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.
Blog - Live at the Bathurst 12 Hour
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.”
It’s a smart tactic, really. Formula 1 and, to a lesser extent, Le Mans grab the headlines but, beyond that, increasingly important premium markets like the Middle East and China have enormous enthusiasm for motorsport yet little way of expressing or watching it.
Sports cars are becoming the top-level racing series in those regions – and the GT3 set of rules allows Bentley to pitch itself against key brand rivals in front of those potential customers. Sure enough, the top seven cars in the finishing order of the Bathurst 12 Hours were Nissan, Audi, Aston Martin, Bentley, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
What’s next? “If the rules allowed us, we’d go back to Le Mans like a shot,” says Gush, “but it requires the ACO [the 24-hour race’s autocratic organiser] to allow us onto the grid. However, there are some American races, like Daytona, where there are signs that the rules could open up for us. We’ve even had some interest from a private team in Japan, because Super GT rules over there aren’t too far away from GT3.”
The advantage of Bentley’s customer approach is that, provided these approaches come from teams with a solid professional reputation, it gets the exposure without incurring all of the cost. You suspect, though, that the factory-backed cars will be back at Bathurst in 2016. There was the definite whiff of unfinished business about this one.
The Cumbrian connection
Pundits were surprised - a little worried, even - when Bentley elected to team up with Cumbrian motorsport firm and rally specialist M-Sport to develop the Continental GT3. But Bentley motorsport boss Brian Gush believes the choice has been vindicated. “They’re a firm that really share our values,” he says. “They have a reputation for high quality and attention to detail. That’s what we were after.”
Under the watchful eye of owner and former British rally champion Malcolm Wilson, M-Sport is currently investing £19 million in facilities designed to bring in lucrative consultancy work. Planning permission was granted late last year for a 108,000-square-metre R&D centre, including a test track that will allow everything from race car shakedowns to top-secret engineering work.
“We should start work in the next week or two,” says Wilson, “and the idea is to have an engineering centre of excellence that will appeal to manufacturers. There will be scope for discreet development of road cars, and it’ll create another 100 jobs on top of the 220 that we already have.”
The plans look impressive - and it’s good to see skilled engineering jobs being created in an area of the UK that badly needs them.
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