Bentley is coming in to the 2017 Spa 24 Hours following a victory at the six-hour Blancpain event at Paul Ricard at the end of June. The marque is also celebrating its 500th race start as a GT3 constructor, with the 14th-place qualifying #8 Continental GT3 of Andy Soucek, Maxime Soulet and Vincent Abril having the honour of the milestone this weekend.
Speaking ahead of Friday night’s Super Pole qualifying session, Bentley team principal Brian Gush told DSC: “Motorsport is a key element of Bentley’s business objectives around the world, in the US, Europe and Asia. The buying demographic [by which Brian means the age of Bentley buyers] is coming down and this is something that we specifically targeted with the production of the Continental GT.”
Although the Continental GT road car is reaching the end of its production run, Gush doesn’t see the racing days of the GT3 ending any time soon. “We’re pretty happy with the car the way it is at the moment, it’s a quick racing car and we believe it’s still capable of winning”, he says. “It’s true that we’ll be replacing the Continental GT as a production car and in due course we’ll then use its replacement as the basis for our next race car,” he continues. “That means Bentley is definitely going to be in motorsport for the foreseeable future in order to continue to build the brand and its awareness in Europe, the US and Asia.”
Bentley’s outright win at Le Mans in 2003 may seem like ancient history to some, but it still burns as the genesis of Bentley’s current revival as a road-car manufacturer. “The win was really important to us. At that time we were producing less than 2,000 cars A year; after that we grew to 7,000, 8,000 and on to 10,000 cars a year. The financial crisis then put us onto the back foot, but after the world had recovered from that we wanted to come back and GT3 was the category that seemed right.”
Although the Blancpain series provides the platform on which Bentley can shine at the moment, a return to Le Mans isn’t out of the question. “I think the ACO has other priorities to sort out at the moment,” laughs Gush, “but be sure that we’re in their in-tray and certainly the talk of GT harmonisation or convergence is something that we’re involved with and want to continue to be involved with.”
As far as this weekend’s race is concerned, Gush is quick to point out the team nature of the event. “It’s certainly not just about the drivers, the whole team has a role to play, the strategists, the race engineers, the mechanics. Even if the pit-stop times are controlled, you still have to be very disciplined in the stop. If the mechanic drops a wheel nut and we get a penalty, then the whole team suffers, so everyone has to be absolutely at the top of their game,” he asserts.
Steven Kane, Oliver Jarvis and Guy Smith in the #7 car are boyishly optimistic about their chances. The first thing to clarify is the question of Olly’s qualification: despite not having done any laps during the night qualifying session, he will be allowed to drive the car in the race under the ‘force majeure’ rule. The reason that Jarvis didn’t do his laps was due to a problem with the car while Smith was driving. “It made a big loud noise and went bang,” says Guy. “It was a problem with the propshaft, which we’ve never had before. It’s a new part, so it shouldn’t have been a problem. Unfortunately, the starter then jammed, so when we got it back to pits, Olly was supposed to go out, but we couldn’t start the car, which is why he didn’t do his night laps.”
Last year, Steven Kane joined Guy in the car with Andy Meyrick, who’s been replaced this year by Audi refugee Oliver Jarvis. “Olly has fitted into the team really well,” says Smth, “so we should be good for the race this year. It’s so incredibly close, though, the cars are so evenly matched, that it’s going to be important to get all the details right. We made a change on the car before qualifying and that really helped, so we’re all optimistic for the race.”
All three drivers recognise that the race itself is something of a voyage into the unknown. Kane says: “It’s so important to have everything working well for the whole of a stint though. It’s no good being quick for a couple of laps and then losing out for the other 20 of your stint, you’ve got to be quick all the time.” Smith agrees: “You have to sometimes take the longer view – if you get involved with some traffic you’ve got to work out if it’s better just to let it go and sit back and then go past when it’s sorted itself out,” he says.
Traffic can also be a problem when it comes to track limits, which are so important here at Spa. “Sometimes, you come up behind someone coming out of Eau Rouge and you’ll say to yourself ‘I really need to get past before the top of the hill, before Les Combes’. Then you go for it and find yourself running out of road. That’s when you can get done for track limits. It’s not something that you do deliberately, but it happens so often when you’re in the traffic, because the closing margins are so small.”
Last year’s race could easily have been won by the sister Bentley but for some driving errors, and Smith, Kane and Jarvis are well aware they have the potential for a good result this year. “It all sounds so simple,” Smith finishes by saying: “Stay out of trouble, don’t take any risks, keep the car reliable and don’t exceed track limits. Then the race starts…!”