GRR

Driving a Le Mans-winning Bentley through Paris | Thank Frankel it's Friday

04th May 2023
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

You’ll probably not need reminding that, 20 years ago, a Bentley won Le Mans. It was the culmination of a three-year project and while I understand why it didn’t return to defend that victory in 2004, I still think it was a shame. By then the Speed 8 race car was so much faster than anything else I am given to understand that the team would have had to do little more than turn up to triumph again.

tfif-bentleys-in-paris-1.jpg

But it didn’t happen. Even so, I was there that day and working for the team, just as I had the previous two years and the strange thing, to me at least, is that I remember what happened after the race far more clearly than the race itself. This is partly because it was a walkover: the two Bentleys were first and second on the grid, came home first and second in the race, the lead car five laps clear of third-placed Audi. The second-place car took fastest lap of the race while the winner broke the record for the shortest time spent in the pits during the 24 hours. In short, they cleaned up.

Job done? Not quite. Sometime in the middle of that long night the team got a message from the high-ups at Bentley. If one car or other were to win, it was to report to the centre of Paris the following morning. You can imagine how well that went down with the already exhausted crew who’d have to pack up the pit garages, load up the car and take it to the capital.

But win the Number 7 car duly did, and off to Paris it went. And when the truck arrived it was unloaded alongside Bentley’s two vintage ‘Blowers’, one of which had been raced at Le Mans 73 years earlier by Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin. The plan, it seemed, was that the winning car was going to be driven from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower, flanked by the two old timers, right through the middle of the Parisian rush hour.

The winning team of Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Guy Smith would be perched on the back of Birkin’s car, while the second-placed squad of Mark Blundell, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert would be on the other car, Bentley’s original Blower demonstrator. Drivers? In the race-winner would be Derek Bell while Birkin’s car would be managed by Bentley chairman and CEO Franz-Josef Paefgen. The demonstrator driver? That would be me.

bentley_demo_80mm_15042023_list.jpg

Bentley Continental GT Le Mans Collection celebrates winning Speed 8

14th April 2023

tfif-bentleys-in-paris-4.jpg

Just think about it. A parade through the middle of Paris, led by a race car boasting not one road legal component, followed by two old cars with six unbelted passengers sat on top of their rear bodywork, while the insanity that is Paris at 8am on a Monday morning raged all around us. Of course such a stunt would require months of careful planning, endless negotiations with the authorities, permits to be issued, routes to be barricaded, crowds to be controlled and so on and on and on. 

Except it didn’t. There was no planning of any description. I don’t know who had the idea, but the job of making it happen fell upon one Jean-Philippe Coulaud, whose qualifications for taking on such a mammoth task included the fact he worked in the UK press office at the time, and that he was French. Was he daunted by the enormity of his duties? Not to the slightest discernible degree.

What happened was this: we all turned up, started unloading and to nobody’s great surprise the police soon turned up to find out what we were up to. Jean-Philippe went and had a word. There were a few handshakes. A bit of shrugging. A laugh or two. And that was that. A few moments later a few police outriders turned up on motorcycles and off we went.

tfif-bentleys-in-paris-3.jpg

Almost all of us had a terrific time. The boys on the back of our cars were laughing and soaking up the stares of the crowd that instantly materialised along our route, while I drove one of the world’s most valuable Bentleys through the middle of the French capital. 

The only person not enjoying himself was poor old Derek in the race winner, as a car designed to lap Le Mans at an average speed of over 140mph was forced to crawl down the street at often less than walking pace. Somehow the car made it, its engine having been subjected to a far tougher test than anything it had endured in the race, but the steam emanating from the engine cover as we arrived at the Eiffel Tower left no doubt it had gone as far as it would go.

And that was that. We packed up, went home and within weeks, the day we turned up in Paris unannounced, without any kind of permission and drove the Le Mans winner through its heart felt like a dream. And but for these photographs, I might still today believe that it was.

  • Bentley

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • Speed 8

  • Le Mans 2003

  • Le Mans

  • bentley-speed-8-andrew-frankel-goodwood-13082021.jpg

    Historic

    Fast as I dare in Bentley’s 2003 Le Mans winner | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

  • ferrari_550gts_lemans_book_goodwood_17112023_list.jpg

    Historic

    The story of a British Ferrari Le Mans triumph | Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • 79lm02-1.jpg

    Andrew Frankel

    Thank Frankel it's Friday: The best Le Mans stories decade-by-decade