McLaren & Me: Derek Bell

Derek Bell

Derek Bell has a special place in McLaren’s history as his only Grand Prix start with the team came with the unloved 4WD M9A in 1969. However, the marque has played an ongoing role in his career. In the next instalment of 'McLaren & Me', Derek gives us an insight into his time with the team.

In 1969 I was contracted to Ferrari, but they had said we going to stop racing because the cars were junk, so we were all basically out of a job. I was worse off because I’d only just got there. I’d come up quite well through F3 and F2, and then suddenly you get into F1, you get to Ferrari, and you think you are on your way. But if you have a car that isn’t that good, and they pull out because they are working on the flat-12 for 1970, then there’s no point in going to the factory because you don’t even have a car to drive!

Anyway I got a call from McLaren – it wasn’t Bruce himself but one of the guys – and they said, ‘How about driving in the British GP in our four-wheel-drive (4WD) car?’. They said Bruce had tested it earlier in the week at Goodwood and it was running OK, and he thought it was going to be alright. So I then sent a telex – as one did in those days – to Ferrari. They said, ‘Help yourself,’ which I was quite surprised about.

So I went along to Silverstone. Bruce was great, and it was a super-small team, with four or five guys, the two drivers, Tyler Alexander, Teddy Mayer and Alastair Caldwell. It was just that group.

I had never sat in the M9A before, and I just hopped in the car and off I went and drove in practice. The team was more interested in Bruce and Denny Hulme getting points, so this thing was really like, ‘We’ll give it a shot, we’ll sling it in the race.’

Lotus had a 4WD car, and Matra as well, and Cosworth entered theirs, although they withdrew it. We all felt that the 4WD system meant that you could go deeper into the corner under braking, and be much more precise with it, and therefore turn in with the power on, and the 4WD would whistle you through the corner. And you wouldn’t need so much downforce, because you had 4WD.

However, I couldn’t get anywhere near the edge of the track to get a proper line into a corner and fly into it. I had to be about three feet out from the grass, because the thing was weaving all over the road, because it wasn’t braking correctly – we had had difficulty balancing the engine braking on all four wheels, with the brakes trying to do the same. Whatever it was, sorting it out was beyond us!

Once I was in the corner it had tremendous understeer. I’ve driven a lot of 4WD cars since, and you always get understeer – as soon as you turn the wheel, it wants to go straight on. Electronics have helped that now, but we didn’t have any. I never got a sniff of oversteer.

I think when I started I had no rear wing on it all, from what I recollect, and when we discussed it I said, ‘Why can’t I have a wing on the back?’. You might say I just said it had understeer, but it needed overall downforce.

Bruce and Denny were going to run without wings on their cars, but they decided they needed them, and they got the wing that I wanted. The team said, ‘We don’t have another one.’ So they got this shovel thing out, which was a piece of bodywork that wrapped itself around the whole engine, and I ended up running with that.

I started near the back and half a dozen laps into the race the suspension collapsed. I think I was coming into Becketts when it took a dive on me, and I pulled over. Meanwhile Bruce finished third, and the team was pretty pumped up about that. I remember after the race he looked at me and said, ‘What do you think? It’s not going to work, is it?’ And I said, ‘No,’ so it never saw the light of day again...

It never crossed my mind that I might have another chance with McLaren, as it was very much about Bruce and Denny, and I still hadn’t proved myself in F1. It was amazing that they offered it to me that weekend, but they’d seen that Ferrari was pulling out, and it was, ‘Derek Bell is spare, let’s use him.’ Everyone else who was capable was already driving, I suppose!

In 1971 I did an Interserie race at Hockenheim with Sid Taylor’s M8. I won the race, and while I can’t tell you much about it, I know I didn’t have too much problem. That car was really very good. I’ve got this wonderful picture at home with my son Justin on the rostrum with me, and he’s wearing these weeny shorts and one of these little flat caps that Arturo Merzario used to dish out, with all the drivers’ names on it. He’s probably thinking, ‘What am I doing here!’

The following year I drove Sid’s M10B in a couple of F5000 races at Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake. Those Chevys were always desperately unreliable, and they always seemed to have inherent overheating problems. You were going like a dream and they’d start to overheat and you’d have to slow down. I think Jim Hall’s and Carl Haas’ engines were better than Sid’s, I don’t think Sid paid the bills very well! But we didn’t do too badly, and I was third at the Glen.

