As a child on his family’s farm in Pagham, Derek Bell grew up close enough to Goodwood to be able to hear the roar of the cars as they raced around the track.
But what began as childhood fantasy soon became reality for Derek, as his talent behind the wheel was spotted early on.
And fittingly it all began close to home, at the track he grew up within earshot of. He won his first ever race – in the pouring rain, no less – at the Members’ Meeting at Goodwood on March 13, 1964.
He went on to win five 24 Hour Le Mans races, making him the most successful British driver in the race, the Daytona 24 three times and the World Sportscar Championship twice.
Next month, Derek will be returning to Goodwood for the annual Revival – the three-day celebration of the golden age of motorsport. Every year since 1998 Goodwood has welcomed the biggest names in historic motorsport, with thousands embracing the spirit by turning up in vintage dress.
By 1968 Derek was racing for Ferrari in Formula 1, but his driving career was soon to take a turn towards the race which would bring him his greatest successes.
It was while Bell was making his Le Mans debut in 1970 that Solar Productions, the company of Hollywood star and renowned driving fan Steve McQueen, approached Derek’s friend, Jacques Swaters, a former racing and Ferrari dealer.
Solar wanted to lease Swaters’ Ferrari 512 for the film they were making about the epic race. As Derek recalls: “Jacques said: ‘Yes, but if it is going to be used, I want Derek Bell to drive it because I trust him with it’.
“So that was it – I joined the movie soon afterwards. I had no aspirations to be an actor, but it was wonderful to work on the movie and to be based in France at Le Mans, which became my second home.”
Bell went on to compete at Le Mans 26 times in 27 years, winning in 1975, ’81, ’82, ’86 and ’87.
When Bell won his first Le Mans in 1975, it confirmed his belief that sportscars were the way to go for him.
“It was absolutely spectacular,” he says of the win. “I never had a dream to win Le Mans, my dream was to be a Formula 1 driver – I think it was for all of us, and I think it still is.
“Whatever one likes to say, I still believe they are the best drivers in the world – the ultimate. And then we go sideways into sportscars because it is a different talent and a different style of driving.”
For Bell, the relationship between the team-mates in these endurance races was key. As with Jacky Ickx, who shared his first three Le Mans victories.
“It was always good with Jacky, we’re still close now and go out of our way to see each other.
“It was a great team effort, and when I was with Jacky, or [Hans-Joachim] Stuck and Al Holbert [his team-mates for the fourth and fifth wins], or my son Justin with Andy Wallace when we came third, we all had a great respect for each other and we knew each other’s strengths and we weren’t about to be bloody idiots and let the other person down.”
During that era of motor-racing there was a high rate of attrition, and numerous fatalities. Derek believes this closeness to death strengthened the respect and camaraderie between the drivers.
“There’s this unique aspect, which you don’t have in any other sport, apart from motorcycling, where death is a major player - we have a great respect for those who survived and obviously great respect for those who didn’t.”
Goodwood Revival takes place from September 13-15. Adult tickets cost £59 for Friday, or £79 each for Saturday or Sunday. Three-day passes are £188. Visit: www.goodwood.com/motorsport/goodwood-revival/