Bentley Speed 8 - 2003 Le Mans Winning Car
In the long history of the Le Mans 24-hour race, Bentley collected six overall victories and placed itself among top 5 manufacturers in the world’s greatest endurance race. Five of those six wins were achieved in the early years of the race, between 1924 and 1930. Bentley left Le Mans after 1933 and then almost after seventy years Bentley returned to the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2001. Two years later, Bentley Speed 8 has won the race, bringing the sixth victory to the famous British brand.
RTN’s closed-cockpit prototype wasn’t good enough for Audi
The Le Mans-winning Bentley Speed 8 is an evolution of the Bentley EXP Speed 8, which was introduced in 2001. The story began in 1998 when Audi was developing its future R8 prototype. The German manufacturer ordered two solutions: the open-cockpit car from Joest Racing and the closed-cockpit car from Racing Technology Norfolk, led by Tony Southgate.
Audi’s choice for the 1999 season was the open-cockpit R8, so RTN’s prototype had to wait for its second chance. Then the invitation from Bentley came. The British marque was planning its return at Le Mans, after 68 years of absence. Under the guidance of the chief designer Peter Elleray, the Bentley EXP Speed 8 was created in 2000.
Podium at Le Mans debut for Bentley EXP Speed 8
The engine was borrowed from the Audi R8. It was a 3.6-litre turbocharged V8 petrol powerplant, connected to the six-speed gearbox, developed by Xtrac. Bentley also chose to run on Dunlop tires instead of the Michelins used by Audi.
At the 2001 Le Mans race, Bentley appeared with two EXP Speed 8 cars (#7 and #8). Bentley’s closed-cockpit cars were the only prototypes in the LMGTP class, fighting against LMP900 open-cockpit prototypes of Audi, Chrysler, Cadillac, Courage, Dome, Ascari and Panoz. Bentley’s return to Le Mans was successful, as the #8 crew reached the overall podium, behind two Audi R8s. Bentley’s drivers in the #8 car were Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Eric van de Poele. The #7 car, driven by Martin Brundle, Guy Smith and Stephane Ortelli, retired after 56 laps due to fire.
Slight modifications for 2002, redesigned car for 2003
For the second year of the competition, the V8 engine was modified to better suit the EXP Speed 8. The engine capacity was expanded to 4.0 liters, producing approximately 600 hp. The #8 Bentley finished fourth overall, behind three Audi R8s. Wallace, Leitzinger and van de Poele were again drivers of the British prototype, which was the only LMGTP car in the race.
The evolution continued in 2003. The Bentley’s prototype was redesigned and renamed to Speed 8. The flat front end was replaced with a raised crash box. The cockpit was tapered to allow better airflow to the rear wing. The air-intake was removed from the top of the car in favor of snorkel-type intakes on the sides of the car. Bentley also decided to switch to Michelin tires.
Podium at Sebring before historic Le Mans victory
The new Bentley Speed 8 cars had a competitive debut at 12 hours of Sebring in March 2003. Bentley ended up at the back of the grid due to some problems in scrutineering. In the race, two Bentleys finished third and fourth respectively, behind two Audi R8s.
At 2003 Le Mans race, the Team Bentleys had an assistance from Joest Racing, because Audi factory team didn’t participate in the race, so Joest’s engineers and mechanics were working for Bentley. Some leading drivers were also transferred from Audi to Bentley, such as Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello. They were driving the #7 Bentley together with Guy Smith. Mark Blundell, Johnny Herbert and David Brabham were in the #8 car.
1-2 victory for Bentley at 2003 Le Mans 24h
The #7 car started from pole position and Bentley’s crews were dominating the race. After 24 hours and 377 laps, the #7 Bentley crossed the finish line as the winning car, two laps ahead of #8 car, which had some electrical problems during the race. For Tom Kristensen, it was his fourth consecutive Le Mans win and fifth in total.
For Bentley, this was the sixth win in a history, 73 years after Woolf Barnato scored his third victory with famous Bentley Speed Six.
Following the Le Mans victory, Bentley prototype program was halted. The #7 victorious car and all other prototypes appeared in the next couple of years at some historic event, such as Goodwood Festival of Speed. One of the cars, the Bentley Speed 8 chassis 002-3, was sold in 2012 RM Monterey auction for USD $2,530,000.