x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A friendship with Steve McQueen forged on the road of Le Mans

Forty years on from the Le Mans film, Matt Majendie talks to racer Derek Bell about Steve McQueen.

Derek Bell (left) and Steve McQueen on the set of director Lee H Katzin's film Le Mans which was released in 1971. Courtesy Michael Keyser
Derek Bell (left) and Steve McQueen on the set of director Lee H Katzin's film Le Mans which was released in 1971. Courtesy Michael Keyser

On Thursday, the great and good of the motorsport world will gather in London to mark the 40th anniversary of the Le Mans film.

In the intervening four decades since it hit the silver screen, it has taken on something of a cult following thanks, in part, to the realism of the racing and to the actor Steve McQueen, the film's star attraction.

At the anniversary meal, McQueen's son Chad will be the guest of honour, along with two of the drivers who starred alongside McQueen in the film: Derek Bell and David Piper.

Both on and off the screen, Bell's career has been synonymous with Le Mans. He raced the event 26 times in all and was a five-time winner, and, during filming, became close friends with McQueen, who passed away 31 years ago following an operation to remove tumours in his neck and abdomen.

The 70-year old recalls the filming as though it was yesterday. "What I like is that, 40 years on, the film stands the test of time for whatever reason," he says. "I don't know why. For me, it's probably down to the fact it's Steve McQueen. When you think about it, he was the absolute top actor at that time.

"But when I first met him he told me, 'I'm not a bloody actor, I'm making a movie about car racing,' and that's exactly what he did. He managed to grasp it just right and somehow it's emerged with this cult following. I think it's astonishing."

Back when it was being filmed, Bell was far from a household name. He had occasional forays in Formula One and his illustrious Le Mans career had barely begun.

Intriguingly, he was not all that impressed with the film when it first came out. "The problem was that we drivers gathered together each evening with Steve to watch the rushes from that day, so we'd already seen it all, and it was such great fun," he recalls.

Bell particularly relished pushing McQueen to the limit during the racing scenes along with Jo Siffert, who was to lose his life in a racing accident the year the film came out.

"Steve loved driving cars and, on reflection, he was a lot better than any of us drivers gave him credit for and I think we expected too much of him," says Bell.

"I remember Jo Siffert and I getting him sandwiched between our cars at 150mph (241kph). To his credit, he didn't bail out - he just went for it, which was gutsy. After four or five runs like that, Steve was as white as a sheet and I remember him saying, 'I'm going to get you b******* back'.

"So I remember he loved his bikes - that was his real passion - and one day we took off on the sand dunes at Le Mans, and there was some quarry out there. Anyway, Steve charged up some 50 to 100ft hill, disappeared over it and then came back down. He said to me, 'Derek, you can take it at full tilt, no problem'.

"So I roared up the top and, as I got to the top, I realised I'd been had. All there was below me was a huge rubbish tip. I quite literally landed in a s*** heap thanks to him. When I finally returned, he was bent over double laughing his head off. To be fair, he'd got me back."

Bell and McQueen hit it off to such an extent that they shared a house together with their young families during filming.

"My son Justin must have been about four or five years old while Chad was probably about 10," he says, "and living altogether in that house was just so much fun. Steve just enjoyed life. There was no facade to him, he was very down to earth and just like, 'hello, I'm Steve' whenever he met anyone. He was great."

Despite all the fun, the filming had some precarious moments, though. Bell recalls a time of driving with a 36kg camera on board and nearly flipping the car he was driving as the additional weight sent him into dangerous spins while filming close to other fast cars.

Additionally, he endured one of his worst crashes while filming, which left him badly burnt.

"It wasn't a good one as I got burnt," he says. "But it certainly wasn't the worst of my career. That was probably in Daytona in 1990 in a Porsche, when I remember going around the banking, then a tyre burst or something happened, and the car spun and flipped itself. I landed on the roof and I could hear and smell the trickle of petrol. Then I passed out and I remember coming around when someone asked if I was all right."

Back to filming Le Mans and other near tragedies, the most notable of which came during a filming sequence in which Bell and Siffert were supposed to be vying for track supremacy.

"We were doing this sequence at about 140/150mph and each time we came over the hill the camera was in a different place and there was this banking we'd just cut across," recalls Bell.

"Anyway, one time Jo and I came over the top and suddenly there wasn't just a camera there anymore, but a person lying down on the road holding it. We narrowly avoided this guy and I remember Jo went crazy afterwards. Quite rightly, he was saying, 'this isn't safe' to the director and 'get me Steve'.

"After a bit Steve comes sauntering along and says, 'what's the problem?' and Jo goes on about this guy in the road and Steve was like, 'oh yeah, that was me'. It was both ludicrous and hilarious. Jo's face was a picture."

The friendship founded on set lasted long after the camera crew had packed up, with the pair staying in touch for years afterwards.

"He used to scrawl these notes to me and put them in the post," he adds. "It's a shame I never kept them as a memento but I didn't think much of it at the time back in '72, '73 and '74 as it was just two friends keeping in touch.

"I remember when he married the actress Ali MacGraw, I went for dinner with them in Los Angeles. At the time, Steve was a real superstar, as was she, but it seemed totally normal to be going for dinner with them."

Bell, though, has one regret when it comes to his relationship with McQueen.

"I'd been away racing and I got this message saying that Steve had rang and would I phone him back," he says. "What's terrible is that I didn't phone him back. I felt so bad as it was only a few weeks later that he died. I didn't know about his ill health so I have that one great regret with him but, sadly, such is life."

Even following McQueen's death, Le Mans continued to be special for Bell although, interestingly, the British racer never aspired to compete in the 24 Hours race.

"For me, the aim was always Formula One, but it's funny how these things happen," he says.

"And I'm very grateful as I had some very special times at Le Mans. There was the filming but probably the greatest was in 1995 when I finished on the podium in third with my son. That was a particularly special moment."

In fact, the two standout endurance races were not so much the wins as the ones where he just missed out.

"The other special one was in 1983 where Jacky Ickx and I finished second by just 26 seconds. That is unquestionably the toughest race I've ever done. Our 956 came to a complete halt at Mulsanne Corner, which dropped us back to second.

"We got going again and heard that the leader's water temperatures had gone off the clock. They were spluttering to the finish line. Another half a lap and we would have won, but what a great race."

As one of the most successful racers in Le Mans history, Bell will forever be synonymous with the prestigious race, as will McQueen, 40 years on from their filming together.