With the worldwide cessation in motor racing due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we are taking a look at some of the gems from the British GT Championship‘s past. In this article, Nick Smith takes a look at the first generation of the Bentley Continental GT3.
Launched by then director of Bentley Motorsport Brian Gush, the Bentley Continental GT3 Gen 1 car was the first return to motor racing by the British manufacturer since their 24 Hours of Le Mans victory in 2003. A packed press day at the 2012 Paris Motorshow saw the covers come off the car to the surprise of all gathered, including me.
The original car was to be powered by a race tuned version of Bentley’s monstrous 6 litre W12 engine, a technological tour-de-force which powered the road car from its introduction in 2003. During development though the team decided that it would be better to go with the lighter 3,993cc Twin Turbocharged V8. Uprated from the 520bhp available in the road car, the GT3 racer produced a whopping 600bhp but unlike the road car, which benefitted from a cleaver all-wheel-drive system, the GT3 gave all that power to the rear wheels via a six speed X-Trac sequential gearbox.
All the racing accoutrements were fitted, including Limited Slip Differential, Carbon Fibre propshafts and of course, the pneumatically operated steering wheel gearchange which has become standard across the sport.
The car made its rolling debut at the 2013 Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Rolex Monterey Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
From the start, Bentley enlisted the help and support of technical partners M-Sport. Malcolm Wilson‘s Cockermouth based outfit had until then specialised in rally cars but knew how to build a quick racecar, the team took just one race in 2014 to get up to speed.
The car made its full season competitive debut in 2014 with two cars at the hands of Steven Kane, Guy Smith and Andy Meyrick (#7) and Jerome d’Ambrosio, Duncan Tappy and Antoine Leclerc (#8) at the opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Series, finishing 7th and 8th, but in the wrong order! The car’s first win, and Bentley’s first factory win in the UK since 1930 came a round later at Silverstone when the #7 machine took victory from the #99 ART Grand Prix McLaren MP4-12C GT3.
Prior to embarking on the Blancpain campaign, M-Sport took the car to the Gulf 12 Hours at Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi were it took fourth place.
Championship success also came in 2014, Vincent Abril and Maximilian Bhuk claiming the Blancpain Sprint Series championship, whilst the factory team took the 2015 endurance title.
British GT Success
The Bentley also made its full season British GT Championship debut in 2014, coming before the time when manufacturers used a full season in GT World Challenge to prove their cars before customer sale. M-Sport brought a single car for factory driver Steven Kane, who was joined for the sprint season by Dutch racer Rembert Berg and then Emirati driver Humaid Al Masaood for the endurance component of the championship. At the same time Generation Bentley Racing made their full season debut, with a single entry for James Appleby and Steve Tandy.
Neither car did particularly well, The factory entry managed a best place finish of 4th in Silverstone 500, eighth at Oulton Park in the first round was the only other points scoring finish of the season. The Generation entry fared even worse, sitting out the Donington Decider and managing a season best of eighth place in the second race at Snetterton.
Almost unsurprisingly given the poor performance in 2014, 2015 saw no Bentley on the entry list. 2016 saw the brand return in force with a pair of entries from Team Parker Racing, the #31 doing the full season whilst the #24 only did rounds five and six, Silverstone and Spa. It was customary back in the mid-2010s for teams to guest at the Silverstone and Spa rounds in preparation for the later Blancpain Endurance Series rounds at the same venues.
It was a better season for the Continental. Second in the opening round at Brands Hatch was bettered in race 2 at Oulton Park by a win, the #31 cars only victory of the season. Rick Parfitt Jr. and Seb Morris claimed another second and three third places on their way to third in the championship, their only non-scoring round a retirement at the Silverstone 500.
A year later it was a double full season entry for Team Parker Racing, the same crews of Parfitt Jr. and Morris in the #31 machine joined by Callum MacLeod and Ian Loggie in the #7. It was the year it all came good for the Crewe built machine.
The opening rounds at Oulton Park were a low point of the championship, 4th and 5th for the #31 was mated to 7th in round one for the #7. A disqualification in round 2 was the absolute rock bottom for the team. The first victory of the year came the way of Morris and Parfitt Jr. at Rockingham Motor Speedway, the duo repeating twice in the season at Silverstone in the 500 and Brands Hatch. The brand also picked up a victory thanks to the #7 machine who claimed the win at Spa-Francorchamps.
Only three times all year did a Bentley finish outside the points, the Oulton Park disqualification being joined by a retirement in the second race at Snetterton and an 11th place finish at Silverstone. All three non-scoring finishes went the way of the #7.
The real news was the championship though, the #31 car taking the title by 30 points in a Donington Decider which saw the car’s nearest rivals disqualified. A championship victory is a championship victory though and 2017 was Bentley’s year.
2018, the swansong year for the Gen 1 Bentley, wasn’t as kind. Seb Morris didn’t rejoin Parfitt Jr. in the defence of their title, except for the Silverstone 500 where the duo were re-united for a single round in the #1 machine as Ryan Ratcliffe was ill. Best Bentley was the #7, with a stable crew from 2017, out performing the champions by 12 points and a single place in the championship standings.
Two podiums in the final year saw the car end its competitive run not with a bang, but a whimper. Loggie and MacLeod taking second at Snetterton while Parfitt Jr. and Ratcliffe took second at Spa. A consolation to the disappointing end to the racing career of the Bentley has to be the fourth place finish in the British GT Fans Ultimate GT3 car competition! The car would have taken a podium spot if not for the new Gen 2 car which replaced it.