“It’s great to be back – let’s start a new journey.”
These were my words to Brian Gush, Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, on Sunday morning for the first round of the Blancpain Endurance Series at Monza.
For me and everyone I’ve spoken to, it’s fantastic to see Bentley returning to full time racing with the new Continental GT3, and to be a part of it 11 years since crossing the finish line to win the Le Mans 24 Hours is a long-standing dream come true.
When I received the phone call from Brian early in 2013 to tell me of Bentley’s plans to return to racing, I was hugely excited.
Things started to move quickly, with WRC experts M-Sport charged with designing and building the brand new Continental GT3 car.
Some saw that as a strange decision, working with a rally company to build a race car, but in reality I think their “outside the box” approach has been a breath of fresh air. They’ve done an outstanding job.
The car made its debut at last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed and I was given the honor of driving it up the famous hill. It was obvious to me that the car felt good and easy to drive but and it also looked absolutely stunning!
In my experience, good looking cars are normally fast cars, much like the Speed 8 was, so that was a promising start.
We then began a pretty intensive test program over the next few months, as there was so much work to get through to make sure the car would be race- and customer-ready.
The most important elements in such development are to make a safe, reliable, fast car but very importantly a car that is comfortable and easy to drive for the amateur racer, given the Pro-Am nature of GT3 racing.
Testing went really well and we brought in experienced GT drivers and my former racing teammates Andy Meyrick and Steven Kane to join the program, which was a great help as it gave us a reference of how the car compared against other GT3 machines.
From the outset it was pretty obvious that the car was going to be quick and driveable, and we knew straight away that we could meet our targets. The lap times were we running were encouraging too.
The Continental GT3 made its test race debut at the Gulf 12 Hours in Abu Dhabi in December. It was an ideal event for us to put some good hard race miles on the car before this year’s Blancpain Endurance Series.
The race was our first time on track with all the other GT3 cars so it was our first indication of where we were relative to everyone else. After qualifying well and finishing the race in a very rewarding 4th position it gave us the confidence that we had a competitive and reliable racecar.
This year’s program is the Blancpain Endurance Series, in which we’re racing as Team M-Sport Bentley with a mix of Bentley and M-Sport personnel.
Although M-Sport has little racing experience, they are working really hard and I’ve have been massively impressed with the way they have adapted to circuit racing. They are also learning things in racing that they can then take back and use in rallying too so they are seeing the benefit of doing both types of motorsport.
Bentley signed up five new Bentley Boys to join me. In car No. 7 we have Andy Meyrick, Steven Kane to drive with me, continuing the great team work we founded in the development phase. In the sister No. 8 car, we have the strong team of Duncan Tappy, Antoine Leclerc and ex-F1 racer Jérôme D’Ambosio.
I have just returned from the first round at Monza, which was educational, encouraging and (most of all) huge fun.
The racing is so close and competitive that the three-hour race felt more like a sprint competition. The nature of GT3 racing and the balancing of performance mean that all the cars are evenly matched but that’s what makes it so exciting.
After qualifying the Bentleys lined up in 4th and 13th positions on the grid, which was very good for our first race given the level of competition in the Blancpain field.
The race went really well with both cars running strongly, eventually coming home in respectable 7th and 8th positions.
We had a couple of small issues with traffic and a failed wheel nut during our pit stops that cost us some time – without those, I think we’d have been in the top five.
Despite that, it’s great to know that the car is competitive and there is plenty to build on for the coming races. Hopefully we can become regular top five challengers during the course of the season.
See you at Silverstone!