Go with the Blow

In 1930 Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin defied Bentley by supercharging its beloved 4½. Eighty-four years on, we take an unforgettable ride as the Blower blasts back to the track where its legend was written
Writer Rob Widdows

We thunder through the night; I cannot feel the top of my head, so fierce is the wind buffeting from the bonnet. I try to snuggle down into the warm footwell but to no avail. On we go, tearing up the darkness, the French countryside rushing past in a cacophony of noise and swirling air. I am intoxicated by the smell of hot oil, whiffs of unburnt fuel, mesmerised by the beams from the huge headlamps.

Alongside me Brian Gush, engineering mastermind behind Bentley’s Speed 8 and more recently its GT3 Continental, stares ahead into the darkness. Glancing across, he shouts above the roar of the exhaust: “If the Bentley Boys could do it in 1930, we can do it now.” I concur as enthusiastically as my frozen face allows.

Somewhere behind us, Frank and Ray follow in a cosy white van loaded with spanners, sockets and sticky tape in case anything should interrupt our journey to the Blower’s stomping ground at La Sarthe. We are en route to Le Mans Classic, a strange event that, while attracting a wonderful collection of cars, never seems to create as much excitement as it should. Too many long pauses in the race action, too many parades, not enough actual racing.

The thrills, for me, were to be had on board the very car in which Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin recorded fastest lap at an average speed of 75mph in 1930. Ahead of us is Old Number One, the 6-litre, six-cylinder car from 1929, renting the night apart, a lick of flame from its exhaust as we slow for the sign to Arnage. “Running too rich,” shouts Gush. “Unused fuel lighting up.” I nod, slightly stunned after a couple of hours on what feels like the footplate of a locomotive, or beneath a Spitfire’s open canopy. The Blower is a living, fire-breathing piece of British motor racing history, millions of pounds worth of supercharged engineering capable of taking us from 20mph to 90mph in top gear. Down the gears we go, Gush doing leg-ups on throttle and clutch, hefting armfuls of lock on the four-spoke wheel as we bark, burble and bluster through the last few miles.

Back in their heyday, in the 1920s, this is how the Birkins and Barnatos took the team cars to Le Mans to challenge the world. Once there, they won the race and drove them home again, smothered in oil, insects and dust. Those were the days that set the benchmark that still applies for Bentley, the spirit very much alive at the modern factory in Crewe.

Speaking of the present, does the company plan a return to Le Mans? Will it really remain satisfied with recent victories in GT3?

“Never say never, but the rules would have to change for us to make the business case to go back,” says Gush. “Racing is a business tool for the company as well as excitement for our customers. Right now the ACO only allows for GTE cars so we are not eligible with the Continental GT. Also, GTE cars are very tightly controlled in their configuration, in what you can change, but there have been talks about how GT3 and GTE could converge, and we came close to an agreement. In the end, however, the GTE manufacturers were not keen, so the status quo remains.

“If the rules do change, if we were eligible, then yes, we would go back to Le Mans. For now we are comfortable where we are because the [European] Blancpain series is customer racing, which is where Bentley started: Clement and Duff won Le Mans in 1924 with a private entry supported by the works. With Blancpain, there are 12 manufacturers and 50 cars on the grid, and we are competing with a car that is immediately identifiable with the road-going Continental GT. We are beating McLaren, Porsche, Mercedes and Ferrari; it’s the perfect place to show the world what Bentley can do.

“Yes, it is a balance-of-power formula, but I think SRO [the promoter] has done a good job because we are very close in performance to McLaren. They might try to nail us, but then they’d have to do the same to McLaren as we are winning by the smallest of margins, and a lot of that is in the pit work, the way the team performs. We’re not the fastest in a straight line but we have a great chassis, the engine is strong and we manage tyre wear very efficiently. Right now I believe we are keeping the Bentley racing tradition alive in the right way.”

Gush is an astute tactician as well as a gifted engineer, so don’t be surprised if the Flying B moves on from its GT3 campaign in the future.

