Speed king

May 1, 2019

Newcastle-born and Northumberland-bred, Robert Bell has racing in his blood. Simon Rushworth tracked down the nine-times Le Mans veteran and lead driver of McLaren’s in-development Senna GTR race car

It’s an anecdote oozing irony and the paradox isn’t lost on McLaren factory driver and endurance racing specialist Robert Bell. “The moment I knew I was going to be a racing driver, I wasn’t actually the person driving,” recalls the 40-year- old Geordie. “On the morning I was supposed to be sitting one of my GCSEs I was also supposed to be flying out to Ireland to race in a kart.

“The school organised it so that I could sit my exam at 7am – a couple of hours before everyone else – and then one of the teachers drove me to the airport and made sure I didn’t speak to any of my mates before 9am.

“While I was being chaperoned it dawned on me that I was going to be a racing driver. A few months later I had to cut my A Level studies short after signing a contract to race karts in Belgium.” And so the journey began.

Twenty-four years down the road and Robert realises the staff at Morpeth’s King Edward VI school knew better than most where his future lay. “They were very accommodating once I started

to win races and I was getting pulled here, there and everywhere to drive karts,” he adds. “My teachers knew I had potential – it just wasn’t in the classroom!”

That potential has been realised many times over. Robert swiftly moved through motorsport’s notoriously competitive single seater categories before establishing himself as one of the world’s leading endurance racing drivers. For almost a decade his was one of the first names on the Le Mans 24 Hours entry list and the Newcastle-born driver thrived in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of motorsport’s most legendary race.

“I’ve done nine Le Mans races now,” he adds. “It’s the world championships for endurance drivers and it’s the very pinnacle of our sport. It’s one of the biggest sporting events on the planet and it’s the biggest motorsport event of the year – bigger than any of the F1 races. “I’ve come close to winning there. In fact, I’ve done everything but win!

“I love the fact that it’s all about focus and discipline and I’ve never found that side of the race too difficult. The first time I did it I wentnin blind and everything was new. It was an incredible experience to race in front of 350,000 people and be part of a week-long event that takes over a whole town.

“It’s a carnival atmosphere and the toughest thing is not getting caught up in that if you’re there to drive. There are always loads of Brits and Danes there but you get fans from all over the world. As a driver you need to take lots of fluids on board and understand that you need to sleep as and when you can. It’s a very different discipline to anything else I do.

“To compete nine times is some achievement but I’d love to make it a round ten at some point in the future. I think I’ve got another Le Mans in me! I’d do it every year given the chance.”

That Robert won’t be testing himself on the unforgiving Circuit de la Sarthe next month is clearly a source of some frustration. However, 2019 is all about developing one of the most talked about race cars the world has ever seen and that demands the full attention of a focused professional who revels in a role of increasing responsibility.

“McLaren don’t have a car eligible for Le Mans at the moment,” he explains. “It’s something that may or may not be on the agenda in the future. But as a factory driver for McLaren it means I can’t compete in Le Mans this year.

“My focus is twofold. I’m the lead driver on the development team which started work on the McLaren Senna GTR last month and I’m back with Balfe Motorsport competing in the British GT series. We’re racing the McLaren 720S for the first time.”

Or at least that was the plan. An unforeseen electrical fault forced Balfe to withdraw the much-heralded 720S from its first two races at Cheshire’s Oulton Park last month following weeks of positive testing across the globe. As Robert’s rivals were tweaking their GT3 cars ahead of Easter Monday’s opening rounds, he was already homeward bound, determined to return to the fray race-ready and on the pace at Snetterton this month.

“I have a great relationship with Balfe Motorsport and I’m excited to be behind the wheel of the 720S with them this season,” he adds.

“These cars take a little while to build but we’re pleased with what we’ve got. We had two test days at Silverstone at the beginning of April and then went over to Portugal and Spa. But I’d say it will be halfway through the year before we can say it’s a polished product because we’ll only understand the car’s strengths and weaknesses once we’re racing.

“We’ve been testing at just under 300km/h or around 186mph. The 720S could go quicker at somewhere like Bathurst in Australia. But all race cars are geared to the tracks that you’re racing on – there’s no point in building a car that could reach speeds of 250mph because there are no tracks that would allow you to build that kind of speed.

“We know that we’ve got a fast car but you can’t account for what might happen when you’re racing – or even during qualifying!”

As a seasoned endurance racer Robert recognises where the competition will come from during 2019’s British GT series. And he admits: “It gets tougher every year. The other cars are evolving and the other manufacturers are bringing new things to the table. There are upgrades every year and we try to stay on top of what’s happening around us.

“Aston Martin have a new car this year and both Lamborghini and Audi have brought in upgrades to last season’s cars. There was a new Bentley last season and Ferrari are developing a new car for next season.

