for it.” he says, beaming whilst he walks through the crowd at Goodwood. Within minutes of meeting Derek Bell, it’s difficult to accept that he is on the cusp of turning 74 years old. In fashionably bright coloured shorts, designer sunglasses hanging off an unbuttoned navy shirt and boat shoes sans socks you’d easily mistake him for being the cool uncle at your family reunion. Walking through a place like Goodwood with the man is an experience all in itself. There’s plenty of charm to his manner – leaning in to make the odd schoolboy comment and smiling in the direction of seemingly invisible camera lenses. An autograph here, a photo there, smiles, laughs and quips, I feel like I’m watching a maestro at work –with a sixth sense for camera proximity and handshakes.
On these grounds this morning, it’s a constant reminder that you’re standing with automotive royalty. However, unlike the Formula 1 stars of today who are flanked with security and keep the world at arm’s length behind oversized sunglasses, you can’t help but feel that there is a profound sense of admiration for the man. People are eager to meet him, but respectfully keep their distance to wait their turn. Handshakes and smiles are his tools of choice, seemingly unperturbed by trivial modern problems like social media status. Within minutes, I find myself floating in between a state of awe and the feeling of being next to an old friend. It’s an odd juxtaposition – like meeting an old school chum who’s become a movie star.
We finally reach our destination, the bright Ecurie Francorchamps-liveried Ferrari 512M, the only yellow body produced out of a run of 26. Introduced by Scuderia Ferrari to compete against the Porsche 917 in 1970, twenty six 512s were produced by il Drake to fulfil homologation rules and match Porsche’s investment for the then newly established Group 5 category. These cars were meant to usher in a new era of sports car racing as 5.0L 12 cylinder giants at the pinnacle of the endurance championship mountain, but were then promptly abandoned by the Scuderia from 1972 onwards after new FIA rules favoured their total attention devoted to Ferrari’s 312PB. Although never a race winner, this particular Francorchamps yellow 512M obviously meant something to Derek. For a second he seems lost in his thoughts, a momentarily lapse for the maestro.
In just an hour, Derek will take the old girl’s hands once again, as he dances her up the drive at Goodwood, before a crowd of his adoring countrymen.
“God, she’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Derek mutters, to nobody in particular. For a minute, I wonder if I was finally beginning to see the man reveal himself.
“Derek, can I have a picture?” A voice from the crowd behind us breaks the reverie. “Yes, of course.” Derek says, turning around instinctively with his signature smile. We’re back to the usual broadcast.
Behind the jovial nature and the smile I’m beginning to see a hint of restrained intensity. With the way his eyes navigate through the crowd and the solemn look on his face in between bright bursts of energetic story-telling, your intuition tells you there’s a real underlying sense of purpose behind all of his actions. It all seems measured, calculated, almost if by instinct rather than intent.
These moments re-engaging with this Ferrari gives us an insight to the man in an earlier phase of his life. Five years before his first victory at Le Mans and as the first time he’d stepped into an enclosed cockpit racer, it was 1970 and the emergent stage for the man many now consider Britain’s greatest sports car racer.
“I’d just come from Ferrari Formula 1, which was probably the greatest experience of my life, to race for Enzo. Then, I was out of Formula 1, was a bit in the doldrums until Jacques Swaters, the Ferrari Belgium importer called me and asked me if I’d like to drive this car at Spa, his 512S. I’d never been to Spa, never driven a sports car.” He beams at the thought of that memory. “Honestly, I thought it was great. I mean, what else was I going to say? I had to say it was wonderful, because that’s all I knew.”
I wonder if he was a brash man in his earlier years, trying to pick a little to discover his true character.
“What was I like then? I don’t think you can ever analyse what you were like.” Derek says, shrugging his shoulders. “I was just 30 years old and it was a very special time, coming through Formula 3, Formula 2, Ferrari Formula 1. Then I got the call from Jacques Swaters. As a person, I didn’t know if I was any good. I was still undecided. To me, I think I proved how good I was with the car, but I don’t think I proved to the world how good I was.”
