APR 23rd 2015

Legends at FoS: Le Mans 1975

Forty years ago this summer, British racing institution Derek Bell began a winning habit in the world’s greatest endurance race – the Le Mans 24 Hours – that he couldn’t kick for a dozen years.

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In fact, this sportscar-racing superstar, who’d already raced for Ferrari in Formula 1, added his name to the elite band of world championship point-scorers, beaten many an up-and-comer in F2 and F3, and conquered the legendary RAC Tourist Trophy European Touring Car qualifier, came very close to a final ‘fix’ 20 years later.

The anniversary of his breakthrough victory in the twice-round-the-clock marathon in 1975, in the Gulf Mirage GR8 he shared with Belgian Jacky Ickx, will form a highly appropriate part of the celebrations under the 23rd Festival of Speed’s ‘Flat-out and Fearless: Racing on The Edge catch-all theme.

‘I’m really thrilled that my first Le Mans win is being celebrated like this – and at Goodwood, too, where it all began for me in ’64,’ Bell admits straightaway.

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Asked to reminisce about the details of win number one at La Sarthe, 73-year-old Bell unleashes a clarity of recollection that’s hard to fathom when you consider how much he’s done since those first steps 50 years ago in a little Lotus 7 at his local track.

‘It was fantastic to win with [team chief] John Wyer, who I’d raced the Gulf Porsche 917 for in ’71, his loyal team manager John Horsman and the great Jacky Ickx. I’d been developing the Mirage for a few years – the M6 in ’73 and the GR7 in ’74 – and it had become a great little car, produced by what was a small, privateer team, remember.’

It was thanks to Wyer’s hard work and determination to conquer the French classic one more time that the formidable Bell/Ickx pairing first saw the light of day. It was a relationship about which Bell still eulogises all these years later.

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I was paired with Jacky for the first time, which was a great thrill. I had a huge amount of respect for him – he was a big star. He’d won Le Mans in the JWA Ford GT40 and told Wyer that he wanted to share with me. He was a total gent, never pushed his weight around and was so quick. We won Le Mans together three times, of course, and quite a few Group C races, so I guess I owe him a lot.’

Probe a little deeper into Bell’s memory banks on the subject of the ’75 win that set him on the road to long-distance domination and he reveals that taking part that year was by no means a formality, let alone his winning.

‘Mirage was only doing Le Mans that year, although I had a world championship programme with Alfa Romeo,’ he says, forgetting to mention that he won three races with Henri Pescarolo in the T33TT.

‘It was a beautiful exercise in John Wyer efficiency,’ is how Bell fondly and modestly remembers an event that would prove pivotal in his career.

‘Wyer went to Keith Duckworth at Cosworth to tell him he wanted to use his engines. “You don’t want to do that, it’ll never last” was Duckworth’s response. Fortunately, Wyer ignored him and prepared the engines himself. The rules on fuel-tank size and consumption had changed for ’75 so the DFV could be made to last the distance.’

And last the distance it did, Bell and Ickx getting the jump on the sister GR8 of Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Vern Schuppan after it lost time to alternator failure. So good were the powder-blue-and-orange racers, the delayed car fought back to third by the end, just six laps behind the winners. The second-placed Ligier JS2 had a DFV in the back, too, so Duckworth had been properly wrong.

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‘Apart from a cracked exhaust, which the guys had to replace with a few hours to go, the race actually featured very few dramas for us,’ Bell admits. ‘You had to be careful with the incredible vibration on the engine, though. You didn’t want to over-rev it, so the trick was to go like hell in the corners and then get a tow up the Mulsanne straight from a little Porsche 911 or something. People say you didn’t have to drive fast in those days, which is crap! Sure, reliability wasn’t as good and we didn’t have all the electronic trickery they have now, but you still had to go quickly.

‘It was a beautiful exercise in John Wyer efficiency,’ is how Bell fondly and modestly remembers an event that would prove pivotal in his career.

 Make sure you keep an eye out for the Gulf Mirage GR8 and its famous pedaller at the Festival – it’s the sort of reunion that only happens in this magical, time-warp corner of West Sussex.

Photography via LAT

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