20
Sep
09

Sunday night sports-cars: Bentley Speed 8

Bentley-speed-8

If I were to mention successful British marques at the 24 Heures du Mans endurance race, you might think of Aston Martin and Jaguar.  You’d be right to do so: those nameplates have graced some legendary Le Mans winners, and the former has recently returned to contest the overall win with a trio of cars bearing equally-legendary Gulf liveries.  But the most recent British car to take an overall victory at Le Mans was neither an Aston nor a Jag: it was a Bentley Speed 8 in 2003, and it wore British Racing Green rather than Gulf blue or Silk Cut purple.

Bentley’s run at the 2003 Le Mans win started in 2001 with the EXP Speed 8, a closed-top prototype in an era of open-top cars.  Designed by RTN, the same company that produced Audi’s closed-top R8C prototype and powered by an Audi V8, the 2001 car finished 3rd at Le Mans in the hands of Andy Wallace, Eric van de Poele, and Butch Leitzinger.  The next year, Bentley gave the car a more efficient rear wing and a V8 engine of their own, and the same team of drivers took the car to a 4th overall.

For 2003, the team started over with a clean sheet of paper.  Carrying over the same twin-turbo V8 but little else, the 2003 Bentley Speed 8 found nearly a third more downforce in high-speed corners, including 75% more aero grip at the front of the car.  Partly this was due to the very tightly faired front suspension, limiting the amount of air passing over the front of the car and thus the bodywork’s tendency to act like an airfoil.  2003 ACO regulations insisted that suspension components be obscured by bodywork from the front, side, and top, but they said nothing about separate fairings for the top A-arms.

Bentley-BC15

Running a high-downforce “sprint” package, the Speed 8s finished 3rd and 4th at the 2003 12 Hours of Sebring.  Later that year at Le Mans, Rinaldo Capello, Tom Kristensen, and Guy Smith drove the #7 Bentley Speed 8 to an overall win in the 24 Heures du Mans, with Johnny Herbert, David Brabham, and Mark Blundell taking second overall in the #8 sister car.

Bently-7-at-le-mansImage link goes to Racing Sports Cars gallery.

Compare the deep endplates on the #7 car’s rear wing to the much smaller endplates on the #8 car in the first photo.  We tend to think of two cars of the same model as being identical, but the two 2003 Speed 8s were different enough to prefer different rear wing aero.

It seems odd, particularly in light of visually idiosyncratic cars like the Audi R15, to think that one of the biggest design criteria for the Speed 8 was that it look pretty — but it’s true.  According to the Speed 8’s designer, Peter Elleray, the Speed 8’s closed-top design was at least partly motivated by aesthetic concerns, and the folks at Bentley who were paying the bills “were always very pleased to hear that we were considered to have the best looking car.”  Considering that Bentley is a luxury brand that sells an image as much as it does a product, one cannot remain surprised.

2003 was the last year for the Bentley LMGTP programme.  Once the Speed 8s were mothballed, Audi’s open-topped prototypes — first (and again) the gas-burning R8, then the diesel-powered R10 — dominated Le Mans in particular (and sports-car racing in general) until 2009, when a closed-top Peugeot 908 took the win at the 24 Heures du Mans… again after three years of development.

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References:


3 Responses to “Sunday night sports-cars: Bentley Speed 8”


  1. April 26, 2011 at 01:34

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  2. July 8, 2014 at 00:06

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  3. December 25, 2015 at 10:50

    Do you have any video of that? I’d care to find out more details.


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