Bentley's stunning 2003 Le Mans win: ‘Audi said it would never work’

Le Mans News

Bentley's 2003 Le Mans victory was the result of a crack independent team operating within an automotive behemoth – its mastermind Brian Gush remembers the story

Le Mans 2003 Bentley Tom Kristensen

Getty Images

La Sarthe, 2003: When Guy Smith sailed over the line to take Bentley’s first Le Mans win in 73 years, it was the realisation of modern motor sport heroics emulating a storied brand’s past glories.

Bentley forged its racing legacy with four wins in a row from 1927 to 1930 (in addition to its non-works win in 1924) with legendary names such as Woolf Barnato, Henry Birkin and Glen Kidston using the fearsome ‘Blower’ Bentley cars. Then, it stopped.

After a decades-long absence from the race that made its identity, Bentley went a long way to restoring its reputation with a famous Le Mans win over seven decades later – and one done in the buccaneering fashion of its racing forefathers with a budget “less than Audi’s catering bill”.

The stunning car which clinched it was the Speed 8, described by one of its winning pilots – nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen – as the “the most beautiful” machine to ever succeed at the classic enduro.

However, that famous win hinged on a decision made years before – in a Volkswagen boardroom meeting filled with huge, palpable tension.

1930 Bentley Le Mans winners Barnato and Kidston

Bentley’s 1930 winners Barnato and Kidston, flanked by Clement and Watney

Getty Images

Recalling the tale now to Motor Sport, ‘Project Barnato’s’ mastermind Brian Gush describes selling the idea to then VW-chairman Dr Ferdinand Piëch with some understatement as “a bit of a moment” – one which sealed his team’s place in racing history.

Bentley rose from ashes of VW Le Mans car

The story of Bentley’s brilliant return to racing has its roots in the inglorious fits and starts of various VW ideas.

First came Audi hedging its bets with two different top-tier Le Mans concepts – the open-top R8 and closed top R8C – in the late ‘90s. The latter was ultimately canned, but the site it was produced at – Racing Technology Norfolk – was then used to begin developing a Cosworth-powered Volkswagen Le Mans prototype, which also stalled…

Gush, who had worked for Ford in South Africa before transferring to VW in Germany, overseeing a number of motor sport projects in both roles, was moved to the UK when the German juggernaut bought Bentley. Gush saw the impetus to start a Bentley racing division “for my own punishment!”

Audi R8C 1999 Le Mans

Modern Bentley effort had its genesis in the R8C project

“I went to Le Mans in 2000 with some customers and met [Bentley marketing board member] Adrian Hallmark,” he says.

“It was a mega aligning of the planets. The VW project had been canned, but the manufacturing facility was there. The basic architecture of a car was there but it hadn’t run yet – and there was no engine.

Related article

“I negotiated an engine deal with [then-Audi CEO] Dr Paefgen of Audi, and we shook on it. But he said ‘you’ll never get it past marketing to get an Audi engine into a Bentley race car.’”

Gush had Paefgen’s theoretical support guaranteed if he managed to make the unthinkable happen at the crunch meeting.

“I had to convince VW AG that it was a good thing to do. So that was quite a career moment, presenting in front of Dr Piëch – the man behind the Porsche 917!” he remembers laughing.

“I had a model of the Bentley car in the room, and we explained what we wanted to do. He didn’t say yes, he didn’t say no, he just asked for more detail – from there the project evolved.”

Although Gush didn’t have the full green light, he knew he had to invoke the spirit of Bentley’s bygone age: press on regardless, but be pragmatic to the hilt.

2 Le Mans 2001 Bentley Martin Brundle testing

2001 car impressed in testing – but wasn’t quite quick enough to challenge the Audis

Getty Images

“There was a lot of pressure to wait,” he says. “But I felt if you waited too long, the moment would pass and we wouldn’t get it done.

“The key to the whole thing was actually budgeting and so I worked very closely with [sports car team boss] Richard Lloyd, and then John Wickham, in putting a budget together that was ‘zero based.’ Ulrich Baretzky [Audi’s engine guru] really took the project to heart and helped us a lot. Getting the right people on board was critical.

“So, we started at zero and said, ‘Well, what do we need to go and compete, to make our car really competitive?

“That budget was just a fraction of what the VW group was spending on motor sport which led to a bit of an incredulous attitude: ‘You’ll never do it for that!’ Which was a big motivation for me to get it done.

