This year’s historic support race to the Le Mans 24 Hours, organised annually by Motor Racing Legends as a curtain-raiser to the world’s greatest endurance race, was for Group C cars. And a major highlight of the Group C race, held on the Saturday morning of the Le Mans weekend, was the presence on the grid of five-times Le Mans winner Derek Bell.
Now 70, Bell first won the race in 1975, when he shared a Gulf-Mirage with Jacky Ickx, and two of his four subsequent Le Mans victories in Porsche cars were famously shared with Ickx.
For the first time in 20 years, Derek was at the wheel of a Porsche 962 racing at Le Mans. “I’m enjoying being here in a Group C car again,” said Derek after qualifying. “Practice was hindered by a silly problem – the mirrors wouldn’t stay in place, and you do need them at 200mph around here. The car feels very good but this type of long-tail body, with very low downforce, isn’t ideal for the track as it is today.”
After qualifying, held in dry conditions, the front row of the grid was held by the two silver Mercedes-Benz cars of Gareth Evans and Bob Berridge, with Derek well back on the tenth row of the strong, 31-car field.
The race, on the Saturday morning, was held in heavy rain and from the start Bob Berridge pulled away impressively, with only the Lancia LC2 of Roger Wills able to stay in touch with the flying Berridge. As these two pulled out a massive lead on the first lap, chaos reigned further down the field. Several cars were involved in a spinning incident at the Ford chicane before the race even started and the grid order was greatly changed as the bulk of the field got up to speed on the main straight.
Suddenly there was contact at very high speed before the first chicane and two cars, the Spice of Mike Donovan and the Tiga of Alain Schlesinger, were flung at the barriers very hard. There were no serious injuries but with wrecked cars and a badly damaged barrier, the safety car was brought out instantly.
In that short space of time, less than half a lap, Derek Bell had climbed from 20th to 12th place but now he had to hold station in the crocodile of cars for the next three laps, during which the rain continued to fall – and his windscreen wiper packed up.
Racing resumed on lap five and again Berridge pulled away rapidly, chased by Roger Wills in his Lancia. When the race finished, two laps later, the pair of them were almost a minute ahead of the third-placed Gareth Evans in the other Mercedes.
Meanwhile, Derek Bell had pressed gamely on, obviously trying hard despite a severe lack of visibility, to finish 13th. After the race, he said, “I’m staggered at how well the car went in the race, despite the long, low-downforce tail. I was able to catch cars up but overtaking was very difficult with such poor visibility. My car was a bit twitchy in places but those were the worst conditions I’ve ever known here. I did go off once, in the Dunlop chicane, because I just could not see where I was. But it was great to drive a Group C again and, yes, I really enjoyed it.”