Wandering past the Porsche stand at the Los Angeles Motor Show on Wednesday, I saw an instantly recognisable face. I wasn’t sure what it was doing in LA but it belonged to Derek Bell who took one look at me, grinned, held out a hand and said, ‘I was just beginning to wonder if I was going to know anyone here.’
“I stood and watched as Derek made a mockery of both the conditions and everyone else out there in a 25 year old, 750bhp Group C car”
I’d like to think Bell could walk onto any Porsche facility anywhere in the world and be mobbed by well wishers but this is not the way it works any more. Memories are short.
But not so short in my case not to remember the last time we met, which after all was only in May. We were at a Donington test day and within the fairly broad spectrum of weather conditions in which it is possible to test a racing car, it was as bad as could be.
At first Derek was nowhere to be seen so I asked where I might find him. I got a thumb point to the track. So I braved the rain, stood on the pitwall and waited for him to turn up while an endless stream of junior formula cars and tin tops droned past, rooster tails of spray springing up behind them.
And then came Derek. I’d have known it was him because among that lot, a colossal red and white Porsche 962C is a fairly difficult thing to miss. But I also knew it was him because the car was moving at an entirely different speed to anything else on the track. And he wasn’t trailing a small plume of water so much as towing a block of flats. So I stood and watched as Derek made a mockery of both the conditions and everyone else out there in a 25-year-old, 750bhp Group C car. Ten flawless laps later he was in.
He drove straight into the pit garage, flipped open the door, hopped out with an agility that belied entirely his 72 years, ripped off his helmet and started swearing. For a second I thought he was livid: he had after all just stepped off a plane from his sun-kissed Florida home simply to set the car up for the support race at Le Mans. But he wasn’t: he was as happy as I’ve ever seen a racing driver. He was hopping from foot to foot, bouncing around the garage, eyes shining, begging the car’s owner Mark Sumpter (pictured with Derek below) to let him go and race it right there and then. He looked like someone who’d won his first ever race.
It was extraordinary. The enthusiasm this man who has won Le Mans five times, the world sports car championship twice and been a works Ferrari F1 driver remains utterly undimmed to this day. But I think his greatest achievement is the one that’s least talked about, namely that for he was the only driver who drove for Porsche throughout the duration of its Group C domination in the mid 1980s. The only one. When you consider some of the others who came and went in that time, it is an extraordinary achievement.
As for the 962 itself? Well I was blessed to be next into the seat and I’ll tell you what the ultimate factory specification 962C is like to drive in the wet another time. For now just be grateful that Derek Bell MBE is still out there, doing his thing. And so far as I can see, loving every second of it.