100 Years of Le Mans


- Derek Bell, Octane columnist and five-time Le Mans winner

In many ways, the 24 Hours of Le Mans came to define my career. The great irony is that, prior to my maiden start in 1970, I actually had no desire to do the race. My heart was originally set on becoming a superstar in single-seaters, and I made my Grand Prix debut with Ferrari in 1968 – but by mid-1969 the team was in disarray and I was let go. As such, I wasn’t all that happy to return to the Scuderia for the 24 Hours a year later.

I was paired with another Le Mans rookie, Ronnie Peterson. We were pretty green about endurance racing, and neither of us was given any guidance. Perhaps unsurprisi­ngly, we didn’t finish… I was disappoint­ed because I’m a competitiv­e person, but I didn’t think much about it afterwards. And I certainly never imagined that it would be the first of 26 starts, nor that I would soon fall in love with the race.

For 1971 I was armed with a Porsche 917L. Guiding it along the Mulsanne Straight at 246mph was an unbelievab­le experience, and bit by bit I realised I knew where I wanted to be in June. My first victory came in 1975, when I shared a Mirage GR8 with my dear friend Jacky Ickx. We found ourselves back on the top step of the podium in 1981 and 1982, by which time I was signed on as a full-time Porsche works driver and the Group C era had dawned. I won again in 1986 alongside my mate Hans-Joachim Stuck, and in 1987 with the much-missed Al Holbert.

Obviously, there were other occasions when I think I perhaps should have won – but on balance I think I did alright. And I remember my third-place finish in 1995 as fondly as any of my wins, because that year I shared a car, the Harrods McLaren

F1, with Andy Wallace and my son, Justin.

I have great memories, too, of working on Le Mans with Steve McQueen. The fact that the biggest movie star in the world chose to make a film about the 24 Hours speaks volumes about the pull of a race that remains, 100 years after its first running, one of the greatest sporting events in the world.

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