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Bentley Close 3rd At Le Mans

by Larry Roberts

June 25, 2001

Bentley is presently best known in this country as the maker of very high-priced carriage-trade automobiles that are conservatively styled and usually chauffeur-driven.

But the roots of this prestigious British make are deeply planted in motorsports in general and the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in particular. Bentleys won the prestigious French event five times (albeit seven decades ago), before it was bought by Rolls-Royce in 1931. Besides these Le Mans victories, Bentleys had placed second and third on several occasions.

But ancient history is just that. Several generations of enthusiasts have come on the scene since then, and few are aware that the name Bentley is indeed connected with the 24 Hours of Le Mans race - until now.

Bentley is now owned by Volkswagen and that German company has a passion for sports car endurance racing and a sense of motorsports history. Volkswagen also owns Audi and last year a trio of specially-constructed Audi R8 race cars took the top three places at the end of the 24 hour race.

This year could easily have been a replay of the 2000 event. There were four of the very fast and reliable Audi R8 racers, albeit two of them were "private" entries and may or may not have had the financing of the two "works" cars. Audis took up four of the first six spots on the starting grid.

But sitting back in seventh and ninth positions were two Bentley EXP Speed 8s, dark green cars that gladdened the hearts of automotive Anglophiles the world over. The suffix "Speed 8" alludes back to the Bentley "Speed 6" that won at Le Mans in 1929 and 1930.

Needless to say, much of the powertrain engineering that went into the Bentley endurance racers came from Audi since they now share a common VW "parent." The supercharged 3.6-liter V8 Bentley engine is, in reality, the same engine that powered all four Audi R8 cars in the race. But the Bentley cars themselves were designed and built by Racing Technology Norfolk and managed by Apex Motorsports in Buckingham, both English firms. In practice on the Le Mans track in previous weeks, the two green cars proved to be as fast as any of the competition and just as reliable. This from a design that was entering its first race.

Tradition means much to Team Bentley and in keeping with another throwback to its glory years, the team drivers are referred to as The Bentley Boys, just as they were in the late '20s. In truth, only four of the six professional pilots list their nationality as British.

Also in the mode of tradition, Bentley chose British-branded Dunlop tires which by general consensus are slightly inferior to the more commonly used Michelins.

It would have been a Hollywood ending if the two newcomer Bentleys had placed first and second after 24 hours of flat-out racing. As it was, one of the cars went out early during the fifth hour.

But after the checkered flag dropped, there was the Bentley driving team of Englishman Andy Wallace, American Butch Leitzinger and Frenchman Eric van de Poele sharing the podium with the six drivers who took first and second place in two of the four Audi A8s.

And that's not bad for a company that hasn't had an official entry in a race for 70 years.