In 2003, Bentley returned to the top step of the Le Mans podium after 73 years

The second coming. In 2003, Bentley returned to the top step of the Le Mans podium after 73 years. Drive-My reunites the key players. Words James Elliott. Photography Drew Gibson / Bentley.

Bentley’s glorious 2003 Le Mans return: reuniting car and team

VICTORY AT LE MANS  Reuniting the 2003 24 Hours winners

There are myriad challenges facing a marque launching a fresh assault on the world’s greatest endurance race three quarters of a century after it made it its own, but you might not expect the greatest of them to be cynicism. Yet at the turn of the millennium Bentley faced a wall of scepticism. Its Speed 8 was just an Audi in drag, crowed the cognoscenti, a mere satellite project. And when that ‘Audi in drag’ won, they delighted in mentioning that the German factory Joest Audis weren’t there.

‘It’s only when the dust begins to settle that you can sit back and think “Wow, we won Le Mans’”

Reuniting the 2003 24 Hours winners

Reuniting the 2003 24 Hours winners

Suggest this even 16 years on and immediately the hackles rise. Drive-My knows this because we witnessed it at Goodwood Members’ Meeting when a reunion took place between drivers Tom Kristensen and Guy Smith, race chief Brian Gush and the winning Speed 8 LM-GTP. Only ‘Dindo’ Capello was missing, plus the small army of mechanics, engineers, strategists, designers, PR people, hospitality and others who shared the unique experience of triumphing in the 24 Hours.

Gush reacts to a passer-by’s suggestion that it’s ‘just an Audi really’ with a measured calm. The recently retired Director of Motorsport – he also masterminded Bentley’s assault on GT3 and recent recordbreaking – has heard it all before and is on a mission to correct people one by one. The South African tells us: ‘If anybody says it is just an Audi painted green, and many still do, they discredit themselves as a motorsport enthusiast. We don’t call the Red Bull a Honda, and you don’t call a Williams a Mercedes-Benz – the purchase of an engine is pretty standard in motorsport. We could have had any engine, the Judd V10 or Cosworth DFV, but when you have one in the ‘family’ with the performance and reliability of the Audi V8, you’d be idiotic not to take it.

‘In 2001 we were not ready to win. The car was fast over a single lap, but it wasn’t an endurance racer’

‘This may sound like a script because I have had to explain it so many times over the years. Of course, the fact that the Audi R8C was produced in the same facility fanned the flames, so you do excuse people for not understanding, you don’t actually hold it against anybody.’

Reuniting the 2003 24 Hours winners

Reuniting the 2003 24 Hours winners

Gush’s comrades nod sagely. Smith has competed eight times at Le Mans. As well as the Bentley victory there, he took the ALMS title in 2011 and was 1998 Indy Lights rookie of the year. Kristensen is simply a God, fit to break bread with the likes of Moss and Fangio.

With more wins at Le Mans than any other driver – nine, six of them consecutive – the Dane holds the same record for Sebring. Each played a key role in that famous victory. Gush was the man with the plan, Smith the constant – in at the start and still there at the end – and Kristensen was the messiah, parachuted in for one year of glory. And there is no question that he made a huge difference, even if he wasn’t necessarily the difference.

Listening to the three of them at Goodwood, getting increasingly animated about the car and Bentley’s last Le Mans win, zoning out from the hordes pushing past them and the car, barring my colossal lack of talent in both disciplines, I could imagine I were journalistcum- driver Sammy Davis chatting with Frank Clement and John Duff in 1924. This Anglo-Canadian pair gave Bentley its first taste of Le Mans glory in a 3 Litre in only the second running of the race. Two fallow years followed (both won by Lorraine-Dietrichs, trivia fans) before Bentley’s hegemony started in 1927 when Davis himself teamed up with Dudley Benjafield for the first factory triumph. It was the first of four on the trot, which cemented Bentley’s position as an all-time great and gave rise to the Bentley Boys, the well-to-do glamorous men about town who raced like demons but made it all look like a jolly jape.

