There is but one Great Race in Australia – but there are two great races. The glorious Mount Panorama street circuit in Bathurst plays host every year to a baying crowd of diehard touring car fans with generations-old allegiances to Holden and Ford.
They gather like packs on the infamous mountain section, a twisting, thin strip of concrete-wall-lined asphalt that threads its way along a ridge with glorious views of the New South Wales countryside. It’s the Supercheap Auto 1000 these days, or the James Hardie 1000 to all of us who grew up watching edited highlights on BBC Grandstand 15 years ago. It is The Great Race.
However, the other great race also takes place at Bathurst – and just over a week ago, Bentley came within a lap of winning it on its first attempt, and on what was reckoned to be the brand’s first officially sanctioned outing Down Under in 75 years.
The Bathurst 12 Hour is gaining a strong reputation as one of the great sports car endurance races of the season – helped, no doubt, by regulations that have nurtured strong private development of a host of desirable supercars.
Bentley’s Bathurst effort went into a final two-lap showdown at the head of the field after almost 12 hours, with Matthew Bell desperately hoping to cling on against the lap-record-setting Audi R8 and, lurking in third, the Nissan GT-R driven by Japanese hotshoe Katsumasa Chiyo.
In the end, the GT-R breezed past the R8 before the first corner and then won a drag race against the Continental up the fearsome Mountain Straight to grab a lead it would never lose. Bell’s focus switched to saving a podium placing over the remaining lap and a half – but he was punted off with alarming predictability at the final corner and finished fourth, pride and side panels dented.
The result might have stung a little, but it is this sort of activity, this sort of exposure, that persuaded Bentley to commit to sports car racing in the first place. We all hoped the company would return to Le Mans and more than a few eyebrows were raised when it announced that the programme would be based around the luxurious but hefty Continental GT, and in the relatively lowly GT3 category.
Still, the campaign is now into its second season, and Bentley displays a remarkable level of honesty about why it’s there. You know how car manufacturers claim that their motorsport programmes feed through technology to the cars that we drive every day? How the eternal push for more speed and reliability on the track brings benefits that we can all share? It’s nonsense, mostly, and Bentley motorsport boss Brian Gush isn’t about to try to use it as justification.
“We’re really doing it for two reasons,” he says. “First, our customers love seeing a Bentley in competition and this category of sports cars opens up races and series where the Continental can be seen around the world, many of them in markets that are increasingly important to us as a brand. We chose to come to Bathurst because Australia is an important market for us, but also because Mount Panorama is an iconic motorsport challenge.
“Second, there is a customer side to the programme. The [factory-backed] M-Sport cars are the shop window, but we’re working with a select, exclusive number of private teams and again, they open up new markets to us.”
So there you have it: there may be the faintest trickle of technology transfer, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that the much lighter race car previews a much lighter Conti. “To be honest, our target for the race car was 1300kg,” says Gush, “and it was relatively easy to achieve. The weight in a Continental isn’t in the structure of the car. It’s in the luxury and the safety kit. Take those bits out for motorsport and you’re pretty much there weight-wise. The car hasn’t changed much for 2015, either. The rules don’t allow it.”