Bentley's back in the race for pace

It's unlikely that the famous World War II Spitfire would be dusted off for another stoush should we find ourselves at war tomorrow.

And you're probably not going to see Muhammad Ali step into the ring to shape up to his next opponent any time soon, either.

But car-maker Bentley, a company which forged its reputation on race tracks in the 1920s, is heading back to the noisy side of the pit-wall after a lengthy absence for a crack at the youngsters of GT3 sports car racing.

While the Spitfire and Ali have both suffered at the hands of time, Bentley is a brand and can therefore reinvent itself and adapt its machinery to suit a modern-day racetrack environment.

That said, GT3 racing is a formula that uses cars based on production models. Bentley has few peers as a luxury product but even the most svelte of its showroom stock, the Continental GT, tips the scales at 2350kg - about the same as a full-sized off-road four-wheel-drive.

But with the establishment of a partnership between Bentley and international race-team management operation M-Sport - and a thorough rework of the car which shaved away about 1000kg of the comfort, convenience and opulence features superfluous to competition - Bentley appears to be back in the business of potentially winning races.

Robin Peel, Bentley's head of communications and marketing for Asia-Pacific, says the decision to go racing again was surprisingly easy.

Speaking at the Continental GT's first race, the Gulf 12 Hour in Abu Dhabi this month, Peel confirms the car's initial appearance was a shake-down for a full season of GT Sports Car racing in 2014.

“We were very successful in the 1920s at places like Le Mans (the annual 24-hour race),” he says.


But Bentley also came out of retirement again in 2001 with a three-year plan to win Le Mans by 2003. And that's exactly what they did.

“But prior to 2003,” Mr Peel admits, “1931 was our last win at Le Mans.”

He says the competitive spirit never left Bentley and that racing success remains a natural fit with the aspirations of Bentley owners.

Nor, he says, is the move a reinvention of the Bentley brand, but rather a return to its roots.

“It's in our blood,” he says. “It's part of what we do.”

But this latter-day factory Bentley racing equipe will not tackle the hallowed Le Mans 24-hour event. Instead it will likely stick to established, multi-round GT Sports Car series such as the Blancpain Endurance Series for GT cars.

This 12-round series is run on European soil and includes a class dubbed the Gentleman's Trophy, as well as a class for pro drivers.

“We've nothing to prove at Le Mans. We've won it six times,” Peel maintains.

“And when we have Audi and Porsche doing so well in their classes at Le Mans (Bentley, Audi and Porsche are all owned by Volkswagen) it just doesn't make sense for us to go there.”

So what's in it for those who will buy subsequent Bentley road cars? Will racing really improve the breed as is so often claimed by the motorsport industry?

“We don't claim a direct connection between racing and benefits to our road cars,” Mr Peel admits. “This is about the brand. It's about us saying, we're contemporary.

“With the new V8 engine in the Continental GT last year, we suddenly have new people interested.

“But will there be a technical spin-off of racing for those buyers? It's too early to tell.”

Bentley's engineering boss and an ex-Porsche race engineer, Rolf Frech, says lessons learnt on the racetrack can trickle down to road car stock.

“Coming from Porsche, I was always looking for the way we could link to the road car,” Mr Frech says. “It's not just the speed angle, but also durability that racing can teach us about.

“In a race car, you can take risks (on durability) but on the production-car side of things, you cannot take the same risks. The product is in the hands of the customer, not you. You have to be sure about it.”

And sure about it Bentley most assuredly is: The single car entered in the Gulf 12-Hour finished fourth outright. Not bad for its first ever hit-out.

From prop-forward to ballerina

Turning even a fast road car such as the Continental GT into a race-winner was never going to be easy, and the first job was to shed some weight.

That was made easier by GT3 rules demanding only two-wheel-drive. The all-wheel-drive system in the road version of the Continental was ditched, making the car rear-drive and instantly lighter.

Next to go were the luxury items. In the case of the GT, that means wood veneer, acres of leather, double-glazing and all the gizmos and gadgets that make the road-going car such a delight.

Finally, while the standard body structure must be retained, the use of a carbon-fibre bonnet, bootlid and doors pared even more weight.

In the end, around a tonne was shed to bring the race-car down to the minimum 1300kg demanded by GT3 regulations.

The four-litre V8 engine retains its twin turbochargers and is reportedly good for 453kW of power.

David Morley travelled to Abu Dhabi as a guest of Bentley Motors Ltd.