Bentley returns to the race track

bentley

Kris Meeke, Top Gear’s favourite rallyist, showed what mad genius Bentley’s Continental GT could wreak on a gravel stage on the TV show a while back. Now the Crewe bruiser is strutting its stuff as it makes its world debut as a circuit racer in the Gulf 12 Hours endurance event in Abu Dhabi. As unlikely looking a racing car as it is – which is precisely why TG.com loves it – the Continental GT3 wound up an impressive fifth in yesterday’s qualifying session, just eight-tenths off the pole-sitting Team Abu Dhabi AMG SLS. It clearly has what it takes to mix it with the Ferrari 458, McLaren 12C, and AMGs that dominate this increasingly compelling – and competitive – category.

But it’s still early days, as Bentley’s director of motorsport Brian Gush told us ahead of today’s two six-hour races. ‘We’ve done 8000km of testing, but nothing in higher temperatures. We ran a test at Portimao in Portugal, which was useful for capturing data, but it’s going to be much hotter at Yas Marina. Having said that, the car behaved pretty much as we expected it to in testing and qualifying, apart from the brakes. This is a tough track in terms of the demands it places on them, so we had some work to do there. They’re working better now.

The GT3 category is subject to the FIA’s controversial ‘balance of performance’ regs, which place specific limits on power, weight, and engine management in a bid to level the playing field. Here’s where that leaves the Continental, a car co-developed with Malcolm Wilson’s well-regarded M-sport outfit. The GT3 is running Bentley’s 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V8, good for 600bhp unrestricted but pegged back to around 550 in race trim with its ‘BOP’ 38mm air restrictor in place. That’s fired to the rear wheels via a carbon fibre propshaft and harnessed by Xtrac’s fabulous six-speed sequential ’box, fitted here as a transaxle to keep the weight distribution in order.

Ah yes, weight: surely the Bentley’s Achilles’ heel. The regular Conti V8 is a 2295kg behemoth, but somehow Bentley has managed to lose a nice, round 1000kg for the GT3. Obviously, the front driveshaft has gone, along with the Conti’s other all-wheel drive gubbins, and while the monocoque is high-tensile steel, the body is mostly now made of carbon fibre. ‘The regular car’s doors weigh 57kg,’ Gush tells us. ‘The race car’s weigh 7kg.’

The suspension uses double wishbones all round, with Ohlins racing dampers, with huge cast-iron ventilated discs doing the stopping. ‘The engine is remarkably standard, but then we test our engines to the highest level of durability,’ Brian says. ‘We cut the car to the bone in the design phase then went testing. And now we’re going racing.’

Former Bentley Boy, and 2003 Le Mans winner, Guy Smith is heading up the driver line-up. Amazingly, Smith is making his GT3 debut here today, and admits to a certain culture shock after his long career in prototypes. ‘The car feels great, but it obviously moves around a lot more than an LMP1 car,’ he tells TG.com. ‘It’s very balanced, but there’s still more understeer and oversteer than I’m used to, and you just have to deal with it all. I also have to hit the brake pedal twice as hard as I would in an LMP1 car. I’ve been working specifically on my right leg in the gym. We’re all on a learning curve.’

Smith is joined by Steven Kane – like Meeke, another supremely handy Ulsterman – and Andy Meyrick for today’s race. Fresh out of the car from his first stint, Kane has a definite twinkle in his eye. ‘I’ve been racing a long time, and it’s great to be so competitive in a car that’s making its racing debut. There’s a lot more to come. I was running through lots of different maps in the first chunk of the race, and where I’d normally just get stuck right in, I was mindful of being the first guy out in Bentley’s new baby. There’s a wee bit of pressure there for sure.

‘We’re still learning about tyre wear and brake wear. We’re new, and we don’t have anything like the volume of data the other teams have. The track’s actually great for this kind of racing, because it’s hard on brakes and rubber. It also doesn’t get used that often, so it’s pretty slippery in places. You’ll see the cars moving around a bit out there.’

As TG.com writes, Bentley is up to second place, and looking very tasty indeed as race one passes the halfway point. It’s properly hot now, too, and the drivers are working hard. We’ll be back for an update later…

UPDATE: Friday, 6pm 

‘We wanted a good clean run to half distance,’ Bentley’s motorsport director Brian Gush says, reflecting on the Conti GT3’s third place finish in leg one of the Gulf 12 Hours. ‘I’m pleased with how the car performed, and how the team performed. But what I’m most pleased with is how well we were mixing it with the competition.’

Brian is pleased. So he should be. OK, so the Gulf 12 Hours is a relatively low-key event at which to debut your first racing car since winning Le Mans a decade ago – ‘big enough for us to shout about it if we do well,’ an insider concedes, ‘but low profile enough for us to get away with it if it’s a disaster’ – but still, third is seriously impressive.

