Our tame racing driver helps kicks off Evans's CarFest motor show...
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Driving the Bentley Continental GT3
“It’s unconventional in the sense that it’s a bit bigger, but we’re quick, so it shows that you can have a performing car that’s also luxurious. And you’ve got to admit, it’s the nicest looking car on the grid.”
These are the words of former Formula One driver Jerome D’Ambrosio, now an official GT3 racer and one sixth of the modern incarnation of the legendary ‘Bentley Boys’; those gents who, back in the 1920s, took the name ‘Bentley’ and plastered it all over the racing circuit.
A new generation then, is hoping to tread delicately in the footsteps of time, as this weekend saw Bentley return to competitive racing since 2003’s outright win at Le Mans. And the car they did it in is, as ‘Custard’ himself will explain, quite a Thing.
“It’s a very neutral, balanced car,” Jerome says, “which is actually very nice for me, because I can catch up quicker and get up to speed.” He was one of the final drivers to be given a seat, and has barely completed 20 laps in the thing ahead of its season debut in Monza. “But Bentley did a great job; it’s our first time out and we’re already up there with our competitors.”
Guy Smith, one of the drivers of car No.7, is a long-time ‘Bentley Boy’, having won with the team at Le Mans in the Speed 8. “It’s undeniably a Bentley,” he tells me, “it’s quite a bit different to the road car in many ways, but in a lot of ways its similar. It’s got half the weight of a GT car and it’s rear-wheel-drive rather than four-wheel-drive, but it’s a lot of fun to drive for a relatively big thing. It feels remarkably agile and nimble.”
A good thing then, considering the Blancpain endurance series isn’t exactly a walk in the park. “We’ve chosen if not the most competitive racing series in the world, then at least one of them,” Guy explains, “which is the best thing about GT racing: all the different manufacturers are separated by such a close margin.”
And he’s spent a significant amount of time in the Conti GT3 to be able to tell us what’s what. “Obviously it’s not got the downforce that a prototype racer has – which is really my background and where I’ve come from – but the top speed is not that dissimilar. It’s pretty well balanced, and that’s the key because you’re always trying to get a car that’s as neutral as possible. It doesn’t have too much oversteer or understeer, and it’s very easy on its tyres which was very important to us.”
It is important, but not for the reason you might think. It’s so that future customer teams who want to buy a Conti GT3 and race it can have an easy time. “It’s got to be easy to drive; there’s no point having a car that the pro guys can be quick in but the amateur racers struggle with.”
A point with which Duncan Tappy, another new ‘Bentley Boy’ and former British Formula Renault 2.0 champion, concurs. “The car fills you with confidence. You can grab it by the scruff of its neck and just get on with it. GT3 racing is about amateurs and gentlemen being able to just get in and drive, so yes, you can wring its neck out, but the Continental GT3 never does anything drastic. It ‘s very progressive: it doesn’t snap into oversteer on the exit of a corner, for example, so it fills you with a lot of confidence.”
He’s still chuffed to be a part of the new ‘Bentley Boys’, though. “It’s the biggest thing that’s happened to me in my career,” Duncan says. And it’s also the path Jerome is now taking with his career.
“Le Mans, Sebring, Daytona, Bathurst, all these places… I mean as a driver you want to go and race these famous races. You want to have a go at them. At the moment my goals are in sync with Bentley’s, so we’ll see where the whole thing goes.”
Before Bentley though, Jerome nearly made a return to the top flight of F1.
“I was in talks to get back into F1 this year – I can’t tell you with whom – but it all fell apart. It’s not just a team thing either, it’s a sponsors thing as well don’t forget. So I already had in my mind that if that didn’t work, maybe I’d switch to something new. Endurance racing is a different approach and that appealed to me”.
He said he first heard about the Continental GT3 programme at the Austin GP last year, but only came on board about a few weeks ago. “I’ve opened up a new chapter in my career this weekend, so we’ll see what that can bring.”
He doesn’t imagine getting himself back into F1, either – “realistically that door has probably closed for me now” – but he’s still keeping an eye on what’s what. “You have to say that Malaysia was not that exciting, but Bahrain… that was one the best races I have seen in the last few years. Yes, the engines don’t make the same noise, but even on TV you can see thepower of the cars. You see them moving about in places they never used to, because the engines aren’t as linear and easy to handle. It’s brutal.”
As for the top dog? “I think Lewis will take the championship this year. Yes, Nico was quicker in Bahrain but Lewis still won.”