24 HOURS OF LE MANS CENTENARY – PEOPLE AND MACHINES ⎮ In 2001, the first 24 Hours of Le Mans of the new millennium saw the return of Bentley. The team took the top spot on the podium two years later, claiming one of the most unusual records in the race’s history in the process. This latest Le Mans campaign was led by a superb driver crew, worthy descendants of the pioneering Bentley Boys of the 1920s.
Eleven drivers were involved in this new era for Bentley, which ran from 2001 to 2003: one Dane (Tom Kristensen), one Belgian (Eric Van de Poele), one American (Butch Leitzinger), one Australian (David Brabham), one Italian (Dindo Capello), one Monegasque (Stéphane Ortelli), and five Britons (Mark Blundell, Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert, Guy Smith and Andy Wallace), meaning a total seven nations were represented.
This contrasts with the contingent which competed from 1923 to 1930, as at that time they hailed mainly from countries of the British Empire (Great Britain and Canada), with three notable exceptions from France and Italy. In the 21st century line-up, UK drivers nonetheless still accounted for the majority, and were joined by a prestigious ambassador: Derek Bell, the most successful British competitor at Le Mans, with five victories to his name.
BENTLEY BOYS BOASTING AN IMPRESSIVE TRACK RECORD
This latest contingent of Bentley Boys all left their mark on 24 Hours of Le Mans history in one way or another. There was Tom Kristensen, for a start! The nine-time Le Mans winner and ambassador of the Centenary race recorded his fifth win (the fourth in a row) in 2003, equalling Derek Bell’s score and just one win behind the record-holder of that time, Jacky Ickx. He shared this victory with teammates Dindo Capello and Guy Smith, both winners for the first time that year. Capello went on to claim two other victories, in 2004 and in 2008.
Starting from pole in the #7 Bentley EXP Speed 8, the trio took the lead on the 27th lap and were never really challenged again, leading for 369 of the 377 laps. Capello, Kristensen and Smith led a one-two finish, with Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell and David Brabham standing beside them on the second step of the podium. Herbert and Blundell had already taken one Le Mans win each, respectively in 1991 and 1992. With Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot at the wheel of a Mazda, Herbert had scored the first 24 Hours win for a Japanese team. The following year, teamed with Yannick Dalmas and Derek Warwick, Blundell gave Peugeot its first taste of Le Mans victory. And later, in 2009 David Brabham took the win with the same French manufacturer, alongside Marc Gené and Alex Wurz.
BENTLEY 2001-2003, THREE 24 HOURS APPEARANCES THIS CENTURY
The 2003 Bentley one-two was the culmination of a journey that had begun two years earlier. That year, 71 years after its last victory, Bentley made its comeback to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team fielded two EXP Speed 8s.
The #7 was driven by Martin Brundle, Stéphane Ortelli and Guy Smith. Brundle had previously raced under the colours of another British icon, Jaguar, taking his only win at Le Mans in 1990 with John Nielsen and Price Cobb. Meanwhile, Ortelli had celebrated Porsche’s half-century on the top step of the podium in 1998, with Laurent Aiello and Allan McNish.
The #7 Bentley was forced to retire early, but the #8 finished third, with a nod to the Bentley Boys of the 1920s as the crew took to the podium in white overalls and leather headbands, widely acclaimed by fans and connoisseurs. For Andy Wallace, this was another episode in a great British story after clinching victory for Jaguar in 1988, 31 years after the manufacturer’s previous triumph in La Sarthe, sharing driving duties with Jan Lammers and Johnny Dumfries. Eric Van de Poele had previously added his name to the 24 Hours honours list in 1998 with the Ferrari 333 SP, the last (class) victory to date for a prototype bearing the prancing horse logo. And that year Butch Leitzinger achieved his only Le Mans podium. In 2002, in the only Bentley to start, the Briton, the Belgian and the American finished fourth.
These 21st-century Bentley Boys added a total of four victories to Bentley’s record at Le Mans: in 2001 and 2002, Andy Wallace, Eric Van de Poele and Butch Leitzinger won the now defunct LMGTP (Grand Touring Prototype) class; and in 2003, the third consecutive LMGTP win was coupled with an overall victory. In doing so, they achieved an extraordinary record: that of the longest gap between two overall wins by the same manufacturer at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the 2003 triumph coming 73 years after the 1930 victory!
When the road up to the main entrance of the 24 Hours circuit was renamed after the Bentley Boys in 2019, the mayor of Le Mans made no secret of his wish to see the British marque back in La Sarthe – especially as two of its models are named after Mulsanne and Arnage, two of the circuit’s legendary corners. Will this wish come true with the new golden age of the hypercar class and the revamped GT class, with a third generation of Bentley Boys on track? Only time will tell!
PHOTOS: LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), 24 HOURS OF LE MANS CIRCUIT – TOP TO BOTTOM (Copyright: ACO ARCHIVES): the Bentley EXP Speed 8s on their way to a one-two finish at the 24 Hours in 2003; the 2003 winners (left to right) Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello and Guy Smith; David Brabham (left) was teamed with two previous winners in 2003: Johnny Herbert (pictured) and Mark Blundell; left to right, Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and Eric Van de Poele at the 2001 Drivers Parade, before taking the third spot on the podium; the 2003 Bentley Boys at scrutineering (left to right): Guy Smith, Tom Kristensen, Dindo Capello, Mark Blundell, David Brabham and Johnny Herbert can now boast 16 24 Hours of Le Mans wins between them.