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A Hundred-Year Racing Heritage

Bentley has been racing since 1919 – the year of the company’s birth. In the decades that have followed its first race, Bentley has forged a formidable reputation on the racetracks of the world, thanks to a combination of visionary engineering and the courage of the men and women who take the wheel.

Every race helps to demonstrate the phenomenal capabilities of Bentley today – and to refine the technology that will be included in the cars of tomorrow.

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RACING IN THE DNA

Without racing, Bentley may never have existed at all. W.O. Bentley was more than just an engineer; he was also a passionate competitor – a man who believed unquestionably in the importance of car racing to his success. As he said himself: “The racing policy was part of the very foundations of Bentley Motors, for the two vital purposes of testing and publicising our cars.”

Driven though he was, W.O. knew the value of teamwork – and the importance of working together with his customers. From the moment his first car began attracting attention, he was keen to see Bentleys race. The thrill-seeking men and women who bought them were only too happy to oblige.

The team that emerged in the 1920s – an early embodiment of what we know today as a works team – proved unstoppable on the racetracks of Britain and northern Europe.  

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THE EARLY YEARS

At the Brooklands racetrack on 16 May 1921, the hand-built Bentley EXP 2 roared across the finish line ahead of all its rivals. It was the Junior Sprint Handicap – the first competitive race won by a Bentley.

Constructed in 1907 and famous for its 30 ft (9.5 metre) banked corners, Brooklands was widely considered the 'Ascot of Motorsport' – making it the perfect proving ground for Bentley’s cars. Many of the races held there were handicaps, in which cars with smaller engines were given a head start over the bigger powerful Bentleys. But W.O.’s engineering prowess prevailed – and his cars became frequent winners.

The Bentley 3 Litre
His ambition would soon take the company beyond British shores, however. In France, W.O. met two British drivers: Harry Varley and Frank Burgess. Together, they developed a fast touring car: the Bentley 3 Litre. With four cylinders, an overhead camshaft and four valves per cylinder, it went on sale for the first time in 1921 – and soon it was racing internationally. In 1922, it finished 13th in the 500 mile race at Indianapolis (now famous as the Indy 500) before a team of three cars took second, fourth and fifth places in the 1922 TT, winning the team prize. Behind the wheel of the car that came fourth was W.O. himself.

Bentley at Brooklands
Despite Bentley’s growing international fame, Brooklands remained crucial to the company’s success. In 1929, Bentley won the Brooklands 500 and in 1930, the prestigious Double Twelve – an endurance race spanning two gruelling 12-hour legs. The association would continue well into the next decade. In March 1932, Tim Birkin recorded a Brooklands lap record of 137.96 mph in his single-seater Bentley Blower. And although the circuit prohibited female racing drivers until 1928, Margaret Allan competed there and won in a Bentley during the mid-1930s.  

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CONQUERING LE MANS

Bentley’s pioneering vision has long been embodied in the tenacity and ambition of its drivers. But it wasn’t until W.O. visited the first 24 Hours of Le Mans that the company’s defining era began.

The first win
At first, he had been sceptical. “I think the whole thing’s crazy,” he declared. “Nobody will finish. Cars aren’t designed to stand that sort of strain for 24 hours.”

But after the first race in 1923, in which a Bentley 3 Litre came fourth and set a new lap record, he changed his mind. The following year, he returned and won. It marked the beginning of a glorious decade – one in which W.O. and his drivers, the original Bentley Boys, would come to dominate Le Mans.

A string of victories
The Le Mans years would spur a remarkable period of innovation. In 1924 a Bentley 3 Litre won the race. In 1928, it was a 4½ Litre. And in 1930, two 6½ litre Speed 6 cars took first and second. As the engines grew larger and more sophisticated, W.O. and the Bentley Boys honed their skills – from the driving itself right down to their pit procedures. They became an unbeatable team.

Old Number 7
Of all the Le Mans victories, the most memorable came in 1927. Two works 4½ Litre cars were competing that year – but at the White House Corner, disaster struck. Both were badly damaged in a multi-car pile-up and forced to retire. Fortunately, there was another Bentley in the race. ‘Old Number 7’ was a Bentley 3 Litre driven by Dudley Benjafield and Sammy Davis. Although it, too, was damaged in the crash, the team undertook what repairs they could – and they managed to keep it on the track. To replace its smashed headlights, they strapped a torch to the windscreen, enabling Davis and Benjafield to drive through the night and emerge Le Mans winners.

Back in London, a celebration dinner was held at the Savoy. Following a toast “to someone who should be present”, the car itself was wheeled into the dining room. The entire team rose to their feet for the arrival of ‘Old Number 7’ – their battled-scarred, four-wheeled guest of honour.

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THE RETURN TO LE MANS

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THE RETURN TO LE MANS

After decades away from the track, Bentley returned to racing – and to Le Mans – in 2001. As part of a three-year quest to recapture the 24-Hour Trophy, an all-new Bentley track car, the EXP Speed 8, entered the race. Despite torrential rain, the team secured third place. When the Bentley driver team of Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Eric van de Poele  took to the podium for the first time in more than 70 years, they were wearing 1920s-style Bentley overalls.

The following year, an improved car with an even more powerful engine finished fourth – a useful test run for the new technology. But it wasn’t until the year after – almost 73 years to the day since two Bentleys took first and second place in 1930 – that Guy Smith, Dindo Capello, Tom Kristensen, Johnny Herbert, David Brabham and Mark Blundell repeated this impressive feat. Le Mans winners again, one of the Bentley Speed 8 cars also recorded the fastest lap.

To commemorate this stunning victory, the number 7 Speed 8 was guest of honour at a dinner held at the Savoy, just as ‘Old Number 7’ had been in 1927. Even the drinks list was the same as it had been 76 years earlier.

Of all the tracks on which Bentley has raced, none has played a more pivotal part in the company’s hundred-year long story than Le Mans. And today, the influence of this extraordinary race pervades everything Bentley does. Even its flagship car is named after the Mulsanne Straight, a section of the Le Mans racetrack .

In 2019, to commemorte Bentley's Centenary, the City of Le Mans renamed a street in honour of the original ‘Bentley Boys’ who won five Le Mans 24-hour races between 1924 and 1930, and their successors who took the laurels in 2003. The street has been named 'Rue des Bentley Boys'.  

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A NEW RACING ERA

In 2013 – a decade after this thrilling Le Mans triumph – Bentley brought a new car to the track: the Continental GT3, a racing car based on the road-going Continental GT. This formidable car completed a full season of racing in the Blancpain Endurance Championship the following year.

2014 saw the Team Bentley M-Sport Continental GT3 win at Paul Ricard and at Silverstone – the latter representing the first British win by a works Bentley since the Double Twelve at Brooklands, back in 1930. Race by race, the team’s performance improved further, until in 2017, Team Bentley M-Sport won the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup outright.

Following the introduction of the new Continental GT in 2017, a new GT3 was created. This second-generation combines the phenomenal V8 engine of its predecessor with the dynamic body shell of the new road car. In 2019, Bentley’s Centenary year, it has already notched up a string of race wins, including the opening round of the British GT Championship at Oulton Park, the third and fourth rounds of the Blancpain GT World Challenge America and the Paul Ricard 1000km.

As in the days of the original Bentley Boys, it is possible for private race teams to acquire a new Continental GT3 to race alongside the Bentley works team. You can learn more about the opportunities to compete in this thrilling car here.

Read more about the Bentley Motorsport programme here.
 

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