Bentley returns to racing this year, but its new GT3 has already created a stir on its competitive debut
Writer: Rob Widdows
The boys are back in town. Bentley’s new Continental GT3 racecar went up against its rivals on the Yas Marina circuit, Abu Dhabi, for the last race of the 2013 season – and impressed in its first outing.
“An unforgettable weekend of glamour, sporting and schmoozing at the Gulf 12 Hours,” promised the billboards. In the absence of any spectators there appeared to be precious little glamour or schmoozing, but there was plenty of sporting. After 12 hours of racing Bentley had thrown down the gauntlet, just missing out on a podium. This was a bold statement of intent and there was undisguised respect along the pitlane.
After four months and 2350 miles of intensive testing, Bentley Motor Sport and its partner M-Sport decided it was time to see how they fared against the opposition. In the heat of the desert the white and green machine was a sparkling head-turner in one of its primary markets. A point was being made. Bentley does luxury, yes, but it does speed as well and racing is a big part of its pedigree. The company is selling the Continental Speed into a very competitive market.
A decade after winning Le Mans with the beautiful Speed 8, Bentley arrived in Abu Dhabi quietly confident. Testing had given M-Sport all the figures they’d been anticipating, while 2003 Le Mans winner – and Bentley ambassador –Guy Smith had stepped from the GT3 Continental with a big smile on his face. But, as we all know, testing is one thing, racing the best in the world is quite another.
The unusual format of the Gulf 12 Hours, run over two six-hour parts with a two-hour break during which teams can work on the cars, suited Bentley well. It is not part of any championship, but the presence of Audi, BMW, McLaren and Ferrari provided a relevant yardstick against which to assess the GT3’s performance. Drivers Guy Smith, Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane were a predictable selection for the car’s maiden race, all having the speed and consistency required for putting the GT3 into the heat of battle for the first time. Significantly, all three had also been involved in the car’s development.
“It is vital for us to get out there and race as part of our preparation for the 2014 season,” said project manager John Wickham. “The Gulf 12 Hours is a good place to start, because of the format and because we’re not diving straight into an international championship race. The car has performed well in testing, we’ve been pleased with the data, but we needed to see how we look alongside our main competitors. Our endurance tests have gone very well indeed so, while development never stops, it’s time to put it up against the best.”
The first race is run in daylight, the second into the darkness, finishing just before midnight. Nobody wanted to dwell on the fact that it was Friday December 13. Even then the temperature hovers in the mid-twenties, so Bentley would learn about cooling, but more importantly they were hoping for the kind of reliability they experienced during more than 2000 miles of testing. Back in the 1920s, when Bentley was winning Le Mans in those heady days of Birkin and Barnato, the cars ran like clockwork. And in 2003 the Speed 8 was not only fast but reliable, an essential quality in any endurance racer no matter when it’s competing. So the Gulf 12 Hours was going to answer a great many questions ahead of a full Blancpain GT season in 2014.
Importantly, Bentley and M-Sport need to sell customer chassis, the first having been bought by GT campaigner Team Appleby in the week leading up to the Gulf 12 Hours. The car is eligible for both British GT and Blancpain events, making it attractive to potential customers from both series. Additionally, a race debut for the Continental GT3 in the United Arab Emirates would do no harm to sales of the road car either, the car creating a huge amount of interest as soon as it was entered for this desert double-header.
For lead driver Smith, the race was a cause for celebration even before it started. “Driving for Bentley feels like coming home, and it’s great to be back,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to a full season in 2014. It’s great to drive for this team and I’ve enjoyed being an ambassador for them since I won Le Mans back in 2003. We’re all determined to show what the car can do. I first sat in the GT3 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and since then we have done a huge amount of development and have had impressive reliability.
“Now we go racing. I’ve never driven here before and I’ve never raced a GT3 car, so yeah, it’s a good challenge.”
Overtaking at Yas Marina circuit is, to say the least, hard for any driver. There are precious few places to move up the order. So qualifying is that bit more important and the Bentley Boys delivered, putting the Continental fourth behind two Ferraris and a Mercedes. Six hours later a promising third place augured well for the next six on a hot night in the desert. ‘Quietly confident’ best described the mood among the folk from Crewe and Cockermouth.
