Le Mans, 3 May 2002.Five times Le Mans winner and Bentley Motors consultant Derek Bell will tomorrow be named as Honoured Citizen of Le Mans. This unique award is within the gift of the Mayor of Le Mans and is awarded to a man who has competed no less than 26 times in the famous 24-hours race. He is only the fourth driver in the 79-year history of the race to be honoured, joining his former team-mate Jacky Ickx, Luigi Chinetti and original Bentley Boy, Sammy Davis.
When he heard the news, Derek was deeply moved by the gesture. 'It took me completely by surprise,' he said, 'and, to be honest, I feel a little bit embarrassed by it. It is such an honour and to receive it after my career at Le Mans is over - I just didn't expect it.
'While I was racing I would collect awards for individual achievements such as winning races, but I feel this, like receiving the MBE, is in recognition of my career as a whole. And when you think of that, and how few drivers ever receive such an accolade, it makes me realise both how lucky I am and also that perhaps I didn't do too badly at the time.'
Derek has driven at Le Mans for all the great teams of the last 30 years. His first race was in 1970, driving a works Ferrari 512S which he followed with a Gulf Porsche 917 the following year. His first win, however, did not come until he drove a Mirage to victory with Jacky Ickx in 1975. Then despite leading the race for 17 hours for Renault in 1977, his next win was not until he teamed up with Ickx and Porsche once more to secure back to back victories in 1981-2. He missed the hat-trick by minutes in 1983, coming home second. His final two victories came in 1986-7, still driving for Porsche though he again narrowly missed the hat-trick and had to settle for second in 1988 when a team-mate ran out of fuel. Derek continued to compete at Le Mans, qualifying on the front row in 1994 and leading the race for hours with his son Justin and Andy Wallace in 1995 before gearbox problems denied them a certain win, relegating them to third at the flag.
It was at Le Mans last year that Derek became a vital member of Team Bentley. Not only was he on hand throughout the race to offer technical and tactical advice, he also performed the role of team ambassador to perfection, spending many hours in front of the cameras and talking to journalists, guests and fans. His great humour, inspirational presence and total dedication to the job showed that though he had rarely driven for British teams in his career, he possesses a full measure of the Bentley Boy spirit. Since Le Mans he has continued to make invaluable contributions not only to the Team, but also to the company.
In his honour, a team of historic Bentleys was gathered by the Bentley Drivers Club and has travelled from England to help celebrate. Those wishing to join them to see the ceremony should make their way to the centre of Le Mans, to the Place du Jet d'Eau, at 4.30pm on Saturday.Published 1 May 2002