Derek has always been an immensely popular personality on the international motor racing scene, but his F1 association with the works McLaren team amounted to just a single outing at the wheel of the unloved four-wheel-drive M9 in the 1969 British GP at Silverstone.
A graduate of the rough-and-tumble of 1-litre Formula 3 during the mind-1960s, Derek moved up into F2 for the 1968 season driving a Brabham BT23C fielded by his family’s Church Farm Racing team from Sussex. Some initially promisining drives earned him an offer from Ferrari to race first in F2, and later that same season, in F1. Not many British drivers can claim to have made their F1 world championship debut in the Italian GP at Monza, but that’s what Bell did in 1968. Disappointingly, he caught Maranello on something of a downswing and was out of a drive by the start of the following season.
The outing at Silverstone in the McLaren M9 proved a waste of time for all concerned. Bell retired after a handful of laps and McLaren scrapped any further development plans it might have had for the project. Yet that would not be the end of Derek’s association with McLaren. In 1971 he would have several races in a M8F fielded by privateer Sid Taylor in rounds of the Interserie championship – an effort to bring Can-Am style sports car racing to Europe – and then in 1995 he finished third at Le Mans sharing the Dave Price-prepared Harrods McLaren F1™-GTR with his son Justin and Andy Wallace.
Remembers Derek: “There was a slight shadow on the horizon even before the race began as McLaren advised its customers that there was a beneficial piece of optional equipment available to make sure the cars would last the 24-hour grind with no problems. This was an upgraded specification heavy duty gearbox. McLaren recommended that if its customers wanted to be sure of tackling Le Mans successfully then they would find this investment worthwhile.
“Yet we looked strong from the start. About three hours into the contest it began to rain which helped us by taking some of the strain off our ‘standard’ gearbox. I had done the start and after my opening stint I handed over to my son Justin who, much too soon, suddenly appeared in the team caravan with his eyes looking like poached eggs after spinning in the wet during the night, while Andy called in to say that he couldn’t concentrate any longer.
“The conditions had completely spooked them both and I immediately took over. There I was with two young stars and I was the last man standing.
“On Sunday morning I found myself embroiled in an epic battle with J.J. Lehto in the Paul Lanzante-prepared F1 GTR which eventually won the race. At the start of our stint he was 25sec behind me and, being an established top driver of the moment against me in my fifties, it looked as though he wanted to see the Old Man thrashed.
I just ignored my mirrors, got my head down and during that stint pulled out another seven seconds on J.J. which was immensely satisfying. Later the conditions dried out and we had to take it easy with the car’s transmission, finishing third. And I came back the following year to finish sixth with Olivier Grouillard and Andy Wallace again!”