Test Drive Tuesday review #26: 2003 Bentley Speed 8
Bentley and Le Mans have a strong history together. After taking part in the very first 24 hours of Le Mans and winning six times the race though, Bentley didn’t show up in France for nearly 70 years. But in the early 2000s, now part of the almighty Volkswagen group, Bentley was asked to return, in a call to its glorious hours of the past. The EXP Speed 8 debuted in 2001, inspired by the Audi R8C and competing against others R8s. It could never beat the sister company, but it was decided that for 2003 Bentley would be the sole official VW team to compete. The EXP Speed 8 was completely reworked, sporting new aero, suspension and monocoque, and a modified version of its Audi-sourced 4 liter turbo V8. The Speed 8 did much more than just win: it destroyed the opposition (mainly privateer R8s), and scored a 1-2, leading by several laps at the end of the race. It also won on another front: it remains one of the most beautiful modern racers.
And it is as beautiful to drive as it is to look at, which is a tall order.
You can feel that it’s an endurance racecar. The car feels supple, easy to drive. There’s a lightness to the steering that makes it easy to judge through slow corners, and the engine is so full of torque that you don’t really need to pay attention to the gear you’re in. It just keeps pulling. There’s also a massive amount of downforce. But it doesn’t mask the character of the car, as it can do in some F1s. It’s beautifully balanced with the mechanical grip, and both work well together. Though it must be said, traction in first gear is almost non-existent. Don’t use 1st gear. There’s enough torque not to, anyway.
Because of all of that, it’s a car that’s surprisingly easy to drive if you simply want to be consistent lap after lap. But if you want to go for that one gold lap, or if you’re good enough to be constantly at the limit of the car (which does require some talent), the Bentley suddenly becomes something else entirely. But it takes a bit of a leap of faith. It’s as if there was a secret room, full of wonders, that you could only access through bungee-jumping.
Once you’re there though… It’s magical. The car comes to life, and you really are pushed to work with it. It’s a real animal, ferocious and beautiful. But it’ll let you play with it. Balance it through the fast bends, feel the rear end help the nose attack the apex, and then the aero pushing you out of the corner at bewildering speeds. You can really feel everything that’s going on; the car is truly talking to you. All of a sudden, the brakes are brutally effective, the nose superbly intuitive. For me, it was hard to stay in that zone though, because I was constantly pushed out of my limits, and at some point I would ask too much of the rear end, and the connection would break. Spinning would become nearly unavoidable. But for those magic laps where everything was going perfectly, it was as if I was the racing driver I always wished I could become. It was magnificent. So I’d take it a tad more slowly, enjoy the drivability of those 90%, and then, when the confidence was up again, have a go at breaking my personal best. In that zone, it’s faster than the more modern R18. That’s high praise.
Once, I took it to Silverstone, set the practice session at 6pm, filled the tank, and turned off all the displays, to enjoy the awesome cabin and the sunset. I drove until the track went completely dark, and then some more. One of the most amazing evenings I had on Simraceway.
To find out how it did against all the other TDT cars, follow this link to the TDT Leaderboards: https://goo.gl/ATr6mF