Team Bentley has successfully completed the first phase of its campaign to win Le Mans on the 80th anniversary of its first race in the 24-hour classic. After eight hours of testing the number 7 Speed 8 Le Mans GT Prototype topped the time sheets with Tom Kristensen lapping in 3min 34.8sec, over 3.5sec ahead of the fastest of the hitherto unbeatable Audi R8s.
The number 8 car ended the day third fastest with a time of 3min 38.9sec, Johnny Herbert’s attempt to set a representative time for the car being thwarted by the perennial problem of slow traffic.
These excellent times were achieved despite a far from trouble-free run for the two Bentleys, with minor problems dogging the team throughout the day. Dindo Capello, in the No 7 Speed 8, was forced to pull over at the side of the Mulsanne straight after a rear suspension component failed, while No 8’s most hair-raising incident was a puncture for Mark Blundell in the 5th gear corner at Indianapolis. Mark did brilliantly to save the car and get it to the pits in one piece.
"I am absolutely delighted to end up fastest by such a margin," commented Bentley’s motorsport director, Brian Gush, "particularly as we have not had the easiest of days. We lost a lot of time making set-up changes for car 8, while car 7 was stranded for an hour before lunch. Under the circumstances I’d say we could hardly have hoped for more, save perhaps a traffic-free run for Johnny at the end of the day. Had he had a clear lap, I’ve no doubt we’d have been in the top two spots. As it is, car 8 is only half a second behind the fastest of the three Audis."
John Wickham, team director, commented: "It’s very rewarding to come away from today with first and third places. It’s given the team the boost they deserve after what turned out to be a very hard day’s work. There is a lot more to think about and several issues to resolve before the race, but while we had numerous niggles we encountered no major problems. It just goes to show once more that this track continues to spring surprises even on the best-prepared teams."Published 7 May 2003