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Review: Bentley Continental GT3
The world’s fastest lorry, right?
A gag that’s getting on for a hundred years old now. Well done. But yes, that is how Ettore Bugatti famously described the two-ton Le Mans Bentleys of the 1920s. The Bentley Continental GT3 racer of 2018 is just a whisker different.
Is any of it carried over from the road car?
The floorpan and the 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 are both shared with the road-going Continental GT. I know, the new Conti doesn’t yet have the V8, just the 6.0-litre W12, but that’s racing for you. And besides, if you have a look at where the engine now sits in the car, you’ll be stunned – it’s so far down and back that it looks like it’s been hit with a shrink ray.
I’m assuming it’s not four-wheel drive?
Nope, that’s why the engine (now dry-sumped too) can sit where it is, benefiting the centre of gravity and so on. It also means it weighs less than the regular road car. About a tonne less, give or take.
That must mean this is the lightest Bentley ever?
I’d assume the 2003 Le Mans-winning Speed 8 might have a claim on that title, and besides Bentley won’t actually tell me what the GT3 car weighs – the current regulations place no specific limits on weight or power, instead they have what’s called a ‘balance of performance’ – basically a power-to-weight ratio. Heavy cars can have more power, lighter ones less, is the broad idea, but if particular tracks suit particular cars better – tighter, twistier ones will obviously favour lighter, more nimble cars – the balance of performance can be adjusted to level the playing field.
Do you have actual numbers?
Broadly speaking, the Conti GT3 weighs around 1,300kg and develops about 500bhp. Engine power used to be limited by simply making the air intake smaller, now it’s done by controlling turbo boost. The scrutineers tell you how much boost you can run, and if you go beyond it by a fraction during the race (they monitor it) you can be disqualified.
Where the passenger would sit there are some evil-looking bolts protruding up from the floor. They’re not there to dissuade stranded racing drivers from hitching a lift back to the paddock. No, as with all racing cars, the Conti is built as light as possible, so it can then use ballast (lead slabs) sited in exactly the right spot (opposite the driver), to get the car up to the allowed weight.
Any other fun facts before we get down to driving?
I liked this one: the wheels are torqued to 600Nm. Which means the race team has the biggest wrench in the building at Crewe. So when the maintenance boys need to tighten the bolts that hold the factory together, they come and borrow the race team’s torque wrench.
Also, while the steering wheel is your typical confusion of buttons and knobs, the paddles behind it that operate the sequential gearbox (no, that’s not a carryover) are from the Mulsanne. It’s the single, solitary bit of familiar trim I can see. Oh, and the door handles are the right shape, but not the right weight somehow. In fact, I reckon the doors themselves, fabricated in carbon, can only be a tenth the weight of a regular Conti door.
They clang shut then?
I get the feeling they’re more there to create a familiar silhouette than provide impact protection. The strength of the crash structure comes from the roll cage, which takes a bit of negotiating as you clamber in.
All race cars are broadly the same in this regard – especially for those of us for whom this is not their regular office: deep seat, super-low seating position (I needed some foam so I could see over the dash), a colourful steering wheel you’re told to leave well alone, two pedals, two paddles and a digital display that appears to be showing the FTSE 100 index.
Is it simple to drive?
As long as you’re not racing it, yes. I suspect when you’re told you need to manage the tyre wear on the nearside rear, adjust the brake balance or switch to Multi 21 things get a lot more complicated, but often the most complicated thing I have to manage in a racing car is just getting the thing moving.
Here it’s easy. “What we’d like you to do, simply put, is pull the clutch in, select first, put the throttle all the way down, then drop the clutch. It’s better than risking the clutch overheating”. That’s my kind of start, one where the only complication is that the clutch is actually a half-moon-shaped bar under the steering wheel.
Let me get this straight: full throttle, dump clutch, and away?
Exactly that. The wheelspin was instant, but there was so much noise and vibration I just rode it out and felt all Days of Thunder. To save any blushes after that, and save the team from having to salvage their precious racer from the furthest reaches of Dunsfold’s outfield, it’s been fitted with wet tyres and the suspension has been softened up. This gives me more margin for error, for which I’m profoundly glad.
It runs 3.5 degrees of negative camber on the front wheels, which means you have to get a bit of pressure on them through corners before you’re actually using the whole flat surface of the tyre. On a tentative first lap, there didn’t seem to be any bite at the front. By lap ten I was bemoaning the fact the tyres had over-heated and wanting a stiffer set-up.
In other words, set up how it was, the Conti GT3 is very approachable. It’s raucous and noisy but that comes as much from the gearbox as the engine, and all the whine and buzz and noise and vibration just feels tremendous when you’re up and going. It makes the car feel alive.
Does it feel fast?
Not especially. Slower in a straight line than a BMW M5 I’d have said, so it’s the alertness, the immediacy, the willingness to change direction that you notice more. Several times I found myself thinking ‘is this all you’ve got?’ as we piled down the runway from Chicago to Hammerhead. It’s because even on a soft set-up with wets, it has more than enough control and grip to handle the power. The brakes are soft underfoot but there’s a lot of power in them once you’ve got some heat built up, and then it turns in with a bit of squidge and if you get a bit eager early on, it’s possible to coax a little slide through low-speed corners. That’s where it felt like a road car, just one that rides with amazing precision.
The high-speed stuff was a different matter. See that rear wing? Large. Lofty. The speed I could carry into Follow Through while holding a far tighter line than I expected, was ridiculous. That’s where you really feel the forces build up, feel the pressure back through the steering, the fight in the car as it really starts working. Up until then the steering had been pretty inert, but now, with the bob gone from the suspension, the mass of the car boosted by air, it felt like a proper racer. It made me want fresh tyres, to play with the set-up, to spend the rest of the day fettling and driving.
Don’t be greedy.
I know, but having driven the McLaren Senna recently and other road cars with downforce, it makes me think that scrutineers should really lighten up and let these things off the leash a bit. How about 700bhp? Or 800bhp? Why not? The GT3 class is in great shape at the moment. If it’s to maintain that edge, then a bit more speed, a bit more spectacle would be good, surely? Mind you, I’d already far rather watch GT3 than Formula E…
What would make GT3 racing even more compelling for you? Thoughts below, please.
Images: Stuart Price