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Derek Bell Tells us What It’s Like to Drive Le Mans at 246 MPH. At Night.

« You’re in fifth gear; flat-out in fifth, for one whole minute. It’s quite a long time. And you had time to reflect, and you just look around and you’d look around the car, and you’d almost want to pat it and say ‘Come on, we can win this.’ It was the most uncanny feeling because you were at one with the machine, which you never felt it—to me—at any other track, because you didn’t get time to think about it. »

« We made it neutral so that we didn’t have heroics for twenty-four hours, » Bell remarks on the setup approach to the long-tail 917.

Before Tom Kristensen was dubbed « Mr. Le Mans, » Derek Bell was the rightful owner of that moniker. With three decades of experience at Le Mans, in some of the most impressive machines to ever grace the Circuit de la Sarthe, Bell remains the authority on the subject of endurance racing. He also has a romantic streak a wider than the circuits he drove on, and that helps him when he regales his listeners with stories about those great sportscars; the passion is so thick and palpable you could bottle it.

« I felt that the 962 was just idiot-proof, » he begins, « and you’d go out at the end of qualifying and give it absolute hell—and you had up to 750, 800 horsepower ultimately, with that engine. I mean it was fabulous—just fantastic!« 

The passion flows out of the man by the bucketful, and with so many famous names, marques, and motor races he’s associated with, there’s no shortage of interesting stories. For a man with that sort of skill, humor, and bravery, it makes perfect sense he’s as good a raconteur as he is a driver.

Bell and his chiseled features pose in front of the car which brought him the most success.

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Chris Harris Meets Norbert Singer and Tests a Le Mans-Winning 962

Decked out in the iconic Rothman’s livery, possessing 650 horsepower, and capable of 240 miles an hour, this gleaming Porsche 962 should give Chris Harris plenty of reason to grin. However, between sampling this Le Mans winner and talking to the man who helped create it, it’s not certain which Harris enjoys more. The affable, unassuming man sitting across from Harris is Norbert Singer, a motorsports genius who took some « large steps » toward developing downforce in the days when aerodynamics weren’t well understood.

The Product of Successful Experimentation

Singer was a critical element in the development of most major racing Porsches since the 917. But even compared to that incredible 917-30 and the outrageous power it possessed, the 962 stands above as it was a much more capable machine. In the early eighties, the understanding of downforce was limited, but a series of experiments conducted by Singer eventually led to the 962 producing twice the grip of the 917.

The sliding skirts which sealed the underbody of F1 cars in the early eighties weren’t applicable to the wider 962, and this drove Singer to try funneling air from the sides of the car into its venturi tunnels. Singer also experimented with a Gurney flap at the rear to learn that it had a positive influence on the front end! These discoveries revolutionized the downforce game in the eighties, and likely helped this Porsche enjoy the unrivaled success it had.

The Complete Package

Beyond producing power and grip, Porsche and Singer were obsessed with reliability. First, they sought to make the engine, stretched to a full 3.0-liter, run 24-hours without blowing. Then, making the syncro-mesh gearbox withstand the abuse of running at top-speed, for extended periods of time, in one gear, was another hurdle they had to cross. Yet, they made the gearbox withstand that relentless wave of torque that carried names like Stuck and Bell all the way to an 8,000-rpm redline for a complete day. 

To help harness that torque, they used a spool instead of a limited-slip differential, and yet, the Porsche doesn’t exhibit lots of understeer. Of course, tire technology of the time limited the amount of rear traction, and since going fast on the straights was the priority here, they aimed for maximizing corner-exit speeds. Compared to its rivals, the 962 possessed perhaps the best compromise of abilities for endurance racing.

While it wasn’t always the fastest car throughout its extended career, it could compensate with its breadth of ability. Not only was the 962 quick, it had the robustness to carry it the distance, a surprisingly friendly character, and a soundtrack to die for. Underneath all the popping and chirping and the baritone bellow of the flat-six, you can hear Harris giggling.

Perhaps the innovations associated with this 962 is what makes it shine, or perhaps it’s the turn-key usability. Maybe its those enviable good looks. Whatever the reason, it seems to have left all of those associated with it completely smitten.

