Imagine how much paperwork, corporate clout, money and time it would take to get permission to drive a prototype race car through the middle of Paris the day after it had won Le Mans, flanked by two other cars, each bearing three highly illegally mounted and rather tired racing drivers. You might think it would take months, possibly a year or more to gain the necessary permissions and cost tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Euros. And what if you went to all that effort and your car didn’t win, or crashed out entirely? It would all be for nothing.
It’s 2003 and I’m spending the middle weekend in June with Bentley, which is trying for the third time in succession to win its sixth Le Mans, some 73-years after its fifth. I’m there because I am writing a book about the history of Bentley from the great man’s birth to this very moment. Sometime during the night I am told that if things continue to go well and Bentley does indeed win the race, I am to report to Paris the following day to witness the winning car being driven from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower. Gosh, think I, that’s a bit of a gamble on the off-chance it all works out well.
Happily Bentley does indeed win Le Mans and the following morning the exhausted team packs up the car and heads east. But when I appear at the appointed time at the top of the Champs Elysees– just as the afternoon rush hour is starting to build, I can see no sign of street closures or the heavy police presence I’d been expecting. Then the team trucks roll up and start discharging first the winning Speed 8 and then Bentley’s two supercharged vintage 41/2-litre cars, one the company’s original demonstrator, the other Tim Birkin’s own 1930 Le Mans car. And there’s still not an official in sight.
But you can’t unload that kind of ordnance on the streets of the capital without eventually attracting some kind of official attention and eventually a gendarme turns up on a motorcycle, hops off and walks casually towards us where he is intercepted by Bentley’s French PR man. A few shrugs later and all is arranged. Bentley’s only mistake is that among the staff present, only the chairman can handle the crash boxes and centre throttles of the vintage cars and not even he can drive two at the same time. Does anyone else know how to drive these things? I have some experience in the field, I meekly venture. Which is how I end up driving a Blower Bentley in the craziest convoy I have ever witnessed with Johnny Herbert, David Brabham and Mark Blundell roosting on the hood cover behind me. The winners, Tom Kristensen, Guy Smith and Dindo Capello are driven by the chairman, while the winning car itself rests in the expert hands of none other than Derek Bell.
And that’s all it took. No indemnities, no public liabilities, no bloody risk assessments. No nothing in fact, not even a brown envelope. A nod and a wink later and we were driving in an arrow head formation right through the heart of the Parisian rush hour, led by Derek Bell in a slick shod racing prototype without a road legal component to its name.
It was all so surreal that had there not been a photographer present, I’d now doubt it had ever happened. But it did, and every time I look at the images I am reminded not just of Bentley’s fine achievement, but exactly what can be achieved with a little boldness, a lot of chutzpah and, surely, just a touch of dumb luck.