Team Bentley returns to Le Mans this weekend to start the final phase of its three year campaign to win the famed 24-hour race once more, some 73 years after its last historic victory. Buoyed by the pace-setting speed shown by its two Speed 8 prototypes at the Sebring 12-hours race, the team believes all the elements required for success are now falling into place.
This Sunday will mark the first occasion that the all-new Speed 8s have run at Le Mans, and the day-long test will be spent not trying to break the lap record, but matching the set-up to the circuit, proving the performance of the new Michelin tyres and evaluating the fuel consumption of their 4-litre, direct injection, twin-turbo V8 motors.
It will also allow the two teams of drivers to acclimatise themselves once more to the car and circuit. Car number 7 will be crewed by Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello and Guy Smith. Car 8 will be driven by Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell and David Brabham. With nearly 250 Grand Prix starts and six Le Mans wins between them, this is one of the quickest and most experienced squads ever to take the start at Le Mans.
The car they will drive, the 2003 Bentley Speed 8, has taken a massive performance leap over the already highly competitive 2002 model. Despite being designed to exploit the long straights of Le Mans to the full, on the shorter, more twisting Sebring circuit not only did the Bentleys claim the front two places on the grid (before being sent to the back for a minor technical irregularity), one claimed the fastest lap, and the other the fastest single stint. Both cars ran faultlessly, the only unscheduled stop being to replace broken bodywork caused by a spinning slower car.
Such is the car-breaking nature of the Sebring track, it has long been believed that any car that can survive 12-hours on its horrendously bumpy surface should last at least 24 anywhere else. But just to make sure, the next day one of the Speed 8s embarked on another 12-hour marathon at the track. The run was completed at race pace and without trouble.
John Wickham, team manager said: "We’ve not had an ideal winter testing programme – the car did not run until late January and we’ve been unlucky with the weather, so we were delighted with the way the cars performed at Sebring, a circuit to which they should be unsuited. One of the cars had run for less than two hours continuously before it went to America and the other had not turned a wheel, but both ran like clockwork throughout.
"We will be going fast this weekend because that’s the only way to understand the car, but we have a packed schedule as we need to run the cars on a range of different tyres, with different set ups and fuel loads. We’ll leave finding an ultimate lap-time for qualifying."
Brian Gush, Director Motorsport said: "Because of the tight corners and bumps at Sebring, we had to run a high-downforce package on the car which is not what it was designed for. Also because we had done so little testing, we had to be extremely conservative with our fuel and tyre strategies. Now we have over 24 hours trouble-free running under our belts, we will be in a much better position to exploit fully the considerable potential of the new car."
Team Bentley’s Speed 8s will be able to be seen throughout the weekend. Scrutineering takes place on Saturday and the cars will run on Sunday in two sessions, the first from 0900-1300 and then from 1400-1800.
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