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So Near Yet So Far for Bell at Le Mans

15th June 2008

The Le Mans 24 Hour race 2008 will live with Rob Bell as one of the cruellest races of his career. Driving the Virgo Motorsport Ferrari 430 GT2 with Tim Mullen and Tim Sugden, the trio were running in a comfortable second place in class after 21 hours of running, but disaster struck for the team with a blown engine forcing them into retirement.

Bell said of the race, “I’m just gutted. We had a car capable of winning, but it wasn’t to be. Our first drama came early when a silly mistake by the Aston ended up causing our car damage, and that was really the reason we were a lap down to the Ferrari for most of the race. Although we struggled with the car at first – particularly after we lost our power steering fairly early on - the race came back to us and we hung in there, coping with everything for nearly 22 hours, until I lost power, warning lights came on and I had to return to the pits. It was a terminal engine failure and after lying second for so long, it was game over.”

Bell had an excellent start to his second assault on the Le Mans 24 Hour race, taking a new Ferrari GT2 record on qualifying. The Newcastle-born driver posted a sub-four minutes lap time, the first time that this had been achieved by the Ferrari 430 GT2 race car at this legendary event.

Bell said of his achievement, “I’m really pleased to have broken the record for a GT2 Ferrari here. No one has ever set a lap time under 4 minutes with this car, so it is a significant achievement, made a little sweeter by beating the Risi car, which is close to being a factory entry. This car, the nearest Ferrari to us, was over 1.5 seconds off us, so it was a great effort by our team.”

Bell qualified the Virgo Motorsport Ferrari third in class behind two Porsche, the first of the Ferrari entries. He was given the task of taking the Le Mans grid and at the rolling start was deep in the pack. With 55 cars taking the green flag Bell lost out in the opening lap melee, dropping to fourth, but with 24 hours of racing ahead he was unconcerned. This unique race is always full of drama, although Bell was disappointed to be the innocent victim of a pitlane incident after only an hour of running, when he was hit by an Aston in the pits. The Aston pulled out of its pit as Bell was coming in, tagging the rear of the Ferrari. The rear bumper was taped and the team continued on, although disappointed to have been delayed by this incident.

After this early bout of bad luck the race began to settle for the Virgo Motorsport team. Having dropped down the order after the pitlane incident the team slowly clawed its way back up the order. After eight hours the team moved to third place after an off-course excursion for the Ferrari ahead of Virgo Motorsport. The team then had a Porsche ahead in second position in class, and the Risi Ferrari leading the GT2 category, but after a further 30 minutes the Porsche dropped back with mechanical problems, handing second place to the Virgo Motorsport team.

For the next 14 hours the car ran cleanly, the pitcrew worked their magic at each stop, Bell, Sugden and Mullen alternated on their stints, and second place looked to be wrapped up. But the Le Mans track defeated the team with just over two hours of running left. A suspected engine failure forced the team to close the garage door and retire from the race, with the whole team showing the raw emotion of the cruel blow delivered so near to the end.

Bell sums it up saying, “It’s a difficult pill to swallow. We had been lying in second place for so long, our nearest rival was six laps further back, and with all the efforts of the drivers and the team, it all came to nothing. It’s very difficult to take, but that’s the challenge of Le Mans.”