GRR

Killing a Bentley at over 200mph | Thank Frankel it's Friday

11th February 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

It was while writing a first drive of the Bentley Flying Spur Hybrid for this very site the other day that my mind drifted back to another Spur I drove, some 17 years ago. It was the very first and knowing how conservative Bentley was and remains about its top speed claims, I thought it would be interesting to see how far beyond its suggested maximum of 195mph it could be persuaded to go.

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We’d need somewhere the car could run flat out for as long as was required, which meant the NARDO test track in the very south of Italy, but it might be worth the trip if it transpired that it could not only do a magic 200mph, but – and this was where I concede I might have been being a little ambitious – do so with four people on board with me as a double tonne chauffeur.

So we trundled off to Italy where at the track we met the now-retired Brian Gush, then Bentley’s chief powertrain engineer who had previously been instrumental in Bentley’s ultimately successful 2001-2003 Le Mans campaign and who would go on to mastermind their GT3 race car programme.

High speeds at NARDO are easy if you have the equipment. You’re not even allowed to enter the steepest and highest lane on the banked track until you’re doing 150mph. After that, it all depends on the aerodynamic stability of your car, and I was backing Bentley to have got its sums right.

Remember this was the original Flying Spur, not a ‘Speed’ model or anything else and while I wasn’t at all sure it would do 200mph, I was entirely convinced it would be fun finding out and make a good story either way. So we rigged up a GPS unit with a remote speed readout I could see, loaded the car with people and headed out to see what it would do.

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The Bentley got to a true 190mph remarkably swiftly, after which acceleration tailed off so dramatically that were it not for the numbers on the speed readout I’d have thought it had already had its lot. It had not.

At the 195mph claimed for it the workload was increasing, not just on the car, but its driver too. Even if a car is completely stable, it takes a little acclimatisation to drive around a banked track at a speed that would get you from London to Birmingham in half an hour. And while the Bentley was admirably planted, it could do nothing about the 20mph wind which blew at us from every single direction as we lapped the circuit. But the speed kept climbing: 196, 197, 198, 199 and then, yes, finally, 200mph. We had our story. Except the car was not yet done.

My eyes were glued not only to the track but also to the car’s information display, set to show the pressures of the tyres. I really worried about an explosive deflation and tried not to think about the appalling forces to which the front right Pirelli was now being subjected, but while the pressures rose, they never strayed beyond acceptable boundaries.

How far would it go? Remember this was a genuine speed I was seeing, not some hopeful speedo readout. It kept going. At 205mph I knew it could go no faster, this being fully 10mph beyond what Bentley had claimed. But it did. Now it required all my attention, and most of passengers’ too, who had put down the copies of the FT we’d given them for the sake of the photographs, and were now clinging grimly to grab handles while I wrestled to keep the Bentley from rising too far up the track while correcting each wind buffet as they came slamming into the car from every direction. 206, 207, 208mph and then… Nothing.

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Total power loss. At 208mph the engine simply cut. My first instinct was that I’d blown it up and that I was already blowing oil all over the rear tyres, so I looked in the mirror but saw no smoke. At that speed it decelerated at 0.3g without the need for the brakes – about the same as putting on the handbrake – so we lost velocity quite rapidly. I was looking to coast to the exit when, at exactly 180mph, the power returned, the car as strong as it had ever been.

We tried and tried but every time it reached 208mph, the motor shut down, which meant we couldn’t get a lap at maximum speed. So I tried being cute and activating the cruise control at 207mph, but Bentley doesn’t think cruise is appropriate above 186mph so that didn’t work either. By the time we figured out what the problem was, our time was up. I never did that entire lap at maximum speed, but it hardly mattered: we’d found what we’d gone to see and discovered the Spur’s true top speed not just to be beyond 200mph, but way beyond it.

What had gone wrong? I’m almost too embarrassed to tell you, but not quite. When we later interrogated the electronics, they told me it was simply hitting the rev-limiter in top gear and that an in-built hysteresis meant power was not resumed until the speed had sunk to 180mph. Hey ho. We’d come, we’d seen and we’d conquered. Almost.

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