Motor Racing: Bell is compelled to drive all night: Five-times Le Mans winner geared up for what may be his final 24 Hours

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The Independent Online
FOR THE first time in almost a quarter of a century the question gnawed at Derek Bell, not only from his closest friends but from inside: 'Do you really need this?'

This afternoon, on this French plain that is forever part of the Briton's life, 52-year-old Bell will provide the answer when he climbs into his Gulf Racing Kremer Porsche and subjects himself to the rigours of another Le Mans 24 Hour race. Yes, he does need this. Just one more time.

He reasoned: 'The last couple of years have been abysmal for me here but now I have a chance of doing well, my last opportunity of trying for a win. I realise it will be difficult, but yes, I want it.'

The ravages of this tragic motor racing year have examined Bell's competitive desire as no other experience. The prospect of challenging for a record-equalling

sixth victory in this sportscar classic has had to be weighed against the fear of death or serious injury.

'I don't mind admitting that when Ayrton Senna was killed it gave me the screaming ab-dabs,' Bell said. 'He was the greatest driver I'd ever seen. It occurred to me how stupid it would be for me to hurt myself at this stage of my life when I didn't have to.

'But then, to my mind, Ayrton's death, and the death of Roland Ratzenberger, brought the averages to where they should be. We've been cocooned from disaster for so long. So many young people in the sport now don't remember the awful days. I was in the race in which Jimmy Clark was killed. It was a horror show then.

'Someone pushed a book in front of me for my autograph and I was the only one pictured on that page still alive. Recently someone asked me how I felt about going to Le Mans now, after all these terrible accidents. It's come home to people again.

'Of course I've thought about it. I've thought about it long and hard. Le Mans means so much to me but I don't want to be caught out by it and there's still a lot of life to enjoy after racing. I've got to get out when I'm still driving well, and yet I still feel I have plenty to give. I convince myself I can do it.'

Bell would be a popular winner, but sentiment will have no place on the track, into the darkness, and along the tortuous path to tomorrow afternoon's finish.

The usually irreverent Eddie Irvine, underwhelmed by the world of Formula One, is a reluctant convert to Le Mans. 'Over the past three years my attitude to it has changed completely,' the 28-year-old Ulsterman said.

'When I first came I hoped I'd be out after an hour, pick up my money and go.

'But it's great. I love it. Everything about Le Mans is totally different. Formula One is ferocious, but here there's more time for everything. You can be a couple of laps down and still have a chance. The night and day thing, the team effort, it's just got a tremendous feel to it.'

Following the demise of the world championship and the

sportscar dinosaurs, the Le Mans organisers have introduced handicapping measures designed to provide a level playing field for three categories of entrants.

Porsche are here in force, with the Courage Team expected to be in the forefront of the battle.

There are other legendary, evocative names, such as Ferrari and Lotus, and there are the Japanese names: Honda, Nissan and Mazda.

So, is this 24th effort really the last for Bell? 'Yes, certainly in a potentially winning car,' he says. 'Now, that's not to say that if something new came along. . . '

LE MANS 24 HOUR RACE Leading final qualifying positions: 1 H Pescarolo, A Ferte, F Lagorce (Fr) Courage-Porsche C32 LM 3min 51.05sec; 2 D Bell, R Donovan (GB), J Lassig (Ger) Porsche 962 Kremer 3:51.75; 3 P Petit, M Rostan, P Gonin (Fr) WR-Peugeot Turbo LMP 93 3:52.58; 4 E Irvine (GB), M Martini (It), J Krosnoff (US) Toyota Turbo Nippondenso 3:53.01; 5 H Stuck (Ger), T Boutsen (Bel), D Sullivan (US) Porsche 962 LM Dauer 3:53.71; 6 P-H Rapahanel, P Fabre, L Robert (Fr) Courage-Porsche C32 LM 3:54.25; 7 Y Dalmas (Fr), H Haywood (US), M Baldi (It) Porsche 962 LM Dauer 3:54.85; 8 S Andskar (Swe), G Fouche (Zim), B Wollek (Fr) Toyota 3:55.02; 9 S Millen, J O'Connel, J Worton (US) Nissan 3:57.09; 10 J-F Yvon (Fr), H Regout, J-P Libert (Bel) Peugeot Turbo LMP 93 3:59.94.

Williams fuelled speculation that Nigel Mansell would return to the Formula One team by saying yesterday they would not announce their driver line-up for the French Grand Prix on 3 July until the week of the race.

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