Exclusive: Derek Bell Thinks Formula One Lacks Soul
The five-time Le Mans winner talks to The Drive about loved and loathed cars, the problems with modern motorsport, and rivalries.
At 74, Derek Bell still prefers his speed to be greater than his age. When he recently ripped us around Lime Rock in a Bentley Bentayga, the needle was pinging 130 miles per hour through the straight. “That’s just brilliant, isn’t it?” the retired champion asked softly, words barely audible over the howling W12 powerplant.
For a man who’s dedicated his life to fast, being sedentary is unacceptable. The racing luminary mentions how his father fell into a routine of lazier days during his golden years and slowly slipped away, mentally and physically. He trails off towards the end of the tale, but the subtext is crystalline: the Grim Reaper will have to work like hell to chase Bell down.
During his thirty-plus year career, the majority of Bell’s pursuers remained in his rearview. He took top honors five times at Le Mans, thrice at 24 Hours of Daytona, secured two World Sportscar Championships and won dozens more famed races as the darling driver for Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche and other factory teams. As gifted a raconteur as he is behind a wheel, The Drive couldn’t resist peppering Bell with questions on the way home from the track.
What’s the best car you’ve driven?
I love the Ferrari 333 SP. It was an open cockpit sports car that was basically a Formula 1 car with a body on it. It had this gorgeous naturally-aspirated, longitudinally-mounted V12 that produced 600 horsepower. I was so used to the turbos - waiting for them to suddenly take you from 200 to 800 horsepower - that when the power instantaneously came on in the 333, it took my breath away. You’re on the throttle in a corner and the front starts to move a little bit and you flick off the power, then back on again and in that split second, it tucks itself in and you’re back on again. It was bloody brilliant. It won Daytona and it won Sebring.
When did you first drive it?
The Momo team owner, Giampiero Moretti, had me out to test it. I was to do three laps and I stayed out for eight. When I came in, Moretti said, “You liked that, didn’t you?” I told him it was amazing. I came through F3, F2 and F1, so when I got to sports cars, they felt lazy and heavy. The 333 SP was like the rocket ships I was used to; an F-16 as opposed to a lumbering jumbo jet. I drove it in Daytona in 1997 and was leading the bloody race when I had a fire in the night. While you want to win every race, I really wanted to win with the 333 because it was so lovely, nimble and great.
What about your worst car?
The Tecno [PA 123/3] fucked up my Formula 1 career, if ever I had a Formula 1 career going. David Yorke was a top racing manager and he was approached by Martini and Rossi because they wanted to get into F1. David said fine, he’d run the team, but he wanted to take me with him. They got Tecno in the mix. Tecno was an Italian company that built go karts, F3 and F2 cars, all bloody quick, though their Formula cars were basically go karts, too. Everything was tubular chassis, which wasn’t the way to go in F1. You wanted a monocoque there.
What was the engine?
The engine formula had changed from five-liter engines to three-liter racing engines. Obviously a lot less power than we’d been running. The Cosworth was the real top engine then. We had a flat-12 from Ferrari, which sounded good but it was very underpowered. The Pederzani brothers, who owned Tecno, had done well and won so much. They’d convinced the Rossi brothers that they’d go to F1 and beat Ferrari. But no one goes and beats Ferrari, especially given that our engine was from bloody Ferrari. They all got caught up in this Italian engine, in an Italian car with an Italian sponsor and that was it. Everything else went out the window.
Did you know right away that it was awful?
No. I tested it on the Pirelli track in Turin a few days before Christmas [in 1971], and ran it all day. The problem that we overlooked was that this track is to test truck tires. Slide off the road in a single-seater a foot from the ground, you would be beheaded as you slipped under the guard rail. I wasn’t prepared to drive it fast though I went as quick as I could. It ran, but it wasn’t outstanding. Still, the Pederzanis convinced the Rossis this was it. For three years they stuck with that shitbox. It was pure crap. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and this was proof. I’ve seen more bloody pictures of me in that car than any other, which makes me mad. The reason they got so many was because the thing was so fucking slow.
Anything you wanted to race but never got the chance?
When I was with Ferrari, I had an offer from Ford to drive the GT40 at Le Mans. I went to test it and it was marvelous. Ford said, ‘Okay, you’ll drive with Pedro Rodriguez.’ I couldn’t get Ferrari to release me from my contract and of course Pedro went and won the bloody race.
You follow the major race series. What do you think is missing from F1 these days?
The change has been gradual. Today’s drivers - whether in F1, NASCAR, Indy or whatever - are all great. Put them in any of the stuff we raced in, they’d be as good as we were. But the pleasure and excitement has gone out of it. I don’t think the same soul is in it.
Why is that?
In my day, you transitioned into a career from a hobby of racing. I didn’t sit in a race car until I was 22. I’d driven since the age of nine, with tractors and jeeps on the farm at home, but that’s very different than how they start drivers out now. It’s a career from age six, when you start karting. And you have to look at it as a career from that age. That’s tough. [When you're older] you’re still enthusiastic as a driver, you still love it, but I don’t think today’s drivers have as good a time as we did.
You guys were playboys. Cigarettes dangling, beautiful lady on the arm...
Both arms. (Laughs)
There you go. It seems like Lewis Hamilton is one of the few still exuding that ethos.
He does, but again, he started young. He was [McLaren chief] Ron Dennis’ protégé from age 12 and poor Lewis never lived. Suddenly, at the end of last season, Lewis is going, ‘You know, it’s pretty fucking fun out there,’ and just starting to live it up. Now he must be getting pressure from everywhere and everyone to snap out of it a bit if he wants to win this world championship. But he has been enjoying life, maybe after realizing what he missed out on. I think it’s bloody brilliant because that’s what motor racing needed. The leading light of F1 should have a bit of that.
Did you party that hard during your F1 days?
We didn’t party as much in F1 because racing was just beginning to become more serious. People had to go testing the next week or next day after a big win, so the celebrations had to be tampered a bit. That’s not to say there weren’t women around. They were always available if you wanted some fun and laughs. I remember a few bashes with swimming pools and people diving in in their clothes and blokes driving into the pools with their push bikes. Just stupid bloody prank stuff which, when you’ve had a few to drink, was hilarious.
Who was your toughest rival?
When I was on the way up, people like Clay Regazzoni and Ronnie Peterson, both top drivers in F1, were some of the tougher battles, though they weren’t rivals. You just knew when you were in a race with them, it would be a bloody nightmare. You die or I die. Very taxing driving against them. Very exciting though.
What about Mario Andretti? How'd you two get along?
Mario was never someone I competed against, apart from sport cars, and we were both driving the Alfa Romeo T33s in the mid-Seventies at Watkins Glen. I drove my car and put it on pole, then I drove the training car and put that on pole too. That car didn’t count, but I put both cars in front of Mario. One might say he was focused on F1 then, his major race, which may be true, but Watkins was his home track and he wanted to win there. I won the race. Then again, I couldn’t be pissed when we went off to a grand prix a few weeks later and he won.
Do you miss racing competitively?
Very much. I would still race every week, if I was really stupid. I can’t be as quick as I was, logically, but I think I still drive as well as I did. I have been so lucky that I never stopped racing. I’ll always keep driving, testing and racing.