For now, let’s get back to the Blower. It’s our turn for some laps of arguably the most famous racetrack in the world. We wait in line for an age and the plugs don’t like this much, but some purposeful pressure on the throttle soon clears the misfire as we head towards Dunlop Curve. Over the hill and down we go, gathering speed towards the start of the Mulsanne, which stretches out beyond the vast dark green bonnet.

The speed and the rev counter appear not to match, such is the torque tugging us along, 90mph and barely 3000 revs as we reach the first of the damnable chicanes. Gush takes some kerb, the Bentley brushes it off and we plunge headlong between the trees again as great lumps of air are thrown into and over our heads. I brake for the right-hander before he does, but through we go and blast down to Indianapolis, the mighty machine in its element, like a racehorse released from the stalls. Soppy this may sound, but I reckon Birkin’s Blower knew exactly where it was, loved this chance to go hunting again. This was truly joyous stuff, the crowd egging us on, waving and cheering as the old girl sailed serenely through the curves and on towards the final chicane.

I did not see the ghosts of Birkin and the Boys as we crossed the line but they were there, as was W O, whose flair and passion created these great motor cars. Sadly the yellows were waved far too soon and we cruised gently back to our stable where she would take on oil, a bath of fuel and some hearty oats for this magical step back in time.

“We all share a genuine love of these cars,” says Bentley’s Richard Charlesworth, who had galloped Old Number One across the flatlands of northern France. “The Bentley Boys live on, not only at Crewe, but in the GT3 car, in everything we do. This is not a marketing thing; the spirit gets under your skin and our customers are buying into the history as well. Back at the factory, they are excited by the racing programme, just as they were when we won Le Mans in 2003. Racing is a big part of the story, then and now, and into the future.”

There can be no doubt that Bentley is squarely back in the public eye.

At Le Mans Classic the fans were walking past Ferrari Enzos, Maseratis and McLarens to take a closer look at the mighty Blower with its supercharger developed independently from the works by Tim Birkin, who spent a fortune in his quest for more speed and power. W O himself said that “to supercharge a Bentley engine is to pervert its design and corrupt its performance” but Birkin persisted and the car eventually made it to Le Mans in 1930. After a titanic duel with Rudolf Carraciola’s Mercedes, Birkin was forced to retire and the race was won by the factory Speed Sixes. Today, almost a century later, the British Racing Green machine, with its prominent supercharger is mobbed everywhere we go, dads and grandfathers explaining the history to goggle-eyed sons and grandsons. All too soon it was time to head for home.

“We’re low on fuel,” says Gush as we surge towards the coast. “We’re going to have to make a pitstop.” At once Frank and Ray are alongside with jerry cans and additive, enough for a short blast to the pumps. Goggles and leather helmets on, we get our heads down for another two hours of pure adrenaline, the sheer joy of a gale in our faces and that hard-edged rumble from beyond our feet, a cluster of flickering Jaeger instruments reassuring us all is well with pressures and temperatures. In daylight we see the caravans and the hatchbacks that share our road, but no matter. We are lost in the mists of time, revelling in the roar of this giant of a car.

And d’you know what? There and back, she never missed a beat.

Then and now: The Hotel de France
Revisiting a venue imbued with British Le Mans racing history

On the Friday before the race weekend we took the opportunity to enjoy some proper French roads that looked, and what we imagine felt, like the Le Mans circuit as it used to be. The destination was a small hotel with strong links to the great race – and these have happily been renewed.

Nearly 30 miles to the south-east of Le Mans, on the winding D304, lies the beautiful village of La Chârtre sur le Loir. In the Place de la République at its centre is the Hotel de France, renovated in all its former glory by British racing enthusiast Martin Overington.

The hotel, which was built in 1905, was a popular place to stay during Le Mans week for both drivers and teams through the years. It’s probably most associated with John Wyer, the great team manager, who not only stayed at the hotel, but also used it as a base to prepare his Aston Martins, Ford GT40s and Porsche 917s. The mechanics would drive the race cars up the D304 to the circuit, even during the 917 years, which must have been a remarkable sight and one recreated during the 24 Hours week this year by Derek Bell and a Porsche 962.

