Frankel explains why Bentley should return to Le Mans and look at shedding some pounds from the cars in its admittedly mighty impressive range to make them more fun to drive.
I know hindsight is a brilliant thing, but I said it at the time so I can say it again: the biggest and, for all I know, only mistake made by Bentley since it has been under Volkswagen stewardship was the decision not to defend its 2003 Le Mans title.
There were reasons, of course, and good ones too. It’s hard to remember in these days when there are new Bentleys in every London square and football stadium staff car park but, three and a bit years ago, VW had poured £500 million into Crewe and barely seen a dime back. The factory had been transformed, the Continental GT designed and a Le Mans programme executed, but with the Continental still to go on sale, the balance sheet was starting to look a Ferrari-shade of scarlet. It was time to concentrate on making a return on investment.
Besides, Bentley was clear the Le Mans programme was for three years and its objective was to take the marque back to the top step of the podium for the first time since 1930. By 4.00pm on Sunday June 14, no one could argue the job hadn’t been done. Bentley had swept the Audis aside and finished one-two. Yes, there was no serious opposition; yes, there was an Audi engine in the back, but history is kind enough not to remember such things.
But history also has a habit of failing to remember Le Mans winners who nevertheless fail to leave their mark on the race. Who remembers that BMW won in 1999? What good did all those francs do Renault when it emerged on top in 1978? The marques we associate indelibly with the race didn’t just win, they came back and did it again and again – marques like Ford, Ferrari, Porsche and, now, Audi.
The pity is the Speed 8 racer was so much quicker than anything else, the team could have just slipped in fresh engines, cleaned off the bugs, and more than likely done the same again.
But it was not to be, and the memories of Le Mans 2003 are fading fast. The factory shows no sign of wanting to return, despite occasionally making apparently empty statements about racing being part of Bentley’s make-up. Instead it seems far more interested in making money by selling cars in ever larger numbers. That is, after all, its job.
There is, it should be said, a lot to be said for Bentley’s current line up. It’s moved in confidently with an adapted VW platform and used it to create a three-car Continental range, the GT coupé, Flying Spur saloon and, most recently, the GTC convertible. None is what you might call gorgeous or even great fun to drive, but they are beautifully engineered, immaculately built and very, very quick.
These are cars I like, admire and respect. They are not, to me at least, cars to fall in love with. If it’s head over heels you want, you need an Arnage. I moonlighted for Bentley during its three attempts to win Le Mans this century, knocking out press releases and generally getting in the way, and the bit I enjoyed most each year was blasting down to the track in an Arnage T. Its 6¾-litre engine might have started life in 1959 and not have quite the power of the VW-penned motor in the Continentals, but for character, majesty and sense of occasion, the old V8 has the modern W12 licked. As do the cars in which it’s fitted. I even ended up falling for the Arnage-based Azure convertible, conceptually about as far from my idea of good as you can get within the confines of what one might call a sporting car.
Question is, where next? I hear talk of a Bentley SUV which, if true, will result in the most inappropriate Bentley since a 4-litre engine was fitted in an 8-litre chassis. That was 1931 and the result played a sizeable role in killing the company. Happily, Bentley strenuously and consistently denies even looking at making such a car.
For what little it’s worth, I think Bentley needs to cap production levels to preserve brand value and concentrate on making what it already has better to drive. All its cars need to lose weight, so they’re quicker and more responsive. Aluminium is ideal for low-volume, high-cost cars and if it’s good enough for a rather less expensive VW marque like Audi, why not Bentley, too? Bentleys don’t need to be Lotus-light, but what engineer wouldn’t welcome the loss of half a tonne from a car weighing more than 2½ tonnes, as many Bentleys do?
And Bentley needs to get back to Le Mans and, this time, stay for a while. If history teaches us anything, it is that truly great sporting marques need to succeed on the track as well as the road. It’s where credibility and pedigree come from. Bentley left Le Mans in 2003 to build a business – this it has done in spades. In the meantime, Le Mans has become a tedious, technological showcase for inaudible, inappropriate, deadly dull diesels. Truth is, Le Mans needs Bentley as much as Bentley needs Le Mans. And they need each other now.