aboard a Porsche 917, the car with
which he had fallen in love on his recce
to Le Mans in 1969.
McQueen was sandwiched between
Bell’s Ferrari and Siffert’s Porsche. The
three cars took Maison Blanche as one at
near racing speeds.
“After the shot, Steve looked as white as
a sheet,” recalls Bell. “He was saying, ‘you
bastards, you went through so fast.’ I told
him that he could have backed off if he’d
wanted to, but he didn’t.”
McQueen was like a kid in a candy store
during the making of Le Mans. A gearhead,
a speed freak, call him what you will, the
actor loved cars and loved racing on two
wheels or four. He’d raced for fun in the
late 1950s and early ’60s and returned to
the cockpit at the wheel of a Porsche
908/2 as he geared up for the making of
Le Mans. His second place aboard that car
in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours, sharing
with Peter Revson, is another legendary
tale, not least because race winner Mario
Andretti was so desperate to stop a movie
star from taking the laurels.
Yet McQueen was no mean driver,
according to everyone who worked with
him on the movie.
“I wouldn’t call Steve a good driver,”
says Jurgen Barth, another future Le Mans
winner who took part in the filming. “He
was an excellent driver. He wanted to be
in the car as much as possible, and he
I let him do a few laps on the Bugatti
circuit at Le Mans. He’d never driven a
single-seater before and he was cautious
because I was racing it the following
weekend, but he was impressive.”
Comparisons have inevitably been
made between the talents of McQueen
and fellow movie legend Paul Newman,
who went on to finish second at Le Mans
in 1979, as well as notching up a couple
of Trans-Am victories.
The two actors came at racing from
different angles. McQueen was a racing
nut who wanted to make a film about a
great race; Newman’s passion for the
sport was fired by his role in the 1969
racing movie Winning.
“Steve was very gung-ho – think
about what he used to do on his
scrambling bikes – whereas Paul thought
about it much more,” explains Bell.
“I’d hate to say who was the better driver,
but I think Steve could have been very
good. He needed a bit of guidance.
I would have loved to have gone to a
track, just him and me, and taken his
driving back to square one.”
The realism that is the calling card
of the movie did claim casualties.
David Piper crashed his Porsche 917
during filming and lost part of a leg.
Bell was more fortunate. He escaped
with only facial burns when the Ferrari
he was driving went up in flames.
“I wouldn’t call Steve a good driver.
He was an excellent driver. He wanted
to be in the car as much as possible”
loved being around us drivers.”
Bell backs up Barth’s assessment of
McQueen’s driving skills. During the
making of the film, the actor got to
sample an open-wheel racecar for the
first time and proved more than capable.
“Steve drove my Formula 2 Brabham
BT30 when we brought it down for a test
after the race at Rouen nearby,” he
recalls. “He said he’d love to have a go, so
GOING CLOSE AT
Legend has it that in the 1970 24 Hours
of Le Mans, incognito during the night,
Steve McQueen climbed aboard the
Porsche 908/2 camera car for a stint.
True? Somebody knows... Originally,
McQueen had planned to contest the
race in a fourth Gulf Porsche 917K,
sharing with Jackie Stewart, but the
entry was declined by the ACO.
(BELOW) Derek Bell
briefs Steve McQueen
on his Formula 2
Brabham BT30 before
letting him lose on
the Le Mans Bugatti
circuit. It was the
actor’s first time in an
open-wheel car, but
Bell was impressed.
finished second in
the 1970 12 Hours
of Sebring, sharing
a Solar Productions-
with Peter Revson.
Despite nursing a
recently broken foot,
McQueen drove his
stints steadily. As
attrition took its toll
the 908/2 climbed
through the field and
actually led with one
lap to go and Revson
at the wheel. But
a fired up Mario
Andretti in a Ferrari
512S chased it down
to take a famous win.
Three months on,
the same 908/2 was
the in-race camera
car at Le Mans.