What's the big idea?

Bentley will return to racing, but before it does, it needs to transform its heavy Continental Speed road car into a fast and competitive racer 

By Rob Widdows

Bentley is back. One of the most famous names in the sport is to return to racing, with its Continental GT Speed model in 2014. We have all devoured the tales of derring-do by those ‘Bentley Boys’ back in the 1920s, and we all remember the Speed 8 winning Le Mans in 2003. But this time around the new Bentley Boys face a whole different challenge.

Those famous victories at Le Mans are an integral part of the legend that is Bentley. But this time La Sarthe isn’t the target for the grand old British manufacturer. The project was shrouded in secrecy until the Paris Motor Show at the end of September, when a GT3 concept car, code-named XP12, was revealed. What we’ve seen is little more than a show car at present, but the project has been approved by the FIA and the real thing will take to the track towards the end of next year.

Behind closed doors at Crewe, the racing department has been busy transforming computer models into something solid. The man tasked with the huge challenge of building and developing another winning Bentley is Brian Gush, director of powertrain, chassis and motor sport at Crewe and the man who masterminded the campaign which culminated in victory for the Speed 8 at Le Mans.

This time, rather than a bespoke prototype they have to transform a big, heavy road car into a winning racing car. And they’re going to be up against the very best GT3 cars in the world. Mr Gush is undaunted.

“Yes, it’s true, the Continental GT is a heavy car,” he concedes, “but we have already taken a lot of weight out. I will not give you very much detail at this stage, for obvious reasons, but removing weight is certainly a key element when it comes to the racing car. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine. We can remove all the luxury wood, leather, electronics and all the other creature comforts you associate with a Bentley. Once you take all those things out, you very quickly get down to a weight that is competitive. You need to hold every part in your hand, and ask yourself – is this part really necessary in the race car? We are confident of getting there. That’s all I’m prepared to say at this stage.”

What we do know is that the road car’s gross weight is a heady 2750kg, and it is said Bentley’s diet target is 1600kg – a loss of more than a tonne. The challenge of transforming the Continental into a car that can compete in an intensely competitive category is clear.

“Yes, it’s a challenge, but what it’s all about is attention to detail,” says Gush. “Weight distribution, for example, is crucial and the GT3 category allows a manufacturer like Bentley to remove the four-wheel drive and to move the engine into a more optimum position. That is not unique to us, it’s what everyone in GT3 is doing. So we will have rear-wheel drive with a transaxle, a new racing gearbox, the engine will be further back and lower down, and the ancillaries will then be positioned so that we achieve the best possible weight distribution. We have started the homologation process with our W12 engine, but we also have the option to run the V8, and we will race with the engine that we feel is the most competitive.”

The answer needs to be found as soon as possible, as many other areas will be affected.

“It’s all about power-to-weight but it’s not such a simple decision,” Gush says of the engine decision. “We have to consider the power characteristics of both engines. The W12 can do what we want it to do, it’s a great engine, very compact, light, powerful and reliable. I am not prepared to tell you the difference in weight between the two engines because engine weights are difficult to compare. The W12 has an air-to-air intercooler, so the intercoolers are away from the engine, whereas the V8 has a water intercooler that is integral on the engine. So you don’t get an apples-to-apples comparison.

“Before the car gets to a track we will be using a lot of computer simulation from all the CAD [computer-aided design] information and then we do a virtual assembly of the car. Then our CFD [computational fluid dynamics] data will give us an idea of what the car can do and that gives us a head start in laying it out. Then we verify all that in the wind tunnel before running on the track. All those simulation programmes are important to make sure we get it right before we cut any metal. Towards the end of next year we will be testing, and we will do a test race, but we haven’t decided yet exactly which series we will enter. GT3 has a global footprint, second only to Formula 1, and we have looked at all the options including the Blancpain series. We will have customer teams, some of them works-supported, but we will definitely not have a works team masquerading as a customer team.”

The Continental GT is a big car in comparison to its main competitors. Might that be a concern?

“It’s a Bentley, Bentleys are big cars, and they have great presence. It gives us some challenges, yes, but that’s what we’re here for, and we believe that, given the layout of the car, we can achieve what we want to achieve with it. We can get it in the zone, and we can win – if we couldn’t win, and we didn’t think we could win, we would not be doing it.”

So how does Gush see the new racing programme as part of Bentley’s marketing strategy under the new CEO Dr Wolfgang Schreiber, who has declared that the decision to go racing again was in response to “a clear message from our customers”?

“It’s exciting on many levels. Importantly, we are aware of a more youthful target market for the road cars, and the motor sport programme appeals to younger potential customers. The Continental is already a very fast road car, with huge performance, so the association is a natural progression. And that’s why we go racing, to develop the technology and excite the new, more youthful market. It’s also highly motivational for our colleagues at the factory in Crewe, that’s an important part of why we go racing, it’s exciting for them to be involved. 

“We looked at Le Mans again, where Bentley belongs, but with Porsche going back with an LMP1 and Audi still being there, there wasn’t room for a third brand from the Volkswagen group in the top class. We don’t have an eligible car for the GTE class, so we have no plans to return to Le Mans at this time. The best option was to go into GT3 which is a formula that allows us to alter the Continental GT sufficiently to be competitive, while keeping the links to the road car.”

This careful thought process became reality with the concept car unveiling at the Paris Motor Show. Greeted with great excitement, and a barrage of flash bulbs, the new racing car returns the legend of Bentley to the race track and is big news around the world. Now the work starts in earnest.