Le Mans 2003: Far More than a Race

Crewe 2003 … The day Bentley won Le Mans was a day no-one who witnessed it will forget. It might be argued that the same can be said for any team that wins this most gruelling of motor races, but Team Bentley is not just any team and this was not just any win. Those at Le Mans were acutely aware of being there at a time when history was actually made, where the present touched hands once more with the past to make a moment of pure magic.

For this was not an event 24-hours in the making nor even two and a half years – that being the time since the company’s return to the world’s most famous race was announced. Bringing Bentley back to the top step of the podium at Le Mans had taken a lifetime. Literally.

It was the realisation of a dream that, for most people during most of the 73 years that have elapsed since Bentley last won at Le Mans, looked impossible. Designing a car and building a team into a unit capable of winning this most gruelling of motor races takes time, money and dedication. Among Bentley people, the will to race again at Le Mans never went away, but it was only when the company passed into the hands of the VW Group in 1998 that the way was provided too.

Any Le Mans is epic in nature and this one had one of the best build-ups of any in the 80 year history of the race. It was known from the moment they set the fastest times in qualifying and then the race at the Sebring 12-hours in March that the new 2003 Bentley Speed 8s were sensationally quick cars. But Le Mans would be different.

The opposition was quantified: two Bentleys would line up against three of the Audi R8s that had won the last three Le Mans with ease. It was known also that the Bentley would be quicker over one lap, but not by how much. And would that be enough to offset the Bentley’s predicted higher tyre and fuel consumption, and the fact that its enclosed bodywork meant more time taken getting its drivers in and out of the cars than the open-top Audi? If you knew the answer to those questions before the race then, in theory, you knew already that Bentley would win Le Mans.

Except Le Mans is never simple. Teams have appeared with pace-setting cars and fallen by the wayside. Others have led with ease only to trip over an errant back-marker. One even printed its victory literature before the race tempting Providence, as it turned out, to breaking point.

Nothing can be presumed at Le Mans except that victory, if it is to achieved at all, will go to the team that works hardest for longest, makes the fewest mistakes and has the best luck.

And Bentley wasn’t looking lucky thirty seconds before the pitlane was closed for the race, with the car of Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Guy Smith still being worked on in the pits.

But it made it onto the grid to take its pole position earned in qualifying, to the roar of the thousands of Bentley fans in the grandstands. But still we didn’t know what would happen during the race, and an informed body of opinion took the view that the Audis had never been pushed at Le Mans until now and had therefore never revealed their true pace.

At 4.00pm precisely on Saturday June 14th, the race started, the two green Bentleys leading the pack past the pits. Nearly four minutes later the sound of two 4-litre, twin-turbo, 600bhp V8 engines were heard as the Speed 8s of Capello and Johnny Herbert re-appeared. They were still leading but this time by over six seconds. The Bentleys were not just faster than anything else in the field – they were in a different class.

But being fast over one lap is rather different from staying fast for 24 hours and every time the green cars reappeared relief flooded through the team just as every time the number 8 car of Herbert, Mark Blundell and David Brabham made an unscheduled pitstop – and it did so four times – fears that this might spell the end for one of the Bentleys were in every mind. Even after 18 hours of racing there were still four full Grand Prix distances to run.

That’s the thing about Le Mans. If you have never been, you cannot possibly comprehend its length. You know what 24-hours are but not in this context. By midnight you feel that the cars have been circulating forever. In fact two thirds of the race has yet to be run.

But the Bentleys kept going, with the number 7 car lapping with the same consistency of which only the Audis were presumed capable. When it was working correctly the number 8 car was at least as fast, indeed it was Herbert who set the fastest lap of the race, but it seemed all Bentley’s bad luck was directed at one car only.

First a piece of headrest came loose which needed discarding. Then a low voltage light came on precipitating another stop to change a faulty battery. Unbelievably, the light came on again on the next lap so that was another battery and another stop. Finally the clutch fluid ran low and needed a top up.

Happily, and despite all this, none of its opponents could come close and its second position was never seriously threatened.

And so, at 4.00pm on Sunday 15th June, 2003, two Bentley Speed 8s came first and second at Le Mans, 83 years almost to the day since two Speed Sixes had done no less. It was a euphoric moment but one also of supreme poignancy. When Bentley announced it would return to Le Mans, it was made clear it would be a three year programme with the only aim being outright victory. That Sunday it made good that promise, earning the respect and credibility of the whole automotive industry and its millions of fans around the world.

Then on Monday Derek Bell, in true Bentley style, drove the winning car down the Champs Elysees, flanked by two original Blowers (one of them driven by Dr Paefgen, Bentley Motors’ Chairman and Chief Executive) with the drivers on board. And on Wednesday the number 7 Speed 8 was guest of honour at a dinner held at the Savoy in London. This dinner followed the style of the 1927 Le Mans dinner held at the same venue. The menu and drinks were identical to those served 76 years ago and in place of the long speeches and corporate communications was a simple toast to WO Bentley.

Then there was a competition to see who could climb aboard the race car fastest followed by the presentation by the winning drivers of a chocolate cake to five times Le Mans winner, Derek Bell. Derek may have chosen to sample the cake in his own time but his team-mates had other ideas and simply pushed it into his face!

It was a magical end to a magical week, a week in which Bentley rediscovered that final part of its soul, lost apparently for good in 1931. Revitalised by this great victory and with over 3200 deposits received for its new Continental GT, the future of Bentley has never looked brighter.