To emphasise just how accurate Overington’s renovation has been, we couldn’t resist parking our weekend transport – a sensational Ferrari F12 – in the hotel’s forecourt (above), in exactly the same spot where some of Le Mans’ greatest racing cars sat in generations past.

On this evidence, the hotel is already a popular pilgrimage for fans and is bound to become a requirement to complete any future Le Mans road trip. Damien Smith

Perfect pitch
Ancient and modern collide as Motor Sport travels to the Le Mans Classic in Ferrari’s F12berlinetta (but then kips in a tent)…

As customers go, I’ll take a stab in the dark and suggest I’m probably not the target demographic for Ferrari’s stunning F12berlinetta flagship. Notwithstanding the small matter of the bill – the last car I bought was approximately £317,000 less than the total retail price stated at the bottom of the full spec sheet – few F12 owners tend to drive such exemplary automotive refinement 300 miles to park it in a field and pitch a tent next to it. And it wasn’t even a deluxe tent.

But at Le Mans, sleeping under canvas (or a lightweight modern alternative) is part of tradition. A château, gîte or country hotel serves up more alluring creature comforts, but a campsite a stone’s throw from the Circuit de la Sarthe has its own charm. Plus it’s fun – especially at Le Mans Classic when you’re camping with Motor Sport.

Following the success of last year’s site at the 24 Hours, we teamed up once again with our friends at Le Mans travel specialist Speed Chills and invited guests to join us at the circuit’s biennial historic festival. A month after the main event, we found ourselves motoring south on familiar roads, this time to a relatively stripped down circuit, devoid of the ‘feral’ types who are beginning to spoil the 24 Hours, for a race meeting that’s a throwback to the past in more ways than the obvious.

They say the journey is as important to any Le Mans weekend as the racing itself, which is why we organised the Motor Sport 90th Anniversary Cavalcade. Thus, as Rob Widdows left Blighty for the ride in Birkin’s Blower Bentley, I slipped into the leather finery of Ferrari’s Daytona of the modern age. Admittedly, the F12 hardly registers as a classic – but give it time.

From an early morning channel tunnel crossing (I needed the high-vehicle carriage to avoid grazing the expensive alloys on the standard narrow-gauge option), I made the rendezvous to meet the others: midnight blue Ferrari BB512, metallic 360, lovely Lotus Europa, Motor Sport’s own bright yellow Lotus Elise, (spotless) Land Rover Defender, a couple of Merc E-classes… and, erm, a Ford Galaxy hire car.

Eclectic? Certainly. But the trio in the people carrier had an excuse: Tony, Jake and Peter had come all the way from Australia for an old-boys’ European tour that had already taken in the Goodwood Festival of Speed, visits to museums at Donington, Brooklands and Beaulieu, then would continue at the Brands Hatch SuperPrix and Silverstone Classic – via the delights of Moulin Rouge in Paris… At their age I hope I have such energy.

Immediately, of course, I lost everyone except the midnight blue Ferrari as I led the Cavalcade away from Calais. The pearlescent (officially it’s ‘Bianco Italia’) F12 is hard to miss and a pause at the A16 péage allowed our crew to close formation. Then it was on to the lunch stop, just on the other side of Rouen.

Mindful of both my licence and the oddball convoy behind, I didn’t stray from a gentle cruise as the Ferrari gave a hint of its strengths as the grandest of modern Grand Tourers.

The 6.3-litre V12 was positively tame at the 130kph speed limit, but short blasts of acceleration kept me amused, the force pushing me into the small of my seat as I flicked through the seamless seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox and listened to twin six-into-one exhausts singing. Those liquid lines and F1-inspired ‘blown spoiler’ create new levels of downforce for a road car, apparently, but these roads (and this driver) wouldn’t trouble those limits unduly. They would trouble my wallet, though. In all, I’d use more than €300 of fuel for the trip.

