Magical history tour

Circuit first opened: 1922
Current circuit length: 3.60 miles

2015 event calendar
April 11-12: Blancpain GT Series
May 25: Ferrari Club Italia
May 30-31: European F3 Championship
Sept 4-6: Italian Grand Prix
Sept 26-28: GT InternationaL

Hallowed cradles of motor sport in Italy and England linked by a famous marque, as a Bentley wafts our man home via a pause at an evocative French site
Writer: Ed Foster

Porca miseria!
An Italian sitting behind us in the grandstands at Monza is screaming as a Ferrari 458 loses a place. Loosely translated it means ‘bloody hell!’ and even though we’re watching GTs in the Blancpain Endurance Series rather than Formula 1, it’s clear the Italian passion remains. Ferrari is Ferrari, after all.

The Blancpain Endurance and Sprint series should be celebrated. Many racing fans bemoan the proliferation of single-make championships and the fact that most cars in F1 look the same. GT racing is the opposite. Yes, there is the Balance of Performance, which means that a Bentley Continental can compete with a Ferrari 458, but that means that the top 10 at the Monza round of the Endurance Series last spring included two McLarens, two Audis, a Mercedes, a BMW, two Bentleys and two Ferraris. They all look different, yet resemble their road-going cousins, and they all sound different.

For the start of the race we wandered down to the first chicane where the original banking is still visible, veering off to the right. It’s where old meets new and you get a proper flavour of Monza – the Italian crowd covered in Ferrari flags and Prancing Horses. We sat in the ever-filling grandstand, listened for the roar of GT cars at the start and waited.

They arrived, hard on the brakes for the right-left in front of us and past they went: Porsche, BMW, Audi, McLaren, Mercedes, Bentley, Nissan, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Aston Martin. Diversity is the spice of GT racing. There was some light contact, but all the cars made it through and powered on down to Curva Grande. This was proper racing at Monza, the Italian crowd cheering when Ferraris pass, booing when one of them loses a place.

It’s all light-hearted fun, thankfully, as we were sitting with five people in official Bentley team kit. We’d arrived to watch the Bentley Continental GT3 cars in action and then to drive a Bentley Continental GT Speed from Monza back to Brooklands via the Champagne region of France and Reims circuit. It’s an appropriately indulgent trip on which to use a Bentley.

First, the racing: Bentley had a difficult pitstop, but still finished with both cars in the top 10. In the next race, at Silverstone, the manufacturer would notch up its first major win since the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours. Victory at the following race at Paul Ricard would follow as well. Bentley was back.

Early the next morning we waft out of Milan in the road-going Continental – far heavier and far more luxurious than the racers we watched the day before. What traffic there is lets us politely out of junctions while the locals, on their way to grab a morning caffè and brioche, stare at us for an appropriate amount of time. But then we are in a convoy of three Bentleys.

Having lived in Milan for two years I know enough about Italian traffic to understand that driving through it can be as dangerous as a stock car meeting at Cowdenbeath. Race-suited Scots in bangers might be replaced with Gucci-wearing Italians on scooters, but the rules as to how close you can get to other vehicles remain largely the same. The thought of piloting a car worth northwards of £156,000 through such unforgiving traffic is more of a wake-up call than the treacle-like double espresso we all have before leaving.

Thankfully the traffic is quiet and we creep down sleepy streets and between parked cars without any trouble at all. From the back streets of eastern Milan we head north and then west towards Turin. Before we reach Italy’s motor city, though, we bear north again and set off for the skiing villages of Chamonix and Courmayeur.

It’s along the twisty dual carriageway on the way to the Mont Blanc tunnel that the scenery goes from pretty to stunning and the Bentley comes into its own, no longer hindered by stop-start traffic.

However, if you’re at all greedy with your right foot – and it’s very tempting to be when you’re in the Continental GT Speed, Bentley’s fastest ever production road car – the fuel consumption (‘obliteration’ might be a better word) is pretty hefty. No surprise there, considering the coupé is capable of a whopping 205mph and has 626bhp and 607lb ft of torque under its bonnet. Couple that with a 2320kg kerb weight and it’s amazing it can even do its stated 19.5mpg. To worry about things such as fuel consumption in a Bentley, though, is missing the point. If you can afford to spend more than £150,000 on a car, regular three-figure fuel stops are less of a concern.

Most manufacturers are trying to save weight at the moment, but not Bentley. The seats in the Continental GT Speed weigh a whopping 43kg. However, if you want a seat that comfortable with all the gizmos inside, that’s what it weighs. When we put the idea of saving weight to a Bentley employee he pointed out that if they did, the cars would no longer be what makes Bentleys desirable; they wouldn’t be so luxurious and comfortable.

After a quick coffee at the entrance to the Mont Blanc tunnel we carry on west until the A40, which takes us up past Dijon and on to Epernay where we stop for the night.