“Adrian Hallmark’s been on record saying that our expenditure was less than the hospitality of Audi, but that’s very difficult to verify! I was just proud of the fact we got it all done, we never wanted for anything.”

Le Mans 2001 Bentley Martin Brundle

Monsoon nearly derailed first Le Mans entry


Bentley’s 2001 Le Mans return

Bentley’s first effort for its Le Mans return in 2001 would be the EXP Speed 8, and Gush emphasises that autonomy was the name of the game for a racing story which some suggest is just an Audi R8 prototype with a roof on it.

“The operation that we took over had an incredible depth of manufacturing, which was really good – there was more British content in the Bentley than there was German content in the Audi: the R8 chassis was designed by Dallara, the gearbox was from Ricardo,” he asserts.

“Another key to our success was the independence of being able to just choose our own transmission – we chose the very reliable Xtrac gearbox, which wasn’t the Achilles Heel that the Audi’s Ricardo unit was. Aside from that and the engine, nothing was outsourced.

“We were very reliable out of the box which was also key to light expenditure.”

The svelte lines of the EXP and its Speed 8 sibling are what now make it so iconic – but why go down the closed cockpit route in the first place?

“It was a massive debate at the time because the regulations [for Le Mans Grand Touring Prototype] had been altered in ’98,” Gush says.

“The rules for closed cars said you had to have narrower rear wheels but were allowed a 2mm-bigger restrictor, so you had more power but less contact patch.

Le Mans 2002 Bentley 3

Leitzinger, Wallace and van de Poele rescued a podium in 2001 after downpour

Getty Images

“The aerodynamic advantages were quite substantial in a closed car, but you had to design a door, a windscreen wiper and have a cockpit environment that you’ve got to look after.

“We decided to go for a closed car because that was what was already on the drawing board. The argument was so close that it made sense to just continue with what we had – and the aero figures coming out of the tunnel were just so good.”

A conservative yet solid design, Bentley’s first prototype effort, the EXP Speed 8, was held back by the initial sticking point when the project was first conceived – the engine.

“The EXP car really was quite quick out of the box,” Gush remembers. “The first year, Audi sold us the engines quite happily but, of course, never told us that there was a direct-injection unit coming.

Le Mans 2002 Bentley 2

Team was reduced to one car for 2002, which finished fourth

Getty Images

“So, we were left with the 3.6-litre port injection engine from ’99 – but we still made Audi sit up at the first test.”

And so it was at the 2001 La Sarthe race too – Martin Brundle led in the first hour, before an unprecedented Le Mans monsoon flooded the gearbox actuator on his No7 car.

The same thing happened to the No8, but it managed to limp back to the pits for repairs, with Andy Wallace, Butch Leitznger and Eric van de Poele eventually taking a famous third-place podium for Bentley on its Le Mans return.

From the archive

“When I presented the project to Piëch, I said it was a three-year project: finish the race the first year, podium in the second and win it the third,” says Gush. “I got that slightly wrong!

“But that podium in 2001 was as sweet as the victory in 2003. It was fantastic, and the amount of support we had [from the fans] was incredible.”

Bentley had shown great potential in ’01, but had still lost out to the dominant Audi R8s. While the British brand perhaps didn’t need a quantum performance leap, it still required sizeable gains to win.

“Dr Paefgen was then assigned to be managing director of Bentley,” says Gush. “He just said ‘Can this Le Mans car win as it is?’ I told him ‘No. We need a new car.’

“He said ‘Right, you’ve given me your budget already. For 2002, I want you to go from two cars down to one car and halve the costs. Use your saving for a new car in 2003.’

“We all know that doesn’t work! But we made a lot of savings. We had to start again with everything – and Pete Elleray was getting some fantastic results out of the wind tunnel.”

Le Mans 2003 Bentley Mark Blundell

Peter Elleray came up with the all-new Speed 8 in 2003, which proved the standard-bearer in that year

Getty Images

“I’d had the idea for the car a while back,” Elleray told Andrew Frankel in 2012, “but I didn’t feel well enough established to stand there in the early days and state ‘this is what we need’”.

What Elleray and co produced in the Speed 8 was a monster, a well-handling “giant go-kart” which, according to Gush, the drivers loved both to wheel and admire.

“For me, the Bentley is still the most beautiful-looking Le Mans car ever,” Kristensen said in 2010, a driver who regularly reunites with the car for historic events, including the Goodwood Members’ Meeting two weeks ago.

