Two of the greatest names in British motor-racing are seriously considering a return to Le Mans. Both Bentley and Aston Martin are, for the first time in years, actively evaluating full works Le Mans programmes and both accept there is little point going to make up the numbers. For Bentley the question now is more when than if Ferdinand Piech, the mercurial chairman of its Volkswagen parent has already stated publically that it would be possible now for Bentley to return to Le Mans and it is believed that it is only a too volatile rulebook that is keeping the project back. At the moment Bentley perceives Le Mans to be too much of a lottery and does not wish to face the dilemma of being forced to withdraw, be uncompetitive or spend millions redesigning cars to meet the new demands of a continually changing rulebook.
Also, when Bentley returns to Le Mans, it will want to do so not only to milk its history but also promote its future; it is therefore unlikely that a Bentley will Start’ the 24-hour race before its next range of smaller, more affordable cars start to come on stream, which will probably put back the date for the return back until to 2002.
But while Bentley will concentrate on Le Mans alone, if Aston Martin returns to the Sarthe it will likely be as part of a worldwide sportscar effort, which would incorporate the American Petit Le Mans series, viewed as crucial to the on-going regeneration of the marque in the US.
Both marques have triumphed at Le Mans in the past, Bentley taking the honours in 1924 and then enjoying a straight run from 1927-30 while Aston Martin finally reached the flag first in 1959 with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori at the wheel of a DBR1.
In the meantime Jaguar moves ever closer to its Formula One debut. The company is steadfastly refusing to deny the rumours while less official sources have been nodding and winking dementedly for some months now. The route will be through the recently acquired Stewart team which, from the outset, has operated at only one step removed from a Ford works effort.
The thinking is simple: success in F1 brings credibility kudos and prestige, three vital commodities to support Jaguar’s global expansion into markets and market segments hitherto unvisited by the Coventry marque. Nor is Jaguar put off by its competition heritage coming from sports and saloon cars. As one insider put it: “If Mercedes entered a works team, the only news value would be if it didn’t win. If Jaguar goes into F1 it will go to win but also with the knowledge that there is nothing like that level of expectation on us.”