The short hop from Bentley's fastest racing car to its oldest: Andrew Frankel
“If you drive a modern car, even its handbrake will have a microprocessor”
The microchip crisis that is affecting the ability of manufacturers to build cars the world over shows no sign of going away. It has been created by a perfect storm of events which, once understood, illustrates why there is no easy fix.
The first reason is the simplest: as cars become ever more complex, there is ever greater demand for microprocessors. If you drive a remotely modern car even its handbrake will likely have one. But the real problem is Covid. When demand for new cars fell through the floor early last year, factories were shut down and production slowed to a crawl, leaving chip manufacturers with what would have been an existential crisis. Except that just as demand for cars crashed, for the same reason demand for chip-hungry home entertainment systems went through the roof. And the chips used in that industry are more profitable than those used for automotive. So having been chucked overboard by the car industry the chipmakers are discovering that the lifeboat isn’t such a bad place to be after all. In fact it might be better and more lucrative than the ship. So there is little incentive to get back on board.
The ramifications of this are quite extensive: long waiting lists for new cars, and those cars that are built often being radically shorn of chip-heavy equipment from electronic dashboards and mobile telephone charging pads to some active safety equipment. But where most people will likely notice the change is not in the cars they’d like to buy, but those they already own. To give you two examples, the now 10-year-old Toyota Aygo I bought for my daughters to learn to drive is now worth at least what I paid for it five years ago. And the three-year-old Golf we use as a general purpose family retainer appears actually to have gained in value. I can’t sell either because I’d probably lose all I gained replacing them, but if you have almost any kind of second-hand car you’ve been thinking of shifting and not replacing, there has probably never been a better time than now.
I’m not in the habit of doing book reviews here but I thought I’d just mention Paul Ehrmann’s Arc of Triumph, not just because it’s about racing drivers but because although it is a novel, it is inspired by those drivers who joined the Resistance to fight the Nazis in World War Two. It’s some distance from the learned and important treatise on the subject that is Joe Saward’s The Grand Prix Saboteurs, but if you want a read that is easy, enjoyable, imaginative but also accurate and informative, you’ll find all of the above between its covers.
Earlier in the month I found myself at Thruxton to drive the Jaguar for this magazine. And there I was standing in the paddock, chatting away to another couple of drivers who, like me, were suited, booted and ready to go and drive racing cars. It was between the Spa and Zandvoort weekends so naturally talk fell to our disappointment in the former and hopes for the latter. And we were talking about this and that when I was suddenly hit by a dose of imposter syndrome, probably because those drivers were Damon Hill and Martin Brundle. Martin I’ve known since I was employed to write a book about Bentley’s return to racing 20 years ago, but while I’ve met Damon a couple of times I don’t know him at all.
“I asked Damon if he still held the lap record. He said, ‘I guess so’”
So I asked him if he still held the lap record for the circuit. He paused as if it had been decades since he last even thought of it then said, “I guess so,” in that charmingly self-effacing way of his. That record was set all the way back in 1993 when Damon turned up for a demonstration run in his Williams-Renault FW15C at the circuit’s 25th anniversary celebrations and duly dispatched its 2.3 miles lap in 57.6sec, at an average of over 147mph.
Thruxton in substantially less than a minute: it is a feat quite beyond my powers of comprehension. Yet while Damon would have been out to put on a good show and entertain the crowd, he’d hardly be risking all at qualifying pace at Britain’s fastest and one of its least forgiving tracks. I expect the car had only a baseline set up and probably whatever gear ratios were still in it from the last race. It makes one wonder how fast he could have gone if he’d had a proper go at it.
The Jaguar was not the only iconic sports car I drove this month. I was also asked to demonstrate the 2003 Le Mans winning Bentley Speed 8 to those attending the Bentley Drivers Club meeting at Silverstone. How do you drive this near priceless, unique historical artefact? The answer is quickly, because to do otherwise is to rob the crowd of their spectacle. Actually it’s quite easy because unlike the Jaguar which is 15 years older and has a heavy road-derived engine, the Bentley is endlessly reassuring to drive. And so fast you can put on a decent show without taking the smallest risk.
I was interested to see how I’d cope with climbing out of the fastest Bentley ever made into the oldest still racing today in which I was due to compete shortly thereafter. The 22nd Bentley ever built and 100 years old this year, it has no front brakes, a centre throttle, a crash gearbox and fuel you need to pump by hand. You’d think the Speed 8 experience would warp entirely your perception of velocity and make you a menace driving something so slow and clumsy so soon after. But no: I drove the old car as if I’d never driven the fast one at all. Truly the human brain is an amazing thing.
A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery
Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew_Frankel