‘There’s more British content in the Bentley than there was German content in the Audi’

And then? Nothing. Alfa Romeo ruled the early 1930s while Bentley addressed the bigger battles it had to fight, financial ones. That was until 2000, when Gush and now-CEO Adrian Hallmark latched on to an abandoned project to take Volkswagen to Le Mans. When the plan to put a W12 in a Le Mans prototype coupé built by Racing Technology Norfolk came to nought, Gush saw both the opportunity and, given VW’s recent takeover of Bentley, the leverage. With the go-ahead to go to Le Mans in 2001, Gush was given access to the twin-turbo V8s that powered Audi’s LMP900 prototypes. Planted in a Peter Elleray design, the modified 3.6-litre V8 with Honeywell turbo drove through the Xtrac transverse transmission, chosen over the Ricardo ’box that Bentley would use in its GT3 programme.

Gush says: ‘The design was changed for the Audi V8. We shortened the car, but it was developed as a Bentley. We had a British tub, British suspension, British ’box, British wiring. There’s more British content in the Bentley than there was German content in the Audi!’ In 2001, two Bentley EXP Speed 8s ran in the closed cockpit LMGTP class, one retiring and the other – the Andy Wallace, Eric van der Poele and Butch Leitzinger car – coming third behind the Audi R8s. A podium on the first year back might be considered a good result, but Bentley, which had a three-year plan, was less than happy. Gush explains: ‘In 2001 we started with the 3.6-litre port-injection engine and went to Le Mans with our own car. There was no Audi input apart from the engine that we bought from them. Audi pitched up with a 3.6-litre direct-injection unit that gave them an extra stint. And they won.’

The problems ran deeper, according to Smith: ‘The 2001 car was very fast over a single lap, but it wasn’t an endurance car. Also, it was less than a year from scratch to Le Mans and we weren’t prepared. When it started raining we realised that we had never driven it in the wet before. We started having trouble with the gearshift, water coming in through the cooling ducts for the rear brakes and soaking the activator. It got stuck in sixth, stopped on the circuit and I couldn’t get it back to the pits. That was inexperience on my part; now I would leave it in sixth, straight-line the corners and get it back. We weren’t ready to win.’

At that point, Bentley decided to scale back its effort for 2002 and instead focus on 2003. ‘We all sat down and said this car is great, but it’s not a winner,’ says Smith, ‘so a decision was taken to basically build a new car for 2003.’ Gush adds: ‘For 2002 we distanced ourselves from the engine that Audi was using by commissioning someone to do a four-litre direct-injection unit for us.’ The sole team entrant – with 2001’s driver line-up – repeated the class win with a larger capacity, but could only finish fourth overall behind a trio of Audis.

For 2003 the car was substantially revised and the team switched to Michelins. But with Team Bentley absorbing some of the Audi works Joest team, the cynicism was amplified. ‘Audi had won three times – Paefgen’s stated objective – and pulled out to focus on diesel development,’ says Gush. ‘It didn’t want to relinquish its position with Joest so we were offered Joest personnel and could cherrypick out of its operation. Who wouldn’t want Ralf Jüttner as a race engineer? Of course it added to the supposition that we were just a shadow Audi team, but only a fool would operate below maximum strength because they were worried about how it might be perceived.’

Bentley didn’t only mop up the Joest mechanics and engineers. It also inherited drivers, including the man who had won Le Mans the previous three years: Tom Kristensen. ‘On 13 January 2003, I went to Crewe for the first time,’ he says. ‘Rinnie [Capello] and I flew into Manchester and were driven to the factory in Bentley Azures. We had a tour and met the staff and it was then that I grasped the enormous sense of history, unlike anything you experience with a German team.’

The 12 Hours of Sebring in March was the ‘dry run’ for Le Mans. The cars qualified first and second, but being relegated to the back of the grid for a technical infringement allowed them to carve through the field to third and fourth. It was not the disaster it might have looked. Kristensen: ‘There was no way we would win Le Mans the way we ran at Sebring, but that just made it better preparation. It was a good wake-up call and really got the camaraderie going as well as creating a lot of positive competitive energy in the team.’ Smith adds: ‘It was an opportunity to shake the car to bits and find out all its weak points. We stayed on for two days for more testing, which was vital to our success at Le Mans six months later.’

Between Sebring and Le Mans, the issues were sorting out tyre durability and making a car that drivers could run for three stints to be in with a chance of victory, or four to be sure of it, according to Kristensen: ‘The problem at Sebring was that it was so hot in the car we were struggling to do one stint.’ The team focused on 30-hour tests, mainly at Paul Ricard.