There’s a lot of talk from the Bentley team about how refreshed you feel even after a long drive in one of its cars and, despite us wondering how an 800-mile trip is ever going to be anything but tiring, we emerge in the Champagne region feeling as though we’d only done 100 miles in a normal car. Certainly, subsequent long distances in my 1992 750cc Fiat Panda go quite a way to confirming this.

The next morning we leave Epernay, cruising past the Champagne houses of Mercier and Moët & Chandon on the way out, and on to what remains of the Grand Prix circuit at Reims. The part-renovated pits are an eerie sight in the morning sun, the occasional passing car on the D27 from Thillois to Gueux breaking the countryside’s silence.

The main pits are in the middle of a long-running restoration by a local enthusiast (he relies on donations) and while some of the paint is new, much of the originality remains. As we step over the low wall between the ‘track’ and the pit boxes we spot a stamp on the garage asking visitors to not damage the site out of respect for those who raced there: Mémoire des pilotes, respect du site. The half-crumbling, half renovated remnants are a wonderful window into the past.

The circuit was first used in 1926 for the Grand Prix de la Marne – won by François Lescot aboard his Bugatti T35B in a shade under three hours – and still hosted races 43 years later. Its last F1 meeting came in 1966 when Jack Brabham won for the first time in a car carrying his name – the Brabham BT19. As we stand on top of the pits and stare down the D27, the thought of 3-litre V12 Ferraris and Cooper-Maseratis hammering down the road is chilling. Safety was low on the list of priorities back in the ’60s; although there weren’t trees and telegraph poles to hit as there were at many other circuits of the period. The spectators’ proximity to the open road must have been a visceral experience.

We are snapped back to the present day with the sound of a Bentley V8 starting up – it’s time to finish our journey and head for Brooklands.

Bentley and Brooklands will be forever linked – many of the former’s successes came on the famous banking and fittingly, as we wind our way through the museum’s many ’planes towards the Members’ Banking, we are faced with ‘Old Number 1’, one of the most famous Bentleys of all time.

Before we get a chance to have a close look at the car, it disappears off under the bridge, heading the wrong way round the old circuit, its six-cylinder 6½-litre engine pulling the car’s two-tonne weight briskly away. We can hear the car making a turn and heading back towards us. There’s a pause in engine note as the driver snatches second, the revs rising once more as it appears under the bridge. It’s a fantastic sight, the grey bodywork of ‘Old Number 1’ glistening in the sun. This is Woolf Barnato’s Bentley, the same one that he drove to victory in the 1929 and ’30 Le Mans 24 Hours. Its French victories were matched on the Brooklands’ banking with a Six-Hour race win in 1929 and success in the 1930 500 Miles race. It was an era of Bentley domination that we haven’t seen since, but at least there are Bentleys back on track today.

When you hear the words ‘Bentley’ and ‘motor sport’ it’s easy to think of that great era of the Bentley Boys, Speed Sixes and lap records at Brooklands. But at the start of our journey we were reminded just how seriously the manufacturer should be taken on the modern stage. From GT3s at Monza to its racing history at Brooklands via a great tourer in the GT Speed, Bentley is back doing what it does best – heading into the future, with an eye on the past.

Essential travel guide

Where to stay
The four-star Hotel de la Ville is an annual treat for those who can get in, but tends to be reserved for a repeat clientele. That has the benefit of being close to Monza’s royal park, which would rightly be regarded as a thing of wonder even if it didn’t contain a racetrack (few other places on earth have goats grazing quite so close to an F1 paddock). For standard-spec mortals, there are decent hotels in nearby towns such as Arcore – only 15 minutes away by car. There are several park and ride options, with coaches linking Monza’s outskirts to the track. Camping facilities are available close to the circuit, inside and outside the park: these are engagingly boisterous, but quieter than they were when Michael Schumacher was winning regularly for Ferrari and most of Germany turned up. It’s common to see fans using wire-cutters to create their own entrance, but nobody seems overly concerned.

Route tips
If flying, Bergamo (served by budget airlines) and Milan Linate are less than half an hour from the circuit car parks. Malpensa, Milan’s principal airport, is about 50 minutes away. Book early and you can usually pick up a return ticket to Bergamo for less than a tank of fuel. That’s quite significant, given that you need to allow more than 10 hours (and several pitstops) to drive from Calais. It’s a nice run, though, heading down the A26 and A4 through eastern France before bearing towards Chamonix and entering Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Interesting diversions
The most obvious is a few minutes by foot from the main hub. Close to the paddock entrance lies a crossroads around which fans gather in numbers. Teams and officials approach this via a crumbling tunnel, before turning right or left into a car park. If they were to carry straight on, along a path lined by fields full of peckish hooded crows, they would pass through another tunnel that runs beneath the current track (between Ascari and Parabolica) before bisecting the disused straight connecting the banked corners of yore. Turn left to explore the Curva Nord, right for the Curva Sud – but allow time to do both. Few disused sporting temples retain such atmosphere. One that comes close is Reims-Gueux, located close to the preferred route from Calais. Exit the A4 at junction 22 and head west along the N31. You’ll soon see the surviving buildings to your left; those with a soul are likely to loiter awhile.