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Leader of the track: VW put its power behind Bentley at Le Mans

December 17, 2003|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

The best racing in the world barely makes a blip on most Americans' radar screen. The 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 80-year-old endurance race held in June in the La Sarthe region of France, murders cars and breaks the will of the most determined teams. It is a grand opera at 200 mph and it is, for most of the world, the Great Race.

A win at Le Mans says something definitive about a manufacturer's technology and sporting will -- or at least the will to write big checks.

For example, General Motors Corp.'s three-year effort to win with a Cadillac team in the highest Le Mans category -- LMP900 -- failed and cost the company, by some estimates, $50 million.

So the stakes were high when the board of VW Group decided in 2000 to bring its new corporate holding, Bentley, back to Le Mans after a 71-year absence. The famed Bentley Boys, led by Woolf Barnardo, won the Great Race five times from 1924 to 1930. Ancient history. The object now was to support next year's debut of the Bentley Continental GT speedster sedan with an overall win at Le Mans.

Like GM's effort, Bentley's program was designed as a three-year assault on the podium.

When two Bentley Speed 8s took first and second at Le Mans this summer, it was the culmination of a shrewd and perfectly executed power play by VW Group that underscored the vast resources of the mighty German corporation.

To reach the top of Le Mans, Bentley stood on the considerable shoulders of Audi Sport. Audi's factory team, helmed by Le Mans maestro Reinhold Joest, dominated the race for the previous three years.

For 2003, VW Group declined to field an Audi factory team and instead redirected its financial and intellectual resources to support the Bentley team, based at the RTN race shop near Norfolk, England.

Audi Sport, based in Neckarsulm, Germany, engineered and built the Bentley's 4.0-liter direct-injection V-8, a version of the 3.6-liter motor whose efficient power and bulletproof reliability was one of the keys to Audi's success in La Sarthe. Audi Sport handled the aerodynamic testing and many of the ancillary systems.

A dozen of Joest's most experienced team members were reassigned to the Bentley team for the race. Two of Audi Sport's premier drivers, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen, were contracted out to the Bentley effort.

The budget for the single race was estimated at $15 million to $20 million.

Skeptics might be tempted to put an asterisk beside the Bentley win at Le Mans, denoting the team's unfair advantage. But that's international racing.

And at the end of the day, the Bentley Speed 8 -- technically, a closed-cockpit sports car prototype -- was a British car, designed by RTN chief designer Peter Elleray, with a kind of inexpressible British flair and beauty.

In its dark-green livery and with its glowering turret of a canopy, the Speed 8 was distinctive, and though it was purely accidental, it looked like a Bentley.

It was $20 million well spent.

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