In 1973 I drove Lothar Motschenbacher’s M8F at Mid-Ohio – it was my first ever drive in CanAm. I remember it was two 100-mile races, and I drove really well in the first one. I finished behind three Porsche 917s, in fourth place. But I was knackered, I’d never driven in such humidity in my life. I went to get out and I couldn’t even stand up. It was absolutely amazing.

I remember thinking, ‘I’ve been flown out all this way to show them how good this guy’s car is, and how good Derek Bell is meant to be, and I can’t even finish 100 miles.’ What I didn’t know was that other drivers would come off the track and drive straight to the medical centre, where they would lay them on a bed of ice! In the second heat I thought, ‘I’m not going to be quite so stupid and try and stay with these 917s, obviously they are faster,’ so I went for fourth place, and I guess that’s where I finished.

Then at Elkhart Lake I stood in for David Hobbs, who usually drove the Carling Black Label M20 – he was busy doing an Indycar race or something that had been delayed. I had to start at the back of the grid because I hadn’t done practice in it, so I just jumped in and drove it, but the engine failed early on.

In 1979 I did some races in the McLaren-run works IMSA BMW 320, with David Hobbs. We went to Mid-Ohio first, and I remember I went off the road in practice and hit a bank, which they weren’t impressed with! Something went wrong in the race, which they had expected us to win. Then we went to Elkhart Lake, where power counted more, and it favoured the Porsche 935s, and we went and won it. So that was very pleasing!

I frequently get asked what was my most memorable race, and I say Le Mans 1995 with the McLaren F1. To finish third on Father’s Day, sharing with your son – not that I knew it was father’s day until afterwards – was very special.

I remember it very well, because I’d retired from doing Le Mans at the end of '94, and then, a few weeks before the race, it was, ‘Come on dad, come and do it.’ They agreed quite a large appearance fee! I didn’t do it for the money, I did it because it would be great to drive with Justin and Andy Wallace in that car.

I thought we’re not going to finish anyway, as basically none of the cars leading up to the race had done more than 1000km of testing within something going wrong. So we assumed we’d all be home for dinner! The story went that McLaren offered the customers a modification for the gearbox which was going to cost 100,000 dollars or pounds, but nobody as far as I was aware took this component, apart from the factory-supported car.

We qualified in the top 10, which was not spectacular, but we were up against real racing cars, and we were just a road car, as the other McLarens were.

It was the most terrible conditions, but because it rained it took the stress off the transmission. I believe we were leading by 10pm, and we led for 16 hours. The two leading cars were always on the lead lap. I remember getting on the car on Sunday and as I came round to pick up my first lap-time I was +27 seconds on JJ Lehto, and I thought, ‘The whole world is going to see this old fart get beaten up by this F1 hero.’ I was 54 at the time! And I sort of shut my eyes and just drove, and I pulled out 6 seconds in 10-12 laps. It was not that much, but better than going the other way, and I felt bloody good about it.

But with two hours to go we had a delay – I think it was to do with the clutch release bearing – and we dropped back to third. Despite it all, it was a helluva race, and I think people remember much more our little car in the Harrods colours. It was magnificent, to stand up there with your son on Father’s Day, with those brilliant bright yellow overalls, and at my age. There was a spectacular reception for us, I must say. I felt sorry for Andy really, because he wasn’t related to us! But it couldn’t be helped, because somebody had to be with us.

I went back in 1996 with Andy and Olivier Grouillard, and finished sixth, but I can’t remember much about that race at all. We still had the same car without the long tail that others had, and we did okay. So I finished third and sixth in my last two years at Le Mans.

I should mention that a few years ago I drove Ayrton Senna’s MP4/4 at Goodwood. I couldn’t believe when I got a call to drive it. I think Jenson was supposed to have driven it, but they stuck me in it. I was flattered that they would think of me. But as you can imagine, I didn’t actually fit in it, and all I could do was move the gear lever with two fingers. It doesn’t matter at Goodwood, but when you get those opportunities you don’t want to just cruise up the hill slowly.

When you’re in something that valuable and that historic you don’t want to do something silly, and I was glad when it was over, because I didn’t plant it anywhere! But Senna was such an amazing name, and to be able to drive his car, which won 15 Grands Prix that year, was spectacular, I have to admit.

More recently I was invited to a Christmas event at McLaren, and guys like Emerson Fittipaldi and Pedro de la Rosa were there. I’d never been before, and when I walked in I asked, why am I invited? And my host said, ‘Well you’re the only driver who drove a McLaren for Bruce, and in the Ron era.’ I’m sure there must be somebody else, but I can’t think who it is. So I’m happy to accept that!