A small navigational error (the sat-nav is an F12 weak spot, although the fault here was mine) meant an awkward Cavalcade U-turn on our approach to the charming lunch destination. “The Cavalcade’s a shambles – just like your editorials!” shouted one happy customer. Ouch! But I think he approved of La Bouille, a picturesque riverside village just south of Rouen, less than five minutes off the A13.

Upon arrival in Le Mans, we were struck first by how naked the Circuit de la Sarthe looked in its relative state of undress away from the 24 Hours. As for campsites at Bleu Sud, across the road from the Ford chicane, we couldn’t miss ours. It was the only one, which a month on from the chaos of the main event was again a novelty.

Speed Chills welcomed us to a secure facility that’s a cut or three above the usual ‘public’ canvas cities. Within it, our Cavalcade had its own Motor Sport clubhouse in which to relax, with a large TV to watch World Cup football (if interested) or keep track of the British Grand Prix playing out in another field far away. It was also a handy refuge from the rain that intermittently drenched Le Mans over the weekend.

The weather did affect the track action, in keeping with Le Mans tradition, but it didn’t take any shine off this classic carnival. In all, 110,000 people descended on the Circuit de la Sarthe, enough to make it busy, but not as crammed as it is for the 24 Hours, which this year attracted more than 260,000.

On track, the spectacle was mixed. Grids were large and impressive, with six different classes competing three times over the course of 24 hours. At 5pm on the Saturday, the great Sébastien Loeb flagged off a traditional – but entirely for show – Le Mans running start for the 1923-39 grid.

As the race began in earnest, the drivers were surely trying their best. But in this giant setting, the oldest classes just looked plain slow and at times, from the grandstands, it was hard to remain interested. It didn’t help that the knowledgeable English-speaking commentator had only slightly more information than the spectators as to what was going on around the 8.4-mile circuit. There were a couple of giant screens, but they rarely (if ever) showed live coverage of the races, and the only cameras were pointing at the first part of the lap exclusively, as if the Mulsanne, Indianapolis, Arnage and the Porsche Curves didn’t exist. Perhaps organiser Peter Auto might consider engaging with its large audience when the classic is held again in 2016.

The faster, latter classes – 1966-71 and 1972-79 – did at least look more at home, especially as their first races took place in darkness. At midnight the grid of ’70s classics created an incredible sight as they blasted under the Dunlop bridge. The drizzle that made them twitch through the Esses turned into a downpour and sadly brought the spectacle to an early finish, but it had been fantastic while it lasted.

On Sunday afternoon, winners were declared on aggregate over the three legs of each plateau. Gareth Burnett and Michael Birch (Talbot 105) snatched the 1923-39 honours from Christian Traber in the final seconds of the last heat, but Alex Buncombe was the loser in the 1949-56 class. Having won the first two heats easily in his Jaguar C-type, the professional racer collected an errant Lotus bonnet on the Mulsanne, allowing Nicholas Finburgh and Robert Newall to take the top step in their C-type instead.

Gary Pearson and journalist Chris Harris claimed the 1957-61 class in their ex-works Jaguar D-type, but only after late-race action (which most of us didn’t see…) with the Ian Dalglish/Joe Twyman Aston Martin DB4 GT and James Woods’ Lotus 15, both of which were affected by time penalties for ‘technical infringements’.

Hans Hugenholtz (Ford GT40) won the second and third heats to claim the 1962-65 category, while David Hart’s immaculate Lola T70 dominated the mouth-watering 1966-71 field. David Franklin’s glorious Ferrari 312P particularly caught both eye and ear. And at 5pm on Sunday Chris MacAllister’s 1973 Gulf Mirage did enough to demote Carlos Barbot’s heat two-winning long-tail Lola T280 to claim Plateau Six.

Back at the Motor Sport clubhouse, we caught up on what we’d missed at the British GP courtesy of Sky F1’s coverage – skipping through the hour-long delay for Kimi Räikkönen’s drain-induced shunt. It felt odd to have missed Silverstone, but if ever there was a suitably grand alternative it had to be Le Mans Classic. Damien Smith