The closest the McLaren 650S and the Bentley Continental GT3-R have come is on-track as part of the Blancpain Endurance Series. Until today…
Right here. This is where it all began.
Cast your minds back to December 2013. With speculation concerning its forthcoming GT motorsport campaign having done the rounds (several times) since that year’s Geneva Motor Show, Bentley was about to embark on its first official race start since the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours. A race, incidentally, the company had walked. Unsurprisingly, ahead of the Continental GT3-R’s debut at the Gulf 12 Hours, the pressure was enormous…
Indeed, despite an enviable motorsport record that included four outright wins at Le Mans on the bounce from ’27 to ’30, to many the concept of a Bentley going endurance racing raised as many eyebrows as a Rolls-Royce Phantom would doing rallycross. “Stuff and nonsense” spake company CEOs in late 2012 when the GT3-R concept was unveiled and a full GT program on the Blancpain stage was confirmed for the following season, the announcement both the ‘realisation of a dream’ for Crewe and yet further assurance that, like many of its more mainstream rivals, Bentley ‘belonged’ on the track. That the news also breathed new life – and re-sparked customer interest in – the by-now rather tired Continental did no harm either….
One year on, the Yas Marina Circuit and the Gulf 12 Hours were once again gearing up for a British debutant, one with another – albeit very different – prestigious motor racing record behind it. If anything though, the pressure was even higher, for while Bentley’s steps into the arena were its first in just over a decade, for McLaren this was a path they had worn almost smooth on both the GT and Formula 1 scenes for nearly 50 years. Winning was what they did, as the retiring 12C GT3 had also proven at GT level courtesy of three championship titles, 51 race victories and 71 further podiums. That the new 650S GT3 HAD to win – and ideally on its debut – was beyond doubt.
Today, the atmosphere at Yas Marina is somewhat different. The sweltering mid-morning August temperatures intermittently knock the air from our lungs, neither V8 nor V6 rumbles can be heard roaring down the main straight, and the adjacent grandstands are empty. Yet still there is an excitement in the air. This, right here, is where Bentley and McLaren began their campaigns with the GT3-R and 650S GT3 respectively, and where our journey with their road-going counterparts begins today. Granted, at face value this may seem an odd stand-off. But remember that both are British to the core, both are powered by performance-hewn twin-turbo V8 engines, and both cost in excess of $280,000.
And today, we’re going to take them for a spin on one of the region’s most notorious stretches of winding mountain road – Jebel Hafeet – to see just how that track potential translates to the road.
2013 Gulf 12 Hours, qualifying – Bentley GT3-R seals fourth place on the starting grid, just ahead of 2012 winners Kessel Racing’s Ferrari 458 Italia GT3
2014 Gulf 12 Hours, qualifying – McLaren 650S GT3 repeats its predecessor’s feat by taking pole position for its first race ahead of race favourites Abu Dhabi Racing’ Mercedes SLS GT3
Regrettably, owing to a few ‘don’t even think about it’s from McLaren and Bentley, and since none of us has a cool half mill to spare should something go horribly wrong, our journey will not begin on the circuit itself. You consequently join us in the Yas Marina support paddock. It’s a shame, but it does at least give us time to take a closer look at each model.
Given the decidedly un-Bentley racing decals and carbon fibre detailing, the GT3-R doesn’t so much grab attention as thrust a knife beneath its chin: it’s a far more rugged, gritty look than the sleeker, more aerodynamically-centred 650S. The Continental’s new aero though is much more than just a poke in the eye. The enormous bonnet grooves for instance have been designed to feed more cooling air to the remapped 4-litre V8, which has also received high-boost turbochargers for added grunt, in much the same way the 650S’s M838T V8 received new pistons, cylinder heads and exhaust valves to up power over the similarly-engined 12C. The carbon front splitter is a nod to Bentley’s drive for greater manoeuvrability, as is the tighter chassis, the fixed carbon rear spoiler and a rejigged sport suspension setup borrowed from the Continental V8 S. Even those enormous 21in wheels are lightweight and shod with performance Pirellis for added grip, just as McLaren worked extensively with Pirelli to produce exclusive high-grip ‘MC1’ P-Zeros for the 650S. Performance then, and lashings of it, is the word of the day.
