Friday favourite: The forgettable layout that unearthed a sportscar great
Victory on his sportscar debut at the Nurburgring in 2005 thrust Rob Bell into a long and successful career in endurance racing. The McLaren factory driver reflects on his remarkable hit rate on the often-unloved GP layout, his first pick in our ongoing favourite track series
Rob Bell has never raced on the Nurburgring Nordschleife, but the Eifel region still holds some special memories for the British sportscar ace. The Nurburgring Grand Prix circuit is often viewed as the poor relation to the 12.944-mile motor racing Mecca that countless drivers (including Yvan Muller) have cited as their favourite, and has come in for plenty of criticism since it was introduced in 1984.
But for McLaren factory driver Bell it was the launchpad for his sportscar career after taking a class win on his GT racing debut in 2005, and the scene of several significant triumphs since then.
“Every time I go there, I just feel comfortable,” he explains. And that’s not surprising given his three Le Mans Series class victories and two outright successes in the series today known as GT World Challenge Europe.
The Newcastle racer had finished fifth in the 2004 Formula Renault V6 championship, but the funds weren’t there to continue his career and Bell “kind of thought my career was a bit over”. That was until an “out of the blue” phone call from a representative of Cirtek Racing to see whether the out-of-work racer, then making ends meet by instructing at Bedford Autodrome, would be available to drive its Aston Martin DBR9 GT1 at the Nurburgring in that weekend’s six-hour Le Mans Series round.
Bell admits that “I had no clue what GT racing was, or sportscar racing really” but a little white lie helped to push open the door.
He recalls: “The guy rang me up and said ‘do you know Nurburgring’ and I thought ‘I’ve never been, I’ve seen it on telly’. So I wasn’t lying when I said, ‘yeah, I know Nurburgring’ because he didn’t specifically say ‘had I driven it’!
“And he said, ‘that’s good. Have you ever driven a GT car?’ Which I hadn’t. But I drove on a trackday at Bedford - they had Porsches that you used to instruct in. So I said, ‘yeah, of course I’ve driven a GT car’. Obviously it was a bit of a white lie. Anyway, he’s like, ‘deal is done, fly here tomorrow’. I can safely say it was dropping me in at the deep end.”
Bell (right) admits that a white lie got him into the Cirtek DBR9 seat that yielded victory alongside Turner at the Nurburgring on his sportscar debut in 2005
Photo by: Motorsport Images
He didn’t have time for a track walk and spent practice attempting to learn the car – the first customer example of the DBR9 – as well as the circuit and the reality of being overtaken multiple times per lap by much faster prototypes.
“First practice literally I didn’t know where the track went,” he laughs. “Obviously it looks different when you’re watching it [on TV]. I didn’t know that LMP1 cars were that much quicker, I didn’t know anything about these cars. But to cut a long story short, me and Darren Turner won the race!
“It’s only later in my career where I realise – I landed myself in an opportunity that I didn’t have a clue how good it was. It was all quite surreal.”
"To come from such adversity to then have a car which was just a dream to drive and to win there has always stayed with me" Rob Bell
For 2006 Bell’s services were picked up by Lawrence Tomlinson to race for his Panoz team in GT2. Aside from a shock win at Donington with Warren Hughes, their ‘bucking bronco’ was rarely a factor. But the same couldn’t be said of his switch to the Virgo Motorsport Ferrari team for 2007.
Prior to the World Endurance Championship starting in 2012, Bell rightly points out that the LMS was “still the premier category with FIA GT at the time” so it was a real boost to his career to claim the GT2 crown against pukka factory opposition from the Felbermayr-Proton Porsche. Together with Allan Simonsen, Bell scored the team’s first win with the F430 at the Nurburgring “in emphatic style” according to Gary Watkins’ Autosport report, aided by “a new development tyre courtesy of the team’s close relationship with Dunlop”. Bell took pole, the late Simonsen gapped the opposition and they were never headed over the six hours.
“We just had an advantage that weekend over everyone,” recalls Bell. “You test development tyres and then it takes a while for them to produce a production-spec tyre, so we couldn’t use it for the first few races. That tyre was introduced at Nurburgring and obviously the hard work had paid off in the test. It all came together for that first race with Allan.”
Paired with Gianmaria Bruni for 2008, Bell successfully defended his LMS title. The pair’s Nurburgring win, two laps clear of the opposition, was a highlight that Bell regards as “one of my most special memories in racing”.
“We had a fuel fire in free practice which decimated the car,” he says of his third Nurburgring visit from four visits. “The rear of the car was finished. We did two laps and then we had the fire so we missed testing, we missed qualifying, started at the back and we won.
Bell and Bruni remarkably won GT2 class for Virgo in 2008 after a devastating fire in practice
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“It was just a circuit I was in tune with, a car I was in tune with, a tyre I was in tune with, a team-mate and team I was in tune with. To come from such adversity to then have a car which was just a dream to drive and to win there has always stayed with me.”
Only a driveshaft failure while leading in 2009, which cost seven laps, cost Bell a Nurburgring hat-trick and proved crucial in his and Bruni’s defeat to Felbermayr-Proton team-mates Marc Lieb and Richard Lietz by a single point at season’s end.
Bell’s growing reputation culminated in McLaren works status for 2012 ahead of the marque’s return to GT racing with the MP4-12C. Bell also took a leading role in developing the 650S that arrived for 2015 and canny pitstop strategy that year yielded another Nurburgring triumph with a third different manufacturer – albeit this time outright – as he shared the winning Von Ryan McLaren 650S GT3 with Kevin Estre and Shane van Gisbergen in the Endurance Cup finale.
Then in 2016 when Garage 59 took over the works McLaren team, Bell and Alvaro Parente took Sprint Cup spoils in July before Bell wrapped up the Endurance Cup crown at the same venue track in September. It was a trying weekend with team-mates Come Ledogar and van Gisbergen’s one-off stand-in Duncan Tappy as the trio failed to score, but their closest rivals were unable to capitalise.
“We had everything that day,” Bell says of a race he started 21st after a red-flag interrupted qualifying and finished 30th. “I was certainly quite hyped up in terms of ‘I know what I’ve got to do here, there’s no point in messing around, I’ve got to go for it’ and actually in my stint I hit a car and got a penalty. It was completely my own fault.”
After Bell had been pinged for punting Marco Bonanomi into the Turn 7 gravel and spinning Daniel Zampieri at Turn 1, Tappy picked up a right-rear puncture being turned around at Turn 1 by a Mercedes. To compound their afternoon, Ledogar too had a spin in the closing leg. But fortunately for Bell, RJN’s Nissan withstood pressure from the HTP Mercedes of Maxi Buhk, Dominik Baumann and Jazeman Jaafar who needed just one more position to overhaul their tally.
“We didn’t score any points on the day, but we’d done enough in the previous races so we won the championship there,” concludes Bell. That their non-score meant their championship was shared with van Gisbergen, absent on the day competing in the Sandown 500, made the nervy day that bit more palatable: “Let’s be honest, I’d rather have won the race by 30s and it was all easy sailing. But in hindsight it was a nice thing, and a deserved one as well.”
Bell isn’t bothered that his CV lacks a Nordschleife race appearance and counts himself “very lucky” to have made 24 starts to date in around-the-clock enduro races – something that appeared highly unlikely prior to that transformational weekend almost two decades ago.
Victory with van Gisbergen and Estre at the 2015 Blancpain Endurance Cup finale in Von Ryan's 650S preceded Bell clinching the title at the Nurburgring the following year
Photo by: Olivier Beroud / VSA
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