The Bentley marque will return to Le Mans next June, 71 years after achieving its fifth and last victory in the 24-Hour race. An entirely new car, the Bentley EXP Speed 8, has been under secret development by Racing Technology Norfolk for the past year, powered by a special version of the Le Mans winning Audi V8 turbo engine.
James Weaver tested the Bentley at Snetterton last week before Tony Gott, Bentley's chief executive, gave the go-ahead for the Le Mans programme. Weaver is testing it again this week at Monza, and describes it as "a very nice car" which was almost five seconds quicker around the Norfolk track than was the Audi R8C on its roll-out in April 1999.
"It was bitterly cold and we couldn't get any heat into the tyres but it was still a lot faster than the Audi R8C, which was not that slow at Le Mans" said Weaver after the initial tests, covering more than 100 trouble-free laps in two days. "It could be right up there next June."
The Bentley is described as an entirely new car, designed by a team led by Peter Ellery, powered by a modified version of Audi's Le Mans winning engine. RTN has modified the induction system, cooling and exhaust, and introduced new turbocharger technology. Bentley Motors will design and build a new power unit for the second generation car, due to race at Le Mans in 2002.
The race programme has been awarded to Richard Lloyd and his Apex Motorsport company, formerly Audi Sport UK. Weaver was one of the Audi R8C drivers at Le Mans in June '99 along with Andy Wallace, Perry McCarthy, Stefan Johansson, Stephane Ortelli and Christian Abt. The Bentleys will race on Michelin tyres, and will be painted British Racing Green when photos are released later this month. Sponsorship is being negotiated.
"It has been a lifetime dream for me, to get Bentley to Le Mans" says Lloyd, who has been a successful driver and entrant at Le Mans since 1981. "It is a tremendous relief to have got over the last hurdle. This is the most exciting project in sports car racing for the past decade."
The Bentley is prepared for the Le Mans GT Prototype class and goes against the trend in having a coupe top. This went out of fashion after the '98 race when the Toyota GT-One, Porsche GT1 and Mercedes CLR were withdrawn from competitions. No closed car raced in the Prototype class this year, but the ACO has kept interest alive by allowing GTPs to race with larger (by 1 mm) inlet air restrictors and higher boost pressure. Wheel rim widths, however, are two inches less (14-inch width at the rear, instead of 16-in). Front and rear overhangs were sharply reduced after the '99 race to cure the Mercedes 'blow over' problem.
Tony Gott, Bentley's chief executive, announced the Le Mans programme, saying: "I am thrilled to confirm that Bentley will be back at Le Mans next year. Obviously this is a terrific opportunity for Bentley Motors, whose reputation was founded on its successes in the 1920s and early 1930s." Bentley first won the event in 1924, then in the four years consecutive between 1927 and 1930.
Gott said that the return to Le Mans is "a critical part of our strategy aimed at preparing Bentley Motors for its return to independence after nearly 70 years of being conjoined to its sister brand Rolls-Royce." Next year's Le Mans entry list may look like a British revival with Bentley joined by MG and, perhaps, Aston Martin joining the contest on June 16-17.
Audi delayes 2001 decision
Audi's board of management has delayed until the end of November its decision to continue its Le Mans and Le Mans Series programme next year, and to sell at least two of this year's R8s to private teams. Stefan Johansson and BMS Scuderia Italia are in the frame for two Audis which Dr Wolfgang Ullrich wants to see campaigned in the European Le Mans Series, and at Le Mans. Johansson and team manager John Wickham are in Europe this week for sponsorship talks, but it is not expected that Jim Matthews will be involved in the Audi deal.
BMW not to Adelaide
BMW Motorsport will almost certainly not compete in the final round of the American Le Mans Series at Adelaide on New Year's Eve, having lost hope of winning any championship titles. The V12 LMR programme is thought to be finished, and Team Schnitzer is instead expected to prepare the BMW E46 M3 model for a season of GT racing, including Le Mans.
A Callaway C12 to compete in ALMS
Michael Colucci, who has campaigned Porsches for the past 27 years, will run at least one Callaway C12 in next year's American Le Mans Series, and Le Mans, in the Grand Touring category. Based on the Chevrolet Corvette, and with a 5.7 litre V8 producing 440 horse- power, the Callaway C12 will add some real muscle to a category which will include the Porsche GT3R, BMW M3 and JMB/Michelotto Ferrari 360 Modena.
Colucci will retain Aspen Knolls sponsorship brought to the Florida based team by Bob Mazzuoccola. Colucci and Mazzuoccola will meet Reeves Callaway at Heilbronn at the end of November to discuss the purchase of a second car. The debut of the MCR Aspen Knolls Callaway C12 contender should be at Texas on March 4.
Date change for Spa 24 Hours?
The Spa 24-Hours, fifth round of the FIA GT Championship, may be put back a week to August 4-5 in order to avoid clashing with the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. "It is always difficult to set a calendar, and then something changes in Formula One" says Stephane Ratel. The early August date, however, falls only a week before the German round of the FIA GT Championship, and Ratel is trying to bring that forward to June 3, two weeks prior to Le Mans. The new Eurospeedway at Lausitz is the most likely venue. G-Force Pennzoil Porsche Team disbanded
The British G-Force Pennzoil Porsche GT3 team has withdrawn from the FIA GT Champion- ship and put its cars up for sale, after a single season which netted third place in the N-GT Teams championship. "We are disbanding the team and taking a sabbatical" says G-Force team manager and commercial director John Morrison. "There was some amazing racing in the N-GT class but the television coverage was appalling." Series organiser Stephane Ratel registers surprise, saying that he had been careful to give the N-GT category one-third of the coverage. "Teams like Larbre Competition are very happy" he says.
Paul Newman is considering this week whether to undertake a programme of endurance racing next year which would include Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. The 75-year-old actor will test the ex-Champion Motorsport Porsche GT1 at Daytona this week, then decide if he wants to take on a schedule that would tire many men half his age. Newman finished second overall at Le Mans in 1979 driving a Porsche 935 with Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen, and was reluctant to return because he was so heavily mobbed by his fans.
Kevin Jeannette, who runs the Gunnar Racing organisation in Florida, has ordered a new Lola B2K/40 LMP675 chassis from Carl Haas, and intends to instal a Porsche 2-litre, flat-six turbocharged engine. His son Gunnar, 18, and 55-year-old veteran Michael Brockman will drive this car in the Le Mans Series and at Le Mans, with a seat available for Paul Newman. "Paul has the skills, he has the speed, and he thinks he wants to do it" says Jeannette.
Jeannette will run the ex Champion Motorsport Porsche GT1 for its new owner, Wayne Jackson, who will contest the Grand-American Road Racing Championship in the GTO class (the Norbert Singer designed, mid-engined Porsche has, surprisingly, been accepted as a GTO in competition with Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Corvettes). Gunnar Jeannette will share the Grand-Am events with Jackson, with a seat offered to Newman in the Rolex 24. Ralf Kelleners will take part in this week's Daytona test, setting the car up and testing it back-to-back on Goodyear and Dunlop tyres.