“This, right here, is where Bentley and McLaren began their GT campaigns”
Sort of. Despite their links to the race-going monsters that put the Gulf 12 Hours on the map, these are not stripped out track-day specials, retaining as they do creature comforts for everyday use. A point emphasised as I alight the GT3-R and rumble not so quietly through the support paddock towards Yas Island. Granted, the Bentley’s flabby stomach has received a staple or two: look high and low but you’ll find neither seat massagers, high-varnished oak upholstery nor plush carpeting, the epitome of luxury now resplendent with carbon fibre door casings and only two seats to drop the kerb weight to ‘just’ 2195kg. Bentley hasn’t gone completely off its high-pedestalled rocker though, as everything – including the leather door pulls – has still been hand built on home turf in Crewe. Even the dashboard clock has survived the purge.
It’s a statement of intent certainly, but compared with the minimalist, driver-focused design of the 650S – barely altered since the 12C – it’s a little brash. You could even say, when we consider the bright green detailing, a little vulgar. The GT3-R may be ‘the most dynamic Continental yet’ but did so much of Bentley’s critically acclaimed elegance need to be sacrificed to slam this point home?
2013, 1hr in – Bentley GT3-R moves into third place after a stellar start from the second row of the grid
2014, 1hr in – McLaren 650S is leapfrogged by fast starting Abu Dhabi Racing and hard-charging AF Corse Ferrari, but comfortably retains third
There is a saving grace for Bentley however, and it’s a biggie. To truly emphasise the GT3-R’s motorsport pedigree, an all-new titanium exhaust (which accounts for 7kg of that weight loss) has also been installed to raise those distinctive V8 notes up a notch. As we enter one of Yas Island’s tunnels to the main land, a flick of the left wrist knocks the eight-speed ZF automatic down a cog or two, the resultant high-revving roar enough to quiver the enamel paint from the walls. It’s truly spectacular, the race-model at full chat the only equivalent worthy of comparison, AMG‘s best included: gun the throttle, lift off, and the resultant rat-tat-tat-tat warble as the exhaust ‘pops’ on the overrun blows the admittedly pleasant but aurally outclassed McLaren out of the water.
Though it’s tempting to spend the remainder of this afternoon tearing through this tunnel with barely contained giddiness, the next – rather monotonous – leg of our drive takes us 170km into Al Ain, in a straight line.
I will admit, even with that rejigged suspension, ride comfort in the GT3-R is surprisingly good. It lacks the über damped comfort of the standard Continental but impresses nonetheless, those double wishbones supple enough across even the most rutted of surfaces and more than enough give from those carbon-backed sports seats. Granted, further reach from the steering column would not go amiss: though head and legroom is plentiful, I’m stretching more than I’d like to grip the column-mounted paddle shifters. It’s a trifling detail though. Indeed, Bentley’s inherent luxury means the GT3-R’s ride is arguably more comfortable than that in the 650S, Woking’s taut ProActive Chassis Control geared more firmly towards road holding. It’s not uncomfortable, but the McLaren’s lowered stance means riding over road humps and broken asphalt is a more jarring experience than in the Bentley.
“The Bentley’s flabby stomach has received a staple or two: look high and low but you won’t find any seat massagers”
Still, check McLaren’s company letterhead and you’ll find form does indeed follow function in the 650S: there’s plenty of legroom, enough headroom (just), superbly cossetting carbon bucket seats, and a timeless elegance to the minimalist cabin design, even if the unpredictable touchscreen infotainment system will occasionally drive you to despair: you’ll need the steady hand usually reserved for cartilage surgery to tune the radio.
2013, 3hrs in – Bentley leapfrogs leader Black Falcons under the safety car to take second place
2014, 3hrs in – McLaren leads outright after running long on fuel during the opening stint
That the Bentley would come out on top of the cruise to our automotive playground, even with it’s track-focused setup, seemed an inevitability: no model on McLaren’s line-up has ever prioritised ‘comfort’ over performance. But when our convoy finally hits Jebel Hafeet – a snaking stretch of tarmac that disappears almost vertically into the clouds and considered a driving haven for regional petrolheads – it’s pure 650S territory. With the help of 641bhp and 500lb ft of torque to the Bentley’s 572bhp and 516lb ft, plus an 825kg weight advantage, the 650S hits 100kph from standstill in a flat three seconds (3.8 seconds in the Bentley), 200kph in 8.6 seconds (nearer 14 seconds), and stands nearly a foot lower than its Blancpain playmate, benefitting also from the lower centre of gravity this produces. On this climb, with this potential, the McLaren – Spider or otherwise – should eat the GT3-R for breakfast.
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