Also helping was the grunt in the back, which had been new for 2002.

“I’d decided we were never going to use a 100% customer engine again,” Gush says. “So I asked Baretzky what can we do to develop this?

“We went to a 4-litre direct injection engine, which then became our own, and then you’re no longer a customer. That was a turning point.”

“When the full weight of Audi’s development programme was thrown behind Bentley for 2003 it became a superb engine,” Guy Smith said to Keith Howard in 2007.

Did Audi gift 2003 Le Mans win to Bentley?

2002 had brought a fourth-place finish for the sole EXP, before Audi had come to the end of its initial three-year cycle with the R8 at the end of 2002, pulling back to focus on its new diesel developments – though many R8 customers were still in the ’03 field.

Le Mans 2003 Bentley Mulsanne

No7 car ran flawlessly during ’03 Le Mans to win, with No8 finishing second

Getty Images

With this new car, the reduced Audi works presence and Joest team members — including Kristensen — seconded to Bentley, was Audi simply ‘letting’ Bentley win in ’03?

“I wouldn’t have thought it was the case,” contends Gush. “I don’t think any of its customer teams would have allowed that sort of thing to happen. Those guys are all racers.

“Piëch’s philosophy was always internal competition improves the product” Brian Gush

“Dr Piëch’s philosophy was always internal competition improves the product. Keep the pressure on. There was a big rivalry.”

With Bentley now the de-facto VW works operation though, what had been conceived as a pseudo indy effort suddenly had a huge weight of expectation on it for 2003.

“Certainly the management team expected us to win – I felt very uncomfortable with that,” says Gush.

“It’s not something that you say upfront, and a lot of people [from VW] were saying it. They also booked the Savoy in Mayfair for a party before the race, which I really was uncomfortable about.”

Le Mans 2003 Bentley leads the field

Bentley leads the Audis in ’03 – Gush denies VW handed its British team the win

Getty Images

On the big day though, Le Mans 2003, Gush and his team delivered – Smith, Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello took the win with Mark Blundell, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert making it a Bentley 1-2, the two cars relatively unchallenged with the next closest finisher – an Audi R8 – five laps behind the winner. Not that it was easy, or free from corporate intervention.

“Dr Paefgen asked me to arrange that the cars came across the line together, because an Audi had done this before,” remembers Gush. “I refused – I felt it was just a stunt.

From the archive

“If you ask one driver to slow down, that’s when he falls off. I wasn’t prepared to risk anything right at the end. We had some tense words in the pitlane.”

Once corporate relations were smoothed over, Bentley took its first Le Mans win in 73 years – and a hugely popular one at that. With the incredible Speed 8 looking to be a contender for years to come, Gush already had the future mapped out.

“We were geared up to continue. I did my budget, I had my plan, all ready for 2004.

“I had quite a few meetings with Dr Paefgen about it. But in the final meeting, he said to me, ‘So what are you going to do differently in 2004?’

“I replied ‘We’re going to win again, we are really competitive, and we’ve invested in this and this etc.’

Le Mans 2003 Bentley at the finishing line

VW execs requested a formation finish – Gush refused

Getty Images

“He said ‘But you finished 1-2, how can you improve? Now we have to repay VW’s investment in Bentley and concentrate on developing the GT road car and making a profit.’

“It was disappointing, but you could see the point.”

However, what that team achieved in a relatively small period of time is something which will stick in the minds of motor sport fans for eternity – just like the stunning Bentley Speed 8. A restoration of British racing pride.

“I’d say [getting the win was] equal with the podium in 2001,” asserts Gush.

“Firstly, getting the programme approved was right up there, and doing it for the money that I promised to – because there’s a lot of bullshit in terms of programmes and expenditure.

Le Mans 2003 Bentley win

“Standing on the podium is something that is just very, very special, and the amount of support that we got [from the fans] was fantastic.

“The other thing that was amazing was that it was about revitalisation of the Bentley brand.

“Before, whenever you asked anyone who they worked for at the factory, they always said Rolls-Royce.

“After 2001, when we came back and got a podium, there was no question as to where you were: it was Bentley. That demonstrated the power of motor sport as to brand identity and brand building.

“WO Bentley, was the last motor sport director before I started the racing programme again – I was quite proud to say I was the second Bentley motor sport director!”