I am sitting in the press room at Le Mans, two days before the start of the race I have driven 500 miles to watch. This column was unlikely ever to be about anything else.
JUN 17th 2016
Thank Frankel It's Friday – Remembering Birkin's Le Mans battle
I want to share my Le Mans moment with you, one shining instant which encapsulated every single thing I love about this sport. The odd this is I didn’t witness it for the simple reason it happened 35 years before I was born: a reasonable excuse I hope you agree. There are no photographs, let alone any videos and the main protagonist didn’t even finish the race. But in that moment and to the eight year old me finding out about it for the first time, one man achieved sheer, heroic perfection.
That man was Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin and the year was 1930. He was driving a Bentley at Le Mans but not strictly for Bentley. Birkin had won the year before with Woolf Barnato in the magnificent Speed Six, but he was obsessed with the idea of supercharging the 41/2-litre engine, an idea WO simply loathed. Had he still be in control of the company that bore his name, doubtless the famed ‘Blower’ Bentleys would never have been built. But he wasn’t and had little choice but to accept Birkin’s cars, entered by his benefactor, Miss Dorothy Paget, as part of the team.
Bentley was chasing a fourth successive win on the trot having won against all the odds in 1927, having almost thrown victory away in 1928 and triumphed at a very steady canter in 1929. But in 1930 came Mercedes-Benz, the proper, Mercedes-Benz factory team with Germany’s greatest driver Rudolf Caracciola behind the wheel and arguably the world’s greatest team manager, Alfred Neubauer, in the pits. Their Mercedes engine displaced over seven litres, not only more than the Speed Six motor let alone the Blower’s, but it was supercharged too.
Never one to let overwhelming odds interfere with his battle plan, Birkin was up and after the Mercedes from the off. Unlike his supercharger, the SSK’s was never meant to work all the time, and was engaged via clutch on demand from the driver. Birkin figured the more he could force Caracciola to use it, the more likely it would be that the big Benz might break. So he harried him around the opening laps, apparently oblivious to the fact he was stressing his own Bentley even more than the Mercedes.
Soon he began to gain on the huge white Mercedes, but catching is one thing and overtaking quite another. Worse, whatever strain his car might be feeling, his tyres were feeling it more and as he closed up on the SSK on the Mulsanne Straight, a rear tyre threw a tread. Undeterred he pressed on. But there wasn’t space to get past. He never thought about lifting. At what has been estimated to be 126mph – an unimaginable speed for a road legal sports car 86 years ago – he overtook the SSK with two wheels on the grass and proceeded to break the lap record with a tyre in tatters. For me, that was the moment. Every element was there: the most heroic car on the most heroic track, defeating a far superior foe by force of spirit alone. It was Bentley, it was Birkin, it was Britain and it was duffing up the Germans in France. And please forgive the jingoism – I was only eight.
Best of all, Birkin knew it would all be for nothing. He would have both felt and heard the tread being thrown from the tyre and should have instantly backed off and returned to the pits for the spare. But he kept going, because that’s what chaps did. He was enjoying himself too much, it was too important to him to meekly lift and abandon the hunt.
Neither Birkin’s Blower nor its sister finished the race. Indeed and in period no supercharged Bentley ever won a significant motor race. But he had pushed the Mercedes faster than it cared to go too, and when it also duly retired, the path was left open for Barnato to cruise to victory in Old Number One, the same Speed Six that had won the year before.
But while that Speed Six would go on to be evolved and modified so much over time it took an expensive court case simply to determine that it indeed remained entitled the identity of Old Number One, Birkin’s blower is today largely as it was the day Birkin drove it at Le Mans. It is I am sure the most original of all surviving works Bentleys racing cars and, I would imagine, the most valuable Bentley in the world.
Owned by Bentley Motors, it has been my inestimable privilege to drive it on a couple of occasions. And I can tell you that the first time I sat Birkin’s seat, held his huge twine-bound, Bakelite wheel, pressed those pedals and surveyed a cockpit so crammed with instruments it looks like a fighter plane, it was in the most literal sense a dream come true. As for what it is like to drive, just look at it and imagine. It drives exactly like that.
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