Derek Bell hints at Group C return ahead of Top Gear Live appearance
A familiar figure at Goodwood, Derek Bell is about to make his debut at an altogether less genteel motoring event this week: Top Gear Live at London's Excel. But fear not, Britain's greatest Le Mans driver isn't about to start playing car football with Jeremy Clarkson; instead he will be one of the star attractions at a Gala event on the opening night of the show to mark the 40th anniversary of the Steve McQueen movie, Le Mans.
As well as Bell, guests will be joined by Chad McQueen, son of the late Steve, and David Piper, as they reminisce on the making of a film that realised McQueen's dream: to create the best, most realistic film about motorsport ever.
So why haven't we seen the five times Le Mans winner before on our screens rubbing shoulders with Jezza and the lads? Surely, he would be an ideal candidate for the 'star in a reasonably priced car' and a spin around The Stig's turf?
"That's a nice thought but the truth is nobody's thought of asking me," he told Autoblog, adding: "Perhaps if I'd been in Formula One instead. Of course, I was for a bit but that's not where I made my name. Anyway, I'm thrilled to be part of Top Gear Live."
As he says, Bell did race in F1 early in his career and had the opportunity to join Brabham but instead he stuck with sportscars and enjoyed a 25-year career that netted him numerous victories, including those five wins at the famous 24 Hours.
Before the first of those victories at Le Mans, Bell was a leading player in the film of the same name when he was picked as one of the drivers used by McQueen to shoot 'race' footage in the months following the 1970 Le Mans. Bell had raced at the 24 Hours for the first time that year with the Ferrari works team. That experience had been a tough introduction to the race as Bell admits and in his autobiography My Racing Life, he described the place as 'full of foreboding'. After all, this was still a time when deaths in motor racing were not uncommon and Bell had been deeply affected when Bruce McLaren was killed at Goodwood just before that year's Le Mans.
In contrast, the young driver, who was now beginning to forge a successful career in sportscars, found the movie experience with McQueen much more entertaining.
"I'd never done any other film, so it was great to be part of a major movie although we didn't know it was going to be at the time," he says. "It's built up a real cult status since and we drivers gained a lot from it but I think it gave Steve a lift as well.
"Steve respected us as much as we respected him. We weren't all over him, saying how wonderful he was. He was up our shirts a lot but it was because we were racing drivers, he wanted to share our experiences. He was a talented driver, had real ability."
Bell was also struck by the Cooler King's dedication to film-making. Always looking for the better shot, McQueen literally put his life on the line for the most memorable part of the whole Le Mans film-making experience.
One of the sequences of filming involved Bell and Jo Siffert racing towards White House. Their first run went well but they were asked to do it again and when they came through a second time, driving 'balls out' in Bell's words, there on the track was a camera with a body lying behind it – McQueen.
"It was outstanding, there was Steve lying on the ground in the road just inches from where we drove past – incredible. He did that for about five seconds of footage with us racing past at 150-160mph."
Bell will be talking more about his experiences at Top Gear Live this week but what about a return to the cockpit for this young 70-year-old five-times Le Mans and triple Daytona 24 Hours winner? Group C historics, perhaps?
"Yes, now that is something I would like to do and I hope I can next year. I raced in Group C at the Silverstone Classic a few years ago. They were fantastic cars and very rarely broke.
"Group C is a fantastic part of racing and I would love to do it again. The engineering was strong, Porsche always built brilliant cars."
With the legendary Group C cars returning to Le Mans next year as part of the support package for the 24 Hours, it would be an apposite time for another Le Mans legend to return as well.
Top Gear Live runs from 24-27 November at ExCel, London. For more information on the Gala evening, call 0207 370 8341.