Just over a dozen years ago I briefly crossed over to the dark side. Which in motoring journalist jargon means I started working for a car company. It wasn’t something I did lightly but when I first discovered that Bentley was returning to Le Mans and was then asked to sit as a fly on its wall, gathering information that would one day be turned into an official book, it was too good an opportunity to turn down. I stopped writing about Bentleys in any journalistic capacity, and tentatively donned my Bentley branded corporate clothing.
Gordon Murray once told me that if you cut him he’d bleed Lotus and I’ve felt the same way about Bentley ever since my father mortgaged himself to his eyebrows and bought a bitsa 4.5-litre 42 years ago. So I went to the tests, met the likes of Richard Lloyd, Martin Brundle and James Weaver and watched the project progress.
Seeing a team from the other side was fascinating. Although the Bentley was anything but an Audi R8 with a roof (a lazy, ill-informed myth perpetuated by journalists who couldn’t be bothered to find out the truth which still rankles at the factory to this day), there’s no denying they were entirely dependent on Audi for an engine supply. Incredibly they didn’t get one until three months before Le Mans 2001. By the time it gets to la Sarthe next year, Porsche’s new prototype will likely have had nearer to three years running with the right engine.
Even so at the official test day Brundle couldn’t resist a quickish lap, quick enough to place the Bentley third, a mere 1.3sec behind the quickest Audi despite Brundle describing the lap itself as ‘crap’. It set alarm bells running up and down the pitlane, none louder than those going off in the Audi garage. In qualifying for the race itself the car was 2.5sec slower than it had been in testing.
Bentley’s performance in that race is one of truly great Le Mans stories. The car was unproven, the weather terrible and the Dunlop wets and inters a complete unknown to the team. All the other major teams, including Audi, used Michelins. Brundle actually led early on but water getting into the gearbox actuator caused the car’s retirement. But when the second Bentley showed symptoms of the same disease, the problem was solved by blocking the offending jet of spray with the top of a bottle of mineral water. Next all communications between car and pit failed, so a walkie talkie in a plastic bag was lashed to the interior and the car sent on its way. Then with minutes left and the car in third place, Andy Wallace got a four minute stop/go penalty. The place was held. Then, on the last lap, the two lead Audis got in formation and slowed the field to a halt little knowing the Bentley clutch was finished. Yards from the line the Bentley stalled. Wallace had one chance: hitting the starter with the car in gear, the car lurched forward, the engine caught and Bentley was back on the podium at Le Mans.
Two years later another Bentley would win outright, but those who were there from first to last will tell you third place in 2001 was by far the greater achievement.
I mention this all now because it was so good not only to see Bentley’s new GT3 running at Goodwood, but to see how many of the old lags are back on the strength. Now as then the project is the brainchild of Brian Gush who has once more recruited John Wickham back to the fold. Guy Smith – the only driver to stay with the team through all three Le Mans – is back doing the development work with Alastair Macqueen back on the engineering side.
I hear good things of it too: the car has shed over a tonne of weight and now sits nicely below 1300kg, the V8 engine is giving all the power it needs and the aero data is, I understand, encouraging.
Some people have laughed at the idea of a Bentley Continental GT race car and I’ll admit even I thought the prospect unlikely. But I suspect a year from now we’ll all be thinking differently. It may not be Le Mans but Bentley will be back racing. And to those of us who grew up reading about the exploits of Birkin, Barnato et al, that is all that really matters.