Smith says: ‘It’s just six drivers pounding round and round, pushing as hard as you dared to find out what the car could do and how much it could take. But repeatedly achieve 30 hours, no problem, running like clockwork, and you can go into a 24-hour race pretty confident.’

Bentley arrived in La Sarthe as a contender, but a pre-test lap from Kristensen eclipsing everyone by three-and-a-half seconds propelled the team to favourite. He admits: ‘In my 18 Le Mans, all the practices, tests and races, I’ve had only 10 totally clear laps. That was one of them.’ That charmed ride carried on for the race. ‘It was as close to perfect as you are going to get,’ says Gush. ‘Car 7’s race was absolutely metronomic with only 17 seconds of unscheduled stops. It had the perfect run and set a distance record. But that didn’t come overnight; that was three years in the making, three years of meticulous planning and hard graft. Today, Le Mans cars are so complex and so difficult that not everybody can compete, but our win came at the end of the previous era, when anyone had a fair chance, when a privateer could come into LMP1 and compete.’ Kristensen: ‘In the warm-up the ride height was dropping and you could lose control of the rear right tyre, so for our car we decided to start the race with a bit higher ride height. It was a very small thing that made the car bounce on the splitter a lot, but it settled and became very good before midnight. Then we could just keep pushing it towards the win. I was sure we would win from the moment Capello and I managed to do crucial fourth stints during the night.’

Fittingly, Englishman Smith was given the job of bringing the car home in front of 200,000 people, his pride nearly overwhelmed by his paranoia: ‘It had all gone to plan to such a degree that it felt eerily calm, almost like a test day. Our unflappable engineer Joe Hausner contributed to that. If I had gone on the radio and said “Joe, a wheel’s just fallen off,” he would reply: “Don’t worry, less weight, in fact the car will be quicker on three wheels than four.” The guys in the pits did an amazing job, but credit to the car, too, because a Le Mans car is in effect doing an entire Grand Prix season in 24 hours. ‘It was a great honour to finish the race, but also terrifically nerve-wracking because at that point things can only go wrong and it’s all on you. You become utterly obsessed: listening to the engine and every gearshift and watching the clock every time you go past the start-finish line. It was the longest two hours of my life.’

Car 8 – piloted by Mark Blundell, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert – came second, two laps behind thanks to a headrest coming off in Brabham’s opening stint and then some electrical gremlins. Then came a pair of Audis; Paefgen’s Bentley 1-2 was in the bag.

It’s fair to say there was euphoria, but the magnitude took time to sink in. Smith: ‘You are so caught up in the moment. You’re on the podium with all these great guys and this sea of people and it’s amazing, but it doesn’t feel real. It’s only when the dust begins to settle that you can sit back and think, “Wow, we’ve won Le Mans.” For me it was the pinnacle, but maybe it meant more to me having been involved in the programme from the start. By 2003 I felt the car had quite a lot of my DNA in it.’

Kristensen: ‘I was told about my records [equalling Derek Bell’s tally of five wins plus setting a new benchmark of four in a row], but it was hard to think of yourself at that point. It was all about the team, what we had achieved together and who we did it for. From my first visit to Crewe I knew it was about more than motor racing. It was about all those generations who have worked there – to them the company does so much more than make cars.’

‘All the drivers did great,’ adds Gush, ‘but I can’t think of anyone who deserved it more than Guy. When I started the GT project, he was the first person I called.’

Can’t resist – wouldn’t it have been even nicer to win having beaten the factory team? ‘I won’t broker the idea that the Audis weren’t there,’ thunders Gush, with a smile. ‘They were there and we beat them. Team Goh was fully staffed with Audi personnel and I’m ecstatic that we thrashed them. Thrashed!’

Below left ‘Dindo’ Capello, Tom Kristensen and Guy Smith became the first Bentley drivers to win Le Mans since Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston in 1930. Clockwise from left Car 7 ran near-faultlessly at Le Mans; its advantage over its sister car came thanks to a faulty headrest and electrical issues; under 30 seconds of unscheduled pitstops in the entire 24 hours.

Left and below Gush, Smith and Kristensen recall the battles their three-year programme for Le Mans glory experienced; Speed 8 was a hit at Goodwood in centenary year.

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