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Porsche’s Top 5 Motorsport Models With Derek Bell

Who better to tell the history of Porsche competition cars than Derek Bell? Of his five Le Mans wins, four were in Porsches. Of his ten podium finishes at Le Mans, eight were in Porsches. He’s competed in countless classes, and shared cars with everyone from Jacky Ickx and James Hunt to his son, Justin. Critically, Bell’s career spanned from Porsche’s first endurance racing successes, through its period of invincibility in the 1980s. In competition he’s driven 917s, 962s, the 936, and he’s helmed historic Porsches off-track. Few people know more about wringing the neck of a Porsche racecar.

Amusingly, this Top 5 seems to have been picked more by Porsche than Derek himself. In his words, the 962c is his real number one, though for the purposes of the video the mighty 962 ranks #2. Pretty surprising for a car that won Porsche no fewer than 21 Constructor’s Championships in various series around the world.

The other Porsches in the ranking should come as no surprise, though the particular chassis chosen for the video are interesting on their own. The Porsche 904 GTS featured in the video, for example, was Ferdinand Alexander Porsche’s personal car. This particular 904 is one of the first 904/6 variants, which is powered by a 911 flat-six rather than the quad-cam 718 RSK flat-four.

I'm not sure what we enjoyed more, the car choices or Derek and the girl's period correct wardrobe changes

The 917 shown is also an interesting piece. Though it is painted as the 1970 Le Mans winner, 917-003, it is actually the first 917 built. 917-001 resides in the Porsche collection in this livery, as the actual 1970 winner has been in private collections since the 1980s.

Thanks to Derek’s narration, this video lacks the odd syntax that occasionally plagues the Porsche Top 5 series. Hopefully Porsche sticks to this direction in the future, as these videos are much more interesting when colored by the opinions of respected experts [not to mention the period costumes for both Derek and the Grid Girls].

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A journey through time with motorsport legend Derek Bell

In the second episode of the ‘Porsche Top 5’ YouTube series, former racing driver Derek Bell takes a journey through time to explore five decades of sports car history.

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Porsche releases new C4 GTS British Legends edition

Porsche Cars Great Britain has revealed a special 991.2 C4 GTS British Legends Edition 911 to celebrate the achievements at La Sarthe of Brit Drivers Richard Attwood, Derek Bell and Nick Tandy. Available immediately in one of three colour combinations evoking the famous Porsche livery of each driver’s period winning car, this special GTS has been developed with the Porsche Exclusive Manufaktur department for the UK market only.

Attwood, Bell and Tandy have all had a direct hand in choosing the spec of the car too, with the C4 version of the current 991.2 GTS chosen to evoke the all-wheel-drive layout of the current 919 e-hybrid piloted by Tandy in the World Endurance Championship. It is also the fastest 911 in the current Carrera range. Alcantara and carbon trim provides a direct link to the cockpit of the racing cars each driver successfully pedalled to the top step of the podium at Le Mans, while a comprehensive standard specification including Sports Chromo Pack and Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control further enhances the car’s motorsporting aspirations. A choice of either seven-speed manual or PDK transmissions is available.

Though the spec of each British Legends car is identical from a technical aspect, the three variants are all distinguishable by their liveries, with the Attwood car finished in Guards red with black centre-lock wheels to evoke the Salzburg livery of his 1970 Le Mans-winning 917, the Bell GTS finished in Sapphire blue metallic to evoke his 956’s Rothmans livery, while the Tandy car is finished in Carrera white metallic which of course honours the appearance of his 919 hybrid from his 2015 triumph. All versions then carry small side decals featuring the iconic number of each driver’s Le Mans conquering car, with the driver’s signature printed on a discreet plaque mounted aft of each car’s B-pillar.

Generously specced and unique in their appearance, these cars offer a rare opportunity for motorsporting aficionados to suitably honour their most admired Brit racing driver from Porsche’s hallowed works roster. However, theres a high price for such admiration, as the GTS British Legends editions are available from £122,376, slightly more than new 911 Turbo money. The cars aren’t part of a numbered production run but Porsche GB says the number available will be small, Total 911 estimating this to be around one example per Porsche Centre.

 

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