Ten years ago Bentley claimed its first victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1930. It marked a staggering fourth successive victory at La Sarthe for the Volkswagen Group, one they’d extend until 2009.
Testing and round-the-clock development of the EXP Speed 8 – a proven finisher in its first two outings at La Sarthe in 2001 and 2002 – meant Bentley were well prepared for a race The Bentley Boys had made their own in the early 1930s. Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston’s victory in the Speed Six in 1930 stood as the company’s last Le Mans triumph.
In 2003, Bentley looked to be in the pound seats. With a replacement for the all-conquering R8 already in the works, Audi had decided at the latter end of 2002 to scale back its motorsport programme for the following season, giving VW Group sibling Bentley a chance at the top prize. The Team Bentley Speed 8 – run by seven-time Le Mans winner and Audi favourite Team Joest – enjoyed significant updates and development knowledge from the retiring R8, heavily redesigned suspension in particular helping to counter the wear of the Michelin tyres noticeably better than its rivals. Pole position and a three second gap back to the remainder of the field – led, ironically, by a customer-run Audi R8 – showed Bentley was going to take some beating.
Even battery problems for the #8 car couldn’t stop the Speed 8’s charge, Dindo Capello, Guy Smith and Tom Kristensen in the #7 Speed 8 cruising across the line two laps ahead of Mark Blundell, Johnny Herbert and David Brabham in the sister machine to take Bentley’s first major motorsport victory since their return to top flight motorsport two years earlier. It’s three-year programme – and objective complete – the Speed 8 was immediately retired from competition.
Overjoyed as Bentley was, arguably Dane Tom Kristensen was even more so as he claimed his fourth Le Mans victory on the bounce and his fifth in total, the same as Derek Bell and only one less than record holder Jacky Ickx.
The victors were a further three laps ahead of the Champion Racing-run Audi R8 of JJ Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Stefan Johansson in third. The Audi R8 meanwhile would return to victory lane in 2004 before Audi Sport debuted the brand new diesel R10 in 2006. It won first time out.
If you want to check out the official 2003 24 Hours of Le Mans review, check out the playlist HERE.