There it is again – that unrelenting drive about him. On one hand, Derek seems like the type of guy who would honour a handshake and a gentleman’s agreement; the other, someone that would not stop pursuing a predetermined direction he’s mapped out in his sub-conscience. It’s classic race strategy; a happy-go-lucky streak fused with one of strategy and role play. After all, it takes a unique man to be able to not only compete, but win the world’s greatest 24 hour race – and then repeat the feat four more times. When you’ve spent that amount of time alone behind a helmet, at speed with a limited field of vision and only your thoughts to keep you company, you tend to learn one thing about navigating life in general – focus.
“I’ve always had a strong fondness for her.” he says, touching the car. “People don’t relate me to Ferrari. They relate me to Porsche and the 956, the 962. They forget I raced for Ferrari before I raced for Porsche. There aren’t many drivers who raced in 1970 in a Ferrari or Porsche 917 that are still driving today. I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t get to drive her.”
Derek stops for a moment to collect his memories of the car.
“You know, she caught alight three times during the race during refuelling. I remember being burned around the eyes.” He points to very faint scars around his eyes. “It singed my face and eyebrows, but I’d keep getting back into the car, starting it up and poof, it’d go up in flames again.” he remarks, as if it were just any day in the office. He smiles wryly, as if to remind you that, for him, it was no big deal.
“Eventually, they had to smash the passenger window with a fire extinguisher to open the door to get me out. But I kept going. It was a great experience.”
FIRST DANCE - Derek Bell 1970 Ferrari 512M (Part 1)
I’m not sure if “great” was the best way to describe being burned alive inside a barely-ventilated sardine can. I think of today’s safety regulations where a similar incident (let alone thrice) would’ve almost certainly incurred a fistful of penalties, huge fines and a strict recital of the riot act. But it was a different time back then and endurance racing was simply that –enduring.
I’m almost tempted to not believe that last statement. Of course it matters. Why else would you race? It’s then that I realise that Derek’s entire career is simply a metaphor for his methodology of living. Even today at a spry 73 years old, he’s still actively driving in classic rounds and races. It’s as if his entire career is one giant endurance race of its own – always moving, always looking ahead, always absolutely aware of his surroundings. Keep pushing, keep moving ahead. Without a stop button.
And proving he is still faster than any team mate.
“After Spa, Jacques called again and asked me to drive Le Mans... but for Enzo in another works 512S. But you know what, I said I didn’t want to. I didn’t think I got a fair chance at Formula 1 and I didn’t owe anything to the man. In the end, I did it for Jacques, but that gives you a good insight to my mentality as a person.”
He pauses to make sure he clarifies his point.
“You see, that’s always been my problem with racing. I was committed, but I never had a row with anyone like most other drivers at the time, who would tell someone their car was terrible and to let them drive it instead. I never had enough confidence to override reason and control. I just raced whatever I was given. To me, that was what racing was. I was committed, but I was never conceited.”
The moment arrives and he slowly feeds his way into the driver’s seat, taking a minute to familiarise himself with his old girl. He belts himself in, as I help push her through the adoring masses to the staging area, smiling and waving at all the cameras which seem to have suddenly materialised from nowhere.
In the staging area away from the public, I finally manage to get a glimpse of Derek alone with his thoughts. The smile, laugh and playful banter disappears and he looks dead ahead, almost
through the car itself. I call out to him to wish him luck, but he doesn’t respond, he just rubs his eyes.
He is in his element, shutting out the world. A sprinter waiting for the gun.
The marshal’s radio blurps into life to say it’s time to go. Without saying two words and almost as if it were choreographed, the mechanics close both doors on cue; he turns the key and is immediately in gear and charging towards the start line with all 560 horses in full song. Forty five years apart and they’re back together like peanut and jelly, dancing away.
FIRST DANCE - Derek Bell 1970 Ferrari 512M (Part 2)
After the run, he drives the car back to the paddock himself, engulfed by the public. I ask him as the driver’s door swings open how it went.
“Yeah, that was fantastic.” he says, matter-of-factly as he pulled himself out of the driver’s seat and straight into a photo opportunity. It all happens in one fluid motion. All of a sudden, the maestro is back.
“Well, onto the next!” he exclaims, clapping his hands together and then offering a handshake goodbye with that smile of his. And with that, Derek Bell was gone.
I would expect nothing less.
WORDS: FRANK LIEW | PHOTOS: KIMIO NG | DESIGN: FRANCO AU YEUNG