2003 Bentley Speed 8

2003 Bentley Speed 8

The politics behind racing are sometimes more intriguing than the on-track action itself. When the VW Group acquired Bentley from Vickers in 1998, it immediately set about picking up the pieces of a brand that was by then reduced to a poor cousin of Rolls-Royce. This mission found further fervour through the painful reminder that not only had VW lost the bid for Rolls-Royce to BMW; but the latter would also win Le Mans the year thereafter.


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Then Bentley set off on conquering La Sarthe themselves in 2001. Upon its return to Le Mans after a 68-year absence and competing in the second-division LMGTP class, the Speed 8 finished third overall.


2003 Bentley Speed 8

In, 2002 the Bentley’s Audi-sourced 3,6-litre twin-turbo V8 grew by 400 cm3, boosting power to 447 kW and 800 N.m. The Speed 8 ran unopposed and finished first behind a trio of factory Audi R8s competing in the premier LMP900 category.

Everything fell into place in 2003. With the no-showing works Audis focusing on development of the 2004 car; and bouyed by a switch from Dunlop to Michelin tyres, the Bentleys faced little opposition from the remaining customer squads.

Much to the chagrin of blue-blooded die-hards, thanks to its new owners the project was more bratwurst than British bulldog: The car was designed and built by Racing Technology Norfolk, though operationally it was run by Joest Racing, which was responsible for all of Audi’s endurance success. Tom Kristensen and Rinaldo Capello were Audi factory drivers; only Guy Smith hailed from Blighty.

Bentley’s one-and-done took the Le Mans trophy to its grave as its three-year programme ended after 2003. It was the VW Group’s fourth successive victory and the last for a closed-cockpit car, until Peugeot temporarily halted Audi’s dominance in 2009. It resumed with the next-gen R8 in 2004.

Today, all surviving Speed 8 specimens are in Bentley’s hands, with a 2001 example having sold for $2 530 000 at an auction in 2012, more than double than the $1 034 000 that an Audi R8 of the same vintage could fetch. Take that, pesky Germans.

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