TG.com has just returned from an extensive trackside wander, all the better to get a handle on who’s got a proper handle on the track. We’re currently at half-distance in race two, and the current top three is the Team Abu Dhabi by Black Falcon  (catchy name) AMG Mercedes SLS – with official TG hero Bernd Schneider in charge– AF Corse’s Ferrari 458 GT3 in second, and the M-sport Bentley squad in third. The Black Falcon SLS, which featured the late Sean Edwards as one of its regular drivers, has serious form, with wins in the Dubai 24 hours earlier this year, and at the Nürburgring 24 Hours (Schneider has won at Spa and Bathurst, too). AF Corse is one of the top Ferrari customer teams, and between them they’ve amassed thousands of race and test kilometres, and a mountain of data their Crewe rivals couldn’t dream about. Low-key debut or not, this Bentley is fast out-of-the-box, and looks impressively stable and agile on the move. If not quite as imperturbable and frankly awe-inspiring as Schneider in the SLS…

The Conti GT3 survived this morning’s race without breaking into sweat – not something the drivers could claim, given the intense heat – which augered well for the evening session. And so it has proved. Degradation and soaring tyre pressures were an issue earlier; now they’re not. Gush admits that there’s ‘room for improvement’ in the Conti’s fuel consumption, but is content with the car’s overall balance and performance otherwise. Remember, also, this is a first for Malcolm Wilson’s outfit, which, while hugely experienced in WRC, has never run a circuit team of this sort before.

Right now, the guys are popping in regular 2min12 second lap times, which suggests they have enough pace not only to nab a podium tonight, but also to be front-runners and winners when the Blancpain endurance series kicks off in Monza in April. Steven Kane has just done the fastest lap so far in race two, and is battling the hard-charging Kessel Racing Ferrari 458 behind to hold onto third.

Time to go trackside again. The word is that things are starting to get – as the late, great Colin McRae was fond of calling them – a wee bit slidey…

UPDATE: Friday, midnight

The countdown to midnight has figured heavily in all manner of books and movies. With 10 minutes to go to the end of last night’s second leg of the Gulf 12 Hours, the M-sport Bentley team had its own brush with doom.

Under the unrelenting glare of Yas Marina’s awesome flood-lights, part of the Continental GT3’s under-tray and splitter suddenly detached itself, adding a dramatic but nerve-shredding shower of sparks to the sticky desert night race spectacle. Cue squeaky bottoms on the pit-wall. From pushing into the 2min 12s and setting the pace, the Bentley’s lap times tumbled into the 2min 40s as driver Andy Meyrick found himself improvising a strategy after a mostly faultless team performance into fourth place and more than 300 laps. There were no fat ladies to be seen in the pit garage, but wherever they were on the circuit they certainly weren’t singing…

In the end, the gap to the car behind enabled Meyrick to nurse the Bentley home, but if it had happened any sooner in the race the guys could have been looking at a black flag. Instead, they were delighted with a strong fourth, behind Kessel Racing’s Ferrari 458, AF Corse’s 458, and the winning and utterly imperious Team Abu Dhabi Black Falcon AMG Mercedes SLS, massively seasoned squads all. Guy Smith had battled hard for third with the Kessel car, before a gearbox glitch forced him to cede the position.

‘There were lots of issues,’ Bentley’s motorsport director Brian Gush admits minutes after the race, ‘but they were small problems and all easily resolved as we work towards next year. We finished where we wanted to finish.’

Gush describes this as a test race for Bentley and the impressively well-drilled M Sport team. Ahead lies the 2014 Blancpain endurance series, which encompasses races at classic venues like Silverstone, Spa and Monza. As Formula One mires itself ever deeper in self-sabotage – double points for the winner in the final race is an absurd notion – TG.com reckons it might be worth paying closer than ever attention to the Blancpain. Not only are the cars fantastically pumped versions of our favourite supercars – we’ll never get tired of watching or listening to the SLS or indeed the baritone Conti GT3 – the racing is thrillingly close, and the grids packed. Former GP2 ace and BAR Honda F1 test driver Adam Carroll has been racing the Gulf UK-liveried McLaren 12C this season, and TG.com caught up with him on the grid before race two. ‘Have a guess at the time gap between pole and 39th in the race at Le Castellet earlier this year,’ he asks TG.com. ‘Er, a lot?’ we reply, pathetically trying to imagine the field spread. ‘1.8 seconds. There are so many pro drivers in the series that it’s incredibly tight.’

F1’s loss is GT racing’s gain, it seems. Remember, these guys like to get paid, and while the series has plenty of gentlemen drivers, the front running outfits want the best talent they can get. Bentley, like McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes, also wants to sell their GT3 cars to customer teams. So the Continental GT3’s strong debut has served notice all along the pit-lane that a major new player has arrived. They anticipate selling around 30 cars, at a price that will be ‘no more than £368,000’, and probably a bit less, when the sums are finally worked out. ‘We’ve had lots of people checking the car out this past few days,’ Gush says, ‘which is very gratifying. This isn’t just a new car and a new team, it also has to be a Bentley.’

The boys are back in town.

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