“In our world we’re up against some big players backed by huge corporations. As the new kids on the block we’re going head to head with the likes of Audi and Mercedes who’ve been developing race cars for years. But meeting that challenge is something that we all enjoy. There’s always evolution in this business and that keeps everyone on their toes.”

As does the ever-present shadow of serious injury…and even worse. “It’s not something that I dwell on,” adds the married father-of-two. “I literally look at what I do as something completely normal. It’s going to work.

“Of course, I’ve had a few crashes and a few scrapes and everyone knows there’s an element of danger when you’re a racing driver. In 2013 a good friend and former team mate was killed at Le Mans.

“He was a Danish lad called Allan Simonsen and we’d raced together for Aston Martin a couple of years earlier. I can’t deny that affected me but ultimately safety is a priority in our sport and it’s getting safer and safer every year.

“I’d never be blasé about it and as a driver I have to be responsible every time I race. Ultimately, the guys who crash every week won’t become professional racing drivers. It’s all about managing risk. We’ve all had the odd crash and it’s a brutal sport in that respect. It’s always in the back of my mind but that’s what makes me the driver I am.”

That driver boasts a global reputation. Hence Robert’s status as lead developer behind the McLaren Senna road car – retailing at a cool £850,000 – and lead driver for the in-development Senna GTR. “The initial run of McLaren Sennas sold out before they’d even been tested,” he adds. “Even before anyone had seen a picture of the car! That’s a real eye-opener for me and, again, it reminds me of the responsibility of my role.

“That’s the road car. It’s since been announced that McLaren will produce a race-ready version called the Senna GTR. I’m the lead driver for that and will be helping to develop the car throughout the year. I suppose it’s another feather in my cap.

“It will be one of the fastest cars in the world on a race track – it’s essentially a McLaren Senna on steroids. It’s a hugely exciting project to be involved with. They’ve restricted the production to 12 cars around the world. We have to get it right.”

Robert joined McLaren in 2011 and swiftly graduated to factory driver status. It’s a move that continues to benefit both the mild- mannered Newcastle Falcons fan and a fledgling manufacturer looking to accelerate beyond its more established rivals.

“Racing is still a large part of what I do and I love it,” adds Robert. “But when you’re asked to develop cars for a manufacturer like McLaren it’s a real honour and I guess it paves the way for my future outside of the driver’s seat.

“I’m not going to be racing cars forever and I realise that. What I do as a factory driver for McLaren, helping to develop their cars, is a glimpse into the future. I believe passionately in the brand and what they’re trying to do on the road and on the race track. The cars are fantastic – McLaren is a young company taking on the bigger fish with confidence.

“We’ve won a lot of races all over the world since I’ve been involved.”

And talking of pride, a penny for the thoughts of Mr and Mrs Bell – Steve and Shirley. Both sons race professionally – Robert’s brother Matt followed his sibling into endurance racing following a serious rugby injury that ended his time with Newcastle Falcons’ Academy – and daughter Alice works in the equestrian industry.

“You don’t realise it at the time but what my parents did for me, Matt and our sister Rosie – who was competing in horse trials from an early age – was incredible,” admits Robert. “At the time it just felt normal. It was mum and dad doing what mums and dads do – ferrying all three of us all over the country and juggling their business at the same time.

“Dad and I would often set off down south from Morpeth on a Friday night and get back in the early hours of Monday morning. He’d be back at work by 7am. Everyone else would have been doing their own thing all weekend – Matt playing rugby and Rosie doing her eventing – and we’d try and catch up at some point during the week!

“I’m a dad now and it’s only really when you become a parent yourself that you realise the sacrifices your own parents make. We still laugh about the time when mum needed a new carpet and dad spent the money on a new kart engine. We didn’t get that carpet for years! But I think they enjoyed watching their children have success and they still do. They were never pushy parents but they were always – and still are – extremely supportive.”

Robert intends to follow suit where six-year-old son Oliver and five-month-old daughter Alice Eve are concerned. “I love being a dad,” he adds. “Of course it can be difficult with my job and I have a very supportive wife in Gill. I was actually due to compete in a 12-hour race in Abu Dhabi when Gill went into labour last December. But I was there on New Year’s Eve to see my daughter born and that’s something I’ll never forget.”

In 16 years it could be Alice Bell sitting her exams early before a big race in Ireland? “Why not,” replies Robert. “There’s no physical reason why a female driver cannot become an F1 champion. In that respect it’s a level playing field but then it’s still very much a male dominated sport.

“I suppose it can be an intimidating environment and that might put girls off. But it puts plenty of men off too! Flick Haigh won the British GT series last year and she’s a fantastic example of a female driver thriving in one of the toughest domestic series. If your daughter wants to go karting and she has natural talent then there’s zero reason why she cannot make it as a racing driver.” Watch this space.

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Supporting role: Mark Speke and Tom Rudd