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The Harrods McLaren At Le Mans, With Derek Bell

A great 'what might have been'

The Harrods-liveried Dave Price-run McLaren F1 GTR has become such an iconic race car that you could be forgiven for thinking that it won the 1995 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours. It didn’t, it finished third.

Driven by Andy Wallace and the father-son duo of Derek and Justin Bell, it crossed the line two laps off the winning #59 Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing McLaren F1 GTR (the factory test car run by Lanzante) of Yannick Dalmas, Masanori Sekiya and JJ Lehto which stormed to victory after 298 laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe in treacherous conditions. The victory is the stuff of legend for those who work at Woking, it’s a result that did so much to prove the brand’s credibility beyond Formula One in a post-Bruce McLaren world.

For the brand it was somewhat of a Porsche-style victory with F1 GTRs, on their debut run at Le Mans, finishing 1-2-3-4 in the LMGT1 category, winning the race overall and occupying four of the top five spots in the final classification.

But it was by no means expected. In fact, had it not rained the GT1 cars would likely have been beaten handily by the World Sports Car (open-top) class cars. The best of the WSC entries, the Mario Andretti-led, Porsche-powered Courage finished just a lap down by the end of the race, despite losing five laps (and 29 minutes) to an incident which saw Andretti hit the barriers at the Porsche Curves while navigating traffic.

Instead of a famous win for McLaren, it could easily have been a memorable first overall victory for Andretti, Bob Wollek and plucky French constructor Courage and a second win for 1993 winner Eric Helary. But they would have to settle for a class win and an overall podium spot on this occasion.

Trailing the winning F1 GTR and the factory Courage was eventually aforementioned Mach One Racing (Harrods) #51 McLaren, which after 16 hours of rain looked poised to deliver a historic sixth victory at the event for a 53-year-old Derek Bell. At the time, before Tom Kristensen emerged, it would have tied him with Jacky Ickx for a record six Le Mans wins, and further established his spot on sportscar racing’s Mount Rushmore.

It would have also provided Derek with an unforgettable win with his son, and Andy Wallace a second trip to the winner’s step off the podium, adding to his 1988 triumph with Jaguar.

What’s remarkable about all this, as Derek reflected in conversation with DSC, is that he wasn’t supposed to drive at Le Mans that year. He hadn’t planned to and didn’t want to, yet it turned out to be one of the more significant races of his career.

“It was Justin’s idea,” he said. “After I finished sixth in the open cockpit Spyder K8 in 1994 I really thought that was my last race. I said to my manager David Mills, ‘do not let me do that again!’ I hated being so tired. I never slept at Le Mans. So I’d retired from Le Mans by the end of 1994 in my own mind.

“Then Justin was driving with Andy Wallace in the GT stuff in the Harrods McLaren. Four weeks before Le Mans, he said: ‘Hey dad, by the way, you’re driving with us at Le Mans’. And I thought ‘oh god, here we go…'”

While he wasn’t one to run great distances every day or lift weights at a gym religiously, Derek always wanted to be in tip-top shape for Le Mans. He would play rugby, squash, all sorts of sports to keep himself physically and mentally ready for such a challenge.

On this occasion though, he was thrown into it with little notice and as a result, was worried about going in.

“It was a strange thing because normally at Christmas I’d know I was doing Le Mans the next year,” he said. “I would ensure I was in the right frame of mind by January, get really fit and be ready. I was never paranoid about fitness, but I did what I could so I was in reasonable shape.

“That year I went to Le Mans with a few weeks warning, and for the first time in my life, I realised I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for it. I don’t need to pace around reading a book or a bible, but I do like to know I’m doing it far in advance, on January 1st.

“You want to do your best, and you can’t unless you’re in perfect shape. But we went to do Le Mans and it was just fantastic. The car was good, we didn’t think we would win because the components in the transmission were unreliable after five hours of any race. I thought we’d be out by midnight…

“As luck would have it though, it bucketed down and by Sunday morning we were leading the race. I was so impressed by Andy, who I knew well, and Justin, for driving as they did in those conditions.”

And the conditions really were horrible. The rain was torrential and lasted from the second hour through to Sunday morning. It was relentless, and made for a race that was littered with incidents and saw 25 cars retire, three end up unclassified and only 20 cars officially named as finishers.

For the McLaren teams though, the rain meant their short-tailed F1s had a shot at victory, the weather being a leveller against the faster prototypes. The slower pace to the race also meant that the F1 GTR’s reliability woes (its gearbox was a real weakness) were less of a factor.

“It was a true challenge and a race which had some of the weirdest moments of my career,” Derek Bell said.

“I remember a pit stop during the night. The door opened, I leapt out to let the next driver gets in, and in that case, it was Justin. It was something like 2 am and he looked at me with a very drawn face for a 23-year-old. He said ‘tell me dad’, asking for me to brief him for 10 seconds. It was sheets of water and I had no idea what to say to this young kid who was pleading with me. I just looked at him and walked away.

“It was terrifying, I couldn’t help him at all, the conditions were so bad. He’d have to find out himself, If I’d have told him that the Mulsanne kink was terribly wet, it probably wouldn’t be by the time he got there. It was unpredictable.

“I remember seeing him after he got out in the motorhome, his eyes were like two poached eggs. I said ‘what the hell? You’re supposed to be out there and you’ve only done 40 minutes?’ He said: ‘Dad, I’ve just terrified myself.’

“He had a spin, he told me where it was just after Arnage. You couldn’t see the track from the grass there because it was all black and underwater. The car looped and he spooked himself. If you spin off in the rain at Le Mans, it’s so fast in most places that it puts the fear of God into you.

“His lap times dropped as a result and they decided to keep him out of the car for five hours which was a good move. He got back in daylight and I heard from one of the guys that it was an inspired session, and made up for the night when he didn’t complete two of his stints. It was such a battle.”

When the rain stopped on Sunday morning, the track dried and set up a game of cat and mouse between the front-runners.

The Harrods McLaren emerged the favourite with the sun rising, despite suffering from minor mechanical woes (a throttle cable support bracket had to be mended early on), with the #59 McLaren and the Wollek, Andretti, Dalmas Courage in hot pursuit.

After leading the race briefly on Saturday evening, the Harrods McLaren inherited the lead again at 4 am after the #49 West Competition McLaren of John Nielsen, Jochen Mass and Dr Thomas Bscher (who was named the third driver but didn’t race) retired from the lead with a clutch issue and spent much of the remaining hours out front.

It was a tug of war between the two leading F1s though, they traded the lead throughout Sunday morning until Andy Wallace stalled leaving the pits and lost the lead for the final time at the end of Hour 22 while struggling with a gearbox issue.

Once Wallace returned to the action for the final push Andretti had clambered back onto the same lap and eventually snatched second off Wallace in the final hour.

“It was amazing that we were put together like that, and that I could experience so many emotions,” Derek Bell concluded. “At the end of the day that was the most amazing thing. It was the most memorable race of my life, to finish third on Fathers Day with my son and of course Andy who I adore. Can you imagine just doing Le Mans with your son, let alone leading it?

“It was a tough race, and you ask Gordon Murray today and he’d tell you that the race was ours, it was cruel that we didn’t win it. But in reality, we knew we couldn’t last once it dried out.”