“We are certainly pleased with the result so far,” said Bentley motor sport director Brian Gush. “This is M-Sport’s first venture into track racing [it prepared by running an Audi in selected British GT races] and we have learnt a great deal about the car in the first six hours. Now we focus on preparing for the night race, which brings a whole new set of challenges as the track temperature begins to drop. It was hot out there today and the drivers have done a great job, despite complaining about the heat inside the car. They tell me they want air-conditioning…”
The pace was certainly promising, the Continental GT3 matching the best lap times of the race-winning Cioci/Wyatt/Rugolo Ferrari 458 and runners-up Bernd Schneider and Jeroen Bleekemolen in the Mercedes SLS AMG. More importantly, the green and white machine had run reliably, high tyre pressures and a fuel pressure alarm being the only significant snags.
The second part was a thriller, Smith, Kane and Meyrick trading third place with the Zampieri/Broniszewski/Ramos Ferrari 458 while the wily Schneider headed for yet another endurance victory in the well-sorted Mercedes. But there was no shame in this, because all three Bentley Boys banged in some highly impressive sector times.
“The car felt fantastic,” Smith said, “but it was hard physically in the high temperatures and it took me a while to feel totally at one with the car. But as the laps went by I was able to push harder and the car really began to come alive. It was tough; the air temperature stayed pretty high, so keeping up the concentration was a real challenge. GT3 cars are more physically demanding than the LMP cars I’m used to racing and those have air-conditioning – but visibility is good and the performance pushed me to focus. Not an easy race, but we all knew we absolutely had to get to the end.”
With less than two hours to run a podium slipped from their grasp, the Ferrari eventually getting the better of the Bentley as fuel pressure warnings put the team onto a more conservative strategy. It had come to Abu Dhabi for a test race, to learn about the new car under race conditions, and a strong run in the top three was as good as anyone could expect at this early stage of a new GT3 campaign.
“That was a great battle,” said a hot, breathless Meyrick after two demanding stints. “I saw the brakes were fading on the Ferrari so I knew I could catch and pass him – I think I closed my eyes squeezing down the inside into the first corner – but it wasn’t a time for heroics. We raced as hard as we could without risking a non-finish. There are some chassis improvements we could make, but all in all it feels as good as, if not better than, the McLarens I’ve driven. And in this heat the brakes have just been phenomenal, the engine has loads of torque and there’s no weak area I can pinpoint. I think we’re all agreed that the car has huge potential.”
The only serious ripple in an otherwise calm, disciplined display came just minutes away from the chequered flag. The carbon underfloor failed and the right front wheel arch collapsed in a spectacular, nerve-wracking, shower of sparks. At the time of writing the car in still in transit so the team was unsure whether this was caused by a component failure or debris.
For a few tense minutes it looked as though the Bentley would have to return to the pits, but Meyrick soldiered on to bring it home in a solid fourth position.
“The car was suddenly all over the place,” he said, “but then I got used to it, backed off the pace and cruised to the finish. We’ll be doing a 30-hour non-stop endurance test in the new year, ahead of the first Blancpain race at Monza in April, and by that time we will have looked at all the data in detail to see exactly what happened. Right now, it’s time to celebrate. We ran a strong third, we finished the race, and there’s a lot more to come from the car.”
There was hugging and back-slapping all round as M-Sport and Bentley packed up and headed out for some late-night refreshment. From further down the pitlane rival teams came to pay their respects; the Continental had made its considerable presence felt and the 2014 Blancpain series has a serious new challenger.
“That’s not quite true because the hard work really starts now,” said a happy, relieved Gush. “We will analyse all the data once we get back to the factory and get into a testing programme in the new year.
“Of course we had some issues – that’s normal with an all-new car in its first race, but we know they are all resolvable. I’d like to see an improvement in the fuel consumption, we need to understand what happened to the underfloor, and tyre pressures and degradation are things we have to manage. Along with [tyre supplier] Avon, we learned a lot during the race, but we can only look at it in detail once we dig down into the data we have gathered.
“I’m very happy with the car’s pace and performance was in line with our simulations, which means we can rely on the computer work we do. On the driver front, all three did a brilliant job. It’s hard work and it was hot in the car. What pleased me was other teams coming down and saying ‘hey, great car’ which is high praise indeed. Apart from being a racing car it is a Bentley, and how we present it has always been important to me.”
While it might still be far too early to draw any concrete conclusions from Bentley’s return to the track, it must be said that the maiden 12-hour voyage was completed with speed, style and aplomb.
But then that’s how Bentley has traditionally done things.