Motor racing: Bell still laments the old Le Mans magic

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN viewers to the Canadian Grand Prix will have to be understanding if the English commentator lapses into romantic illusions to a race on the other side of the Atlantic.

There again, Derek Bell, five-times winner of the Le Mans 24-hour sportscar classic, just might tell them what he's not missing: "That awful feeling when you come into the pits in the middle of the night and realise you're not even half way through it."

Pain and exhilaration are co-drivers at Le Mans, and Bell is better acquainted with them then most. At the age of 56 he could be expected to conclude the latter no longer compensates for the former.

And yet he still yearns for a return to those French fields, explaining only the absence of viable opportunity and his television commitments steered him away this year.

"You can be sure I'll be keeping an eye on what's happening at Le Mans, particularly as my son is in it," he said. "But it's been so much a part of my life and I hope it will still be part of my life."

Le Mans remains for many a mysterious obsession, a masochistic ritual unconnected to the real world of sport. Bell laments the passing of still more daunting times, before they broke up the fabled Mulsanne Straight, but he is still held by its hypnotic appeal.

"You do go through that "what am I doing it?" phase sometimes. It can be hard when you're running, two hours at a time, no where near anybody. That's when it becomes tiring.

"I don't think Le Mans can ever be as good as it was because it changed when they put those chicanes in. The adrenaline really started pumping when you'd got that four mile straight to contend with.

"But the adrenaline will still pump for the guys now, especially going down to Indianapolis. It's still 230mph stuff approaching that corner. I always felt this was the most dangerous part of the circuit. I hate to think about it, but there could be a nasty accident there one of these days."

Twenty seven former Grand Prix drivers are among the customary veteran brigade entered this year, but here, too, Bell sees differences. "People say the characters have gone but of course a lot of the drivers have different attitudes now," he said. "A lot are frustrated Grand Prix drivers, young guys who aren't making it in Formula One.

"When I was younger lots of drivers were getting killed in Formula One and therefore there were more opportunities in Formula One. Now you've got guys going out there in sportscars trying to prove they should be in Formula One."

Justin Bell drives one of the Chrysler Vipers that are favourites to dominate the GT2 class this weekend, but Bell senior suspects another of Le Mans' legendary names will again take overall honours. He predicts victory tomorrow afternoon for Porsche, especially the Joest Porsche team.

"I'm not being very clever in going for them because they've won it for the last two years, but you have to have a good track record at Le Mans and they have it. I know Maclaren won first time out a few years ago but it rained that year and they wouldn't have won if it had been dry." Ex- Formula One man Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson again lead the Joest challenge and Bell believes the combined experience in the cockpit and in the pits, should counter any superior pace in the ranks of the GT1 runners.

The other sports racers look more vulnerable. BMW's alliance with Williams ought to prove formidable given time. This test may have come too soon. Ferarri, buoyed by success at Daytona, are out in force but have little realistic hope, while the Courage Nissan's are striking fear in few of their opponents.

The GT1 Nissan crew from the TWR stable are distinctly more bullish. Caught short first time out last year, they have improved the car and tested extensively in preparation for this one. They also have a strong line-up, which includes John Nielsen, Franck Lagorce, Erik Comas and Jan Lammers.

One man who will rue victory for Nissan is Martin Brundle, who puts down his microphone to make his annual pilgrimage to Le Mans. This year, however, he has parted company with his long time mentor, Tom Walkinshaw and drives for Toyota.

"I don't think Nissan will do it," Brundle said. "If we keep going we'll be right there, I'm sure. I'm in good shape, I'm quick and I'm up for it. We can win this." At 39, Brundle is a relative youngster in this event. Bell emphasises with his enthusiasm.

"There's nothing else like it," Bell said. "If I can get a good car and a proper programme together to prepare for next year, I'd like to do it again. Not to get the sixth win and equal the record, but to compete with the front runners. I love racing and I love Le Mans."