2014 Bentley Continental GT3 First Look
The big Bentley roars back onto the circuit in Abu Dhabi
Just when you thought Bentley’s thundering Continental coupe range couldn’t possibly accommodate another variant, here one comes—but it’s not for civilians. No, Bentley is taking its big baby racing in GT3, the “stock car” racing class for supercars, and as many as 30 well-heeled racers will have the opportunity to purchase a turn-key version for a price “that will not exceed” $506,000 (exact pricing cannot be determined until homologation is complete).
No lorry this, the finished product meets the GT3 weight target of 1300 kg (2866 lbs), running a fairly lightly modified version of the stock twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 that produces roughly 540-550 hp with a boost-
The Continental GT3 marks Bentley’s return to motorsport ten years after its EXP Speed 8 Le Mans Prototype racer won that day-long French contest in 2003. As was the case with the development of that car, this GT3 effort is also a new car being developed by a new team—Cumbria, England-based M-Sport—in a new and unfamiliar class (even to M-Sport, which is a WRC rallying powerhouse). Dialing up the degree of difficulty, the FIA only approved the concept in May 2012, so the car’s development has been something of a crash program. It helps, of course, that so much of the car is stock.
The body is framed on the regular production line, then its roof is cut off and many panels removed or modified to facilitate installation of the roll cage. All the moving panels (hood, trunk, doors) and much of the rest of the skin gets replaced with carbon-fiber parts (the 15-pound doors each represent a 110-pound savings). Deleting the front-axle drive hardware saves another 100 pounds or so. The engine is also constructed on the regular production line and receives, what motorsports director Brian Gush swears are “minimal changes,” along the lines of improved breathing and engine mapping. He also admits it revs higher, but as is typical of teams actively competing, no further details are elaborated. The chassis is mostly bespoke, and steel brakes are required by the series.
The car made its debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last summer, and has been under development ever since with the goal of being fully competitive in the 2014 Blancpain GT Endurance Series. Exhaustive testing sessions have been conducted at places like the rough Portimao Circuit in Portugal, but in order to begin gathering useful data on how the car behaves in competition on a hot track, the team brought its baby to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina F1 circuit, for the Gulf 12-Hour endurance race on Friday the 13th. The stated goal was NOT to win, but to finish, spending 12 hours getting the drivers familiar with the car and playing around with various engine-map and chassis settings to assess the its performance, handling, and fuel and tire consumption with various settings. Practice sessions the day before revealed brake balance issues—primarily the balance of the cooling front and rear, on a track that is reportedly second only to Montreal, Canada’s F1 circuit for brake trauma (the fronts needed a lot more cooling, the rears a little more). Nevertheless, the car qualified fourth, behind a Mercedes SLS and two Ferrari 458s and just 8/10ths off the pace of the lead qualifier. The rest of the GT3 field of 17 cars was rounded out by Porsche 911s, McLaren 12Cs, and a Lambo Gallardo.
Seasoned GT3 vet Steven Kane started off on the parade lap with a big smoky burnout and a lot of swift sawing at the wheel to quickly put heat into the new (for every team this race) Avon tires. During the first few laps the AF Corse Ferrari 458 and Bentley swapped positions a few times, but that Ferrari (which qualified fastest, only to be docked to 5th on grid because they forgot to qualify all three drivers—oops!) eventually worked his way to the front of the pack, as Kane remembered his mission and dutifully altered settings and maintained his pace of 2:14 plus or minus a second. Next up was GT3 rookie but devout Bentley Boy Guy Smith, who had only raced Yas on the simulator and has been busy unlearning some prototype-car habits (gotta slow these pigs up a bit farther ahead of the turns). Hour three was ALMS/Blancpain vet Andy Meyrick’s turn. All three drivers were pleasantly surprised at how competitive and reliable the car has proven to be, and how much wider its performance envelope feels relative to some other cars they’ve piloted that either need to catch up in turns or on long straights. The Bentley was reaching speeds as high as 163 mph on the longest straight, which is quite competitive here. Kane and Meyrick both noted that they were out-braking the Ferraris toward the end of their stints as the fuel load diminished. All the drivers noted that because this track sees little use, there’s not much rubber on the surface, which makes it slipperier. By the end of six hours, grip was improving.
By the half-way point (the Gulf 12-Hour is split into two sessions), the Bentley was running in third place, having successfully put two 458s behind it while running just barely a lap behind the leading 458 and SLS. Everyone stayed out of trouble in the first half, save a couple of 458s that tangled very lightly, scarring some bodywork. The Bentley team was cagey about changes made during the two-plus hour intermission but we suspect some subtle tuning to have taken place. Act II was more of the same, but the SLS quickly got a lap ahead of the 458, and eventually the Kessel Racing 458 snuck ahead of our hero. Anchorman Meyrick pedaled as hard as he could, suffering a a minor issue: An underbelly pan came adrift and started dragging and sparking on the ground for the final few laps. The car hung in, finishing fourth and logging the second-quickest lap of the second session (2:12.1). Under the circumstances, a terrific result. Order yours soon…