It is no exaggeration to describe the Bentley Speed 8 Le Mans GT prototype that will race at both Sebring and Le Mans as a new car. Though the previous two generations of Speed 8 performed spectacularly well, returning Bentley to the Le Mans podium in 2003, it was felt that for the final year of the three-year programme, a fresh approach was required.
Clearly the car still features enclosed bodywork meaning it remains in a class of its own and the engine retains its basic architecture, 4-litre capacity, direct fuel injection and twin turbochargers. In all other significant respects it is a new design from the ground up.
The concept driving the design was to ensure much better exploitation of the airflow over the body and particularly to the rear wing. To achieve this, the external cockpit area has been much reduced – though the car is actually more spacious inside – making a smaller hole in the air and allowing the car to use a much smaller, more aerodynamic engine cover.
In addition, the air-intake that had sat on top of the car in previous generation Speed 8s has been deleted in favour of ‘snorkel’-type intakes on the sides of the car. This not only further increases the efficiency of the air-flow over the car, it also lowers the height of the car, lending it a much more sleek, aggressive appearance. Early testing results have indicated that not only does the 2003 Speed 8 have a more favourable downforce to drag ratio than its predecessor, it also offers much more consistent aerodynamic performance in all conditions making the car both quicker and easier to drive.
Underneath the new skin the 4-litre engine has been re-engineered around the new regulations for 2003 that dictated a 10 per cent reduction in engine restrictor size across all classes competing at Le Mans. It has been necessary to redesign many internal engine components as well as evolve a new electronics strategy for the engine to minimise the shortfall in power that the new regulations will bring to all competing teams.
The suspension has been entirely redesigned as well, partly to improve further its behaviour, but also so it can be adapted to suit its new Michelin tyres. All the geometry has been changed, even the mounting points of the rear suspension on the gearbox.
This alone has necessitated a new gearbox casing for the Speed 8. As in previous generations of Speed 8, the internals are supplied by Xtrac and continue to operate with their customary reliability.