A Formula 1 debut in a Ferrari at Monza sounds fanciful, yet Derek Bell did just that. He recalls an extraordinary experience, including thinking his team-mate was dead…
Imagine that you are making our Formula 1 race debut. Imagine too that this is in the Italian Grand Prix, in the pressure cooker of Monza. And you’re in a Ferrari.
And Monza is fearsome – without chicanes it’s a sheer cauldron of speed and slipstreaming. Also there’s not much to keep you out of the trees if you get it wrong. It is 1968; a year already notorious for driver fatalities.
Sounds like something from fiction? Well for Derek Bell it is sober history, almost exactly 50 years ago. With the latest Italian Grand Prix at storied Monza this weekend Bell looks back to his debut with Peter Windsor on Motorsport.TV on the video player below.
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‘You can imagine that place,’ Bells recalls, ‘if you're going to start Formula 1 or if that's the only race you're going to do in your life you’ve got to go to Monza.
‘Monza is something different. It’s the high speed; it’s the atmosphere of the Autodrome; the history; the oval and all the things that are part of that, and the tifosi as well.’
His race only lasted a few laps. ‘I had a good start. I didn't lose a position, I was in the top six or seven, and as I came down into the Lesmos on lap six or seven suddenly the engine stopped and that was it.’
It gave him though a front row view of a harrowing accident for his team-mate Chris Amon – which looked certain that it would add to the year’s long line of deaths in action.
‘Chris is in the Ferrari in third place and as he went by literally past where I was suddenly it shot round and he went across the road and backwards in the guardrail and disappeared into the bushes, going over backwards.
‘And I went "oh bugger", now my team-mate dies. I’d had Jimmy [Clark] three months before, four months before, and here I am watching my team-mate go.'
In that moment Bell considered quitting. ‘I thought to myself well at least I'll be able to tell my son Justin, “your dad got into Formula 1, did his first Grand Prix and quit, but at least I was at Ferrari and not many can say that”.
‘Then suddenly Chris walks up and he’s dusting all the crap off [himself]! And I looked at him and said, “how the hell did that happen, you were upside down when you went?” “No,” he said, “I landed on my wheels on the other side.”
‘We went to the factory the next day and Chris's car [had] just a slight kink in the body by your right knee. That’s the only real damage.’
Bell wouldn’t make much mark on F1 – he’d only race one more time for Ferrari and indeed only ever took one world championship point. Instead would have much success in sportscar racing including winning the Le Mans 24 Hour race five times.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.