Fast as I dare in Bentley’s 2003 Le Mans winner | Thank Frankel it’s Friday
Last weekend I toddled off to the Bentley Driver’s Club annual race meeting at Silverstone. I go every year to race the old 3.0-litre TT Bentley that has resided in my family for many years.
Actually and if we’re being strictly accurate it’s not a TT car at all, because only the three that entered the 1922 TT in only Bentley’s second competitive outing as a works team can make that claim. The first was a woeful entry into the Indy 500 that year where a 3.0-litre both started and finished last. On the Isle of Man they did rather better, coming home second, third and fourth – the last of these driven by W.O. Bentley no less – beaten only by a Sunbeam and earning Bentley its first proper trophy, a hastily arranged, short-notice ‘team’ prize.
Sadly, all those cars are lost, so there are no proper TT cars left. But ‘my’ car really is the next best thing: a perfect copy both to look at and to drive, containing at least some original TT parts. More to the point being only the 22nd chassis built, it’s actually even older than the TT cars, making it a 1921 car. It also raced in its own right at Brooklands in period and was turned into what you see here in the 1960s. It has for decades been the oldest Bentley in the world still to be competing. My problem with it was I was entered into the Bentley handicap race, which an aged relative had only gone and won the year before, so I knew the handicappers would have their eye on me. As indeed they did, placing me halfway down the grid after qualifying, despite the fact I had the oldest car in the race, none had a smaller engine and all had front brakes fitted save me. And I had beaded edge tyres and had to pump the fuel through by hand. It all seemed frightfully unfair.
Then by way of stark, staring contrast, before my race I was also down to drive another competition Bentley. This was a rather faster one, nothing less than the Speed 8 prototype that so famously won Le Mans for Bentley in 2003, an entire lifetime since the team had last tasted victory there. During the lunchbreak there was to be a five lap demonstration and I was down to the do the driving.
It’s a tricky commission. First there’s the obvious fact that this car is quite valuable. Some might call it a priceless, irreplaceable piece of history. I know what it’s insured for and I can tell you the number has eight digits in it (yes, eight) and the first one is not a ‘one’. This isn’t a Speed Eight, one a few chassis produced for that season, it is ‘the’ Speed Eight. The one Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Guy Smith drove twice around the clock that June weekend 18 years ago.
But the really tricky question was how should I drive it? I knew the car would be immaculately prepared and indeed it has been shaken down two days earlier by Ash Mason, one of number of people allowed to drive it so small you can count them on the fingers of one hand and not trouble your thumb. Why am I among them? A hopefully deserved reputation for not crashing that much, and I expect a solid slice of dumb luck.
So do I drive gently, give the crowds time to see the car, or do I go properly fast and at least let them see it being driven in some approximation of the way in which it was designed to be driven? You’d think the team would answer the question for me. You’d think someone would come up to me and say, ‘Andrew, don’t take this the wrong way, but if you do more than 60mph or use more than 4,000rpm, you’ll never drive another Bentley again.’ It’s what I’d have done. But they didn’t. They just crammed me into its interior, helped me fire it up and pointed me down the pitlane.
Actually, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made. These opportunities are rare even for one as lucky as me, and you have to make the most of them. I knew the car would be friendly to drive despite its ferocious power and performance, I knew the circuit and I didn’t think I’d be doing anyone any favours by just tootling around.
So I drove it as fast as I could. Or as fast as I could while taking not the smallest, slightest, scintilla of a risk which, in such a car let me tell you is still pretty bloody fast. Full power out of Luffield, flat through Woodcote, down one for Copse, then down plenty for Becketts because we’re on the Club circuit today, then all the beans back up to Brooklands, reach a speed I don’t even want to think about, then land on those magnificent carbon discs and feel all the breath knocked clean out of you lungs. Magical barely describes it. And when I came in I even got a round of applause.
So then it was back to the TT car for the race. You’d think the brain would be completely boggled by now and that getting into a car whose performance wouldn’t trouble a Dacia Sandero so soon after exiting one with performance no road car could even imagine might cause some kind of neurological collapse. On the contrary, it just got me nicely up on my toes, so despite my lowly starting place, I reached and held fourth place until the last second before being pipped on the line and knocked back to fifth. The old TT car had done me proud, as had the Speed 8. All in all, it had been one of my better days out.
Photography by Bentley/Olgun Kordal and Andrew Frankel.