Derek Bell On What It Was Like To Drive The Porsche 718 Around The Targa Florio
Photography by Rosario Liberti
It’s a bit surreal that we’ve been fortunate enough to spend as much time with Le Mans legend Derek Bell as we have. Getting to know him as the star of our Porsche 718 film has been, without question, one of the most delightful perks to the job. A few days after we wrapped shooting on the streets of the Targa Florio, we sat down with him to talk about what it was like to drive the track in the 1960 race-winning Type-718 RS 60*, and how his inaugural Petrolicious filming experience went.
Ted Gushue: What was your perception of the Porsche 718 as you were coming up in racing?
Derek Bell: In all honesty, it was before my time. I was coming up in ’64 in Formula 1, it was the only thing I aspired to as a young driver. Sports cars were great and all, and I had heard of the Targa Florio, but I had no knowledge of it winning at the time. That’s largely because the media back then around our sport was so terrible. You’d be lucky to catch a little highlight after a sports highlight on television. I never even got to see the running of the Targa Florio because it was done in 1972.
TG: When were you first aware of the Targa Florio?
DB: Well, really, it was in 1971 when I was on the Gulf Porsche team, racing the 917. Targa came middle of the year, and they’d always said that I wasn’t going to do it. That was the last year that Porsche were going to contest it as a factory team, in ’71, and there was no point in me going out there, thrashing a 914-6 around the island for three weeks to get to know the 70 km (44 mile) track.
They would have rather put somebody in who’d done it before, who had obviously quite naturally settled into the track. Didn’t make much sense for me to go and try and kill myself training for a race I was only going to do once. That’s the thing about the Targa: it’s so dangerous that you’d kill yourself, even in training. No wonder they stopped in ’72.
The closest I ever got was driving from Stuttgart to Monza in a 914-6, which had to be quite similar to the Targa, actually.
TG: So when you actually got into the 1960 Porsche RS-60, what was your experience like?
DB: Well, you have to realize that I’ve seen the car for years at the museums. I knew what it looked like, I always loved it. But to see it sitting there behind the truck on the street in Sicily was spectacular. When you see it next to the new 718 Boxster, when you see how small it really is—for example when I get in it, it only comes up to just above my knees.
Then you clamber into this little car, which is just still so magnificently designed. The mechanic was there with it, and he couldn’t imagine that it was going to last the five days of shooting without some work on it, and of course it did, beautifully. Day after day of the video shoot, using it like a street car, the drivability was just sublime. Such a perfectly-balanced little car. The driveability was amazing. So tidy, so neat. Perfect handling, very neutral handling.
It’s incredible to believe that a week prior, I was driving a 1300 horsepower supercar round a track, and then I’m in this tiny car having just as good of a time with only 180 around the Targa Florio streets. How far—yet how not very far—we’ve come.
TG: What was it like to actually drive on the streets of the Targa Florio?
DB: We were allowed to drive 3-4 mile sections at times. There are big sections of the track which just don’t exist anymore. When you think about all of the little cars that screamed around that track, with those tortuous, bumpy little corners, it’s quite remarkable, actually. It’s an amazing track, and as you’re driving it you realize what an amazing test of endurance it was, physically. It wasn’t a 24 hour race like Le Mans, which is the ultimate, but the harshness on the chassis.
You’re bouncing over drain covers, holes in the road. You have to be so careful. We were there to film, and I imagine the track is in much better shape today, but even still, it was hard on you at any real speed. I just missed a bloody great hole coming out of a turn on what I presumed was the correct line, but the stupid sun was in my eyes, so I very nearly hit this massive pothole. It was an experience. It was hard, but bloody fun.
The scary part about the Targa compared to, say the ’Ring, is that you could come round a turn, break through a tiny stone wall, launch straight off into a valley…and never be found. At least at the Nurburgring you would end up in the trees somewhere nearby if you crashed through a barrier. I imagine the [Targa Florio] race would have been a bit like doing Pikes Peak for 6 hours straight.
TG: What did you think of the new 718 Boxster once you hopped into that?
DB: It’s a magnificent car. Comparing it to the original 718, however, would be like comparing the 918 Hybrid to my 917K at Le Mans. We’ve just come so far over these many years, the level of engineering that these cars have into them is just light years beyond where we were so long ago.
I remember when Porsche loaned me the early Boxster years ago. Maybe 15 years ago. I drove it, and it was a basic entry level car. It was almost like getting into an Austin Healey Sprite. A reasonably-priced car that was very simple. Everything about the 718 Boxster feels like a Porsche. This car is a real sports car.
Thanks to Derek Bell for taking the time to reflect on his experience piloting the Porsche RS 60 that won the Targa Florio with Hans Herrmann at the wheel in 1960. We were lucky enough to have both him and the car on the actual Targa Florio course in Italy, where we brought a piece of motorsport history back to life.
* A note of clarification on Porsche’s Type-718: that number was its model and chassis code, but the car evolved to compete in a number of series—and given different names—until its retirement from racing. The 1960 RS-60 Derek Bell drove differentiated over earlier 718s by a slightly larger engine, reworked windscreen, new rear suspension, and other changes.