Le Mans

Following his earlier success racing DFP's, with the increase in sales that resulted from the associated ‘free’ publicity, WO had little hesitation in pursuing a similar course with his own cars.

In doing so, Bentleys were outstandingly successful. In the 1920s, success in both racing and setting new speed records produced front page headlines. From the outset Bentleys undertook racing as a commercial means to generate publicity and hence sales. The seriousness with which their racing programme was undertaken ensured that WO and the ‘Bentley Boys’ established the marque in the eyes of the public at the time and for generations to come.

Careful planning ensured success, with only a minimum left to luck. WO only entered his cars in races for which they were suited — long distance, high speed endurance events for sports cars. Record attempts were also carefully selected to suit the cars — again high speed endurance records.

Prior to each race, the cars were meticulously prepared under the watchful eye of Nobby Clarke, the Works Manager. The mechanics were rehearsed; drivers practised pit stops under the scrutiny of the movie camera; the layout of the pits was ordered for maximum efficiency — these preparations saved typically 45 seconds at each pit stop.

From the pits, WO managed the races with equal thoroughness and care. Lap times for each car and any other dangerous looking car were recorded and analysed. Later, pit-to-car signalling was moved away from the pits, with communications between pits and the signallers established via telephone (duplicated in case of failure). The drivers’ speeds were carefully controlled by WO from the pits so as not to exert the cars beyond that needed to win the race, and not to reveal unnecessarily the full potential of the cars.

The prestige of the marque was such that WO also had the pick of many of the best drivers of the day. The ‘Bentley Boys’, as they were known, were mostly wealthy amateurs who lived to the full spirit of the roaring twenties. They were exceptionally talented drivers who, under the guidance of WO, piloted the cars to the many victories at Le Mans, Brooklands, and Montlhéry.

Most notable of all races was the Grand Prix d’Endurance held at Le Mans. On his visit to the first ever Le Mans in 1923, it became clear to WO that this race above all others was ideally suited to his cars. The results are shown in the table below. Despite the ‘black years’ of 1925 and 1926, the ‘works’ Bentleys achieved five wins, including a 1-2-3-4 placing in 1929, before retiring from racing after the 1930 Le Mans. The three consecutive wins by Barnato, then the chairman of Bentley Motors, are a record which stands to this day.

In 2001, Bentley returned to Le Mans with a works team for the first time in 71 years, intorducing the EXP Speed 8 - a purpose built endurance racer designed and constructed by RTN in Norfolk and run by Apex Motorsport at the circuit. A three-year campaign was announced with the intention of competing for the top honours in the third season. In the most appalling weather conditions, which caused the retirement of one of the two Bentleys, the number 8 car finished third.

Due to the financial constraints imposed by a serious downturn in the world economy, and the subsequent drop in sales of new cars, Bentley only ran one car at the 2002 Le Mans, a developed version of the 2001 car, which finished fourth after an almost trouble-free run.

In 2003, a two-car team was planned for Le Mans and details emerged of the latest version of the EXP Speed 8 which benefited from a fundamentally new design. The two team Bentleys finished third and fourth in their warm-up race, the Sebring 12 Hours in the US.

At the test weekend at Le Mans in early May, the EXP Speed 8s finished with the fastest and third-fastest times. After a gap of 73 years, a works Bentley returned to the top step of the podium at Le Mans - the spiritual home of the racing Bentley. Tom Kristensen set an unbeatable target in qualifying with a lap of 3.31 mins in the No. 7 car, with the No. 8 car securing the second grid slot. The cars were never under any real pressure in the race, with the ultimate winners never experiencing any hiccups on their way to a dominant win. The second car suffered only from two failed batteries, but Johnny Herbert did manage to set the lap record for the race. As a demonstration of superiority it was superlative.

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