Bentley is the most elegant racecar I’ve ever sat in, yet I had doubts whether I made the right choice when I said yes to being loaned out. Only after the crucial pre-test at the Le Mans Circuit in May 2003 did I finally feel I was sitting in a potential winner. The British culture was its own kind of experience. They insist on working with traditions – and they have a dark humour that suits my own temperament. I’ll never forget when Dindo Capello and I arrived for the first time at the factory in Crewe: the place was dripping with pride.
“We’ve had this factory for generations. There are employees whose families have worked here for two or three generations,” said our guide, puffing up his chest.
“Is the factory closed today?” asked Dindo, who like me hadn’t noticed much activity on the factory floor.
“Closed? What do you mean?” asked the affronted guide.
“I just don’t see much work on the cars,” said Dindo.
“Our cars are in this part of the factory for three days before they are carefully moved on to the next production unit,” explained the guide.
When we reached the department where leather was sewn onto the steering wheel, we saw proof of how Bentley prioritized good craftsmanship over assembly line work. Extra attention to detail was paid when customers were royals or other important people. An obviously proud gentleman sat wearing an apron, glasses on the tip of his nose, a glove on his right hand, and a large needle while hand-sewing leather from a special ox in Australia onto a steering wheel.
“See that steering wheel hanging over there,” he said, pointing. “That’s for Sir David Beckham. And the leather I’m working with right now is for Sir Cliff Richard.”
He was beaming with pride – until Dindo cheekily spoiled the solemn mood: “Who’s Cliff Richard?”
The experience with the technical work and my new employer was inspiring, but the PR work leading up to Le Mans was making me feel uncomfortable. The Bentley team’s head of press had already informed me in May that they’d arranged for us to drive around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris if we won.
I just couldn’t handle that. I thought it was disrespectful to the race – and it really annoyed me. I didn’t express it that way to their PR representative, but I did point out politely that you can’t take things for granted in motorsport. Although the press officer was pushy and ambitious, the strategy was all wrong. I am superstitious and feel you shouldn’t talk about your victories until they are in the bag – and certainly not at all when it comes to Le Mans 24 Hours.
The 2003 race became my first Le Mans 24 Hours in a closed cockpit racecar. Previously, I sat deep down where I was strapped in, but at least my head was out in the open air of turbulence. Here, a door was closed around my head after I squeezed down into the right-hand-drive oriented Bentley. I felt like a fighter pilot.
During those 24 hours, there are always times when the race is halted, either because of debris on the racetrack, spilled oil, or clean-up after an accident. Then the speed is controlled by safety cars and we might look like a bunch of nervous 18-year-olds at a driving school course, but in reality we are trying to keep the tyres clean from rubber pick up and gain temperature. These moments were especially demanding in the Bentley, because at low speeds not enough fresh air could enter the 48-degree cockpit – and I only had half a litre of water per hour in the car. Water is heavy, after all. Extra weight costs you speed, as my countless days in the gym had taught me. During the race it got as warm as hot tea, so you had to drink your water relatively quickly. Naturally we’d tried it before, so we weren’t surprised. We run through all possible scenarios during testing, but it still felt stifling in the heat of the battle.
A few months earlier, I’d had the same physical response when we tested the Bentley. As always, it was damn hot inside the car, but the air outside felt bloody cold when I, dressed in my sweat-soaked racing suit, exited the car. After a quick break to eat lunch, I returned to the cockpit. I’d forgotten that it was English catering – and English food seldom wins any culinary awards. That afternoon, as I sat back down in the cockpit to drive in the cold, rain and fog, I could feel the acid rising in my esophagus. I figured there must have been too many onions in my lunch. Onions are especially difficult to digest, and these started coming up on me – as did the rest of the meal. I can’t explain in words how awful it is to throw up inside a crash helmet, going at 200 km/h. It must be how it feels to drown. I drove straight into the pit. My team didn’t expect me and couldn’t hear me, because my microphone was covered with onion compote and other goodies. I jumped out of the car, ran behind the pit, and threw up again. We hosed out the contents of the helmet, while they were laughing their lungs out, and I went on with the test.
Fortunately, it went better at Le Mans. I only had to struggle with the heat during the race, and a little queasiness. Also, the weather was dry right from start to finish, and I had qualified us to start from pole – where we remained throughout the race. We had a number of threatening challenges, but none of them could challenge our lead. After that victory, I truly felt as if I’d taken part in a piece of motorsport history. When we won, the news went all around the world. I’ve even seen newspapers in Vietnam, Russia and the Middle East with our Bentley victory on the front page, and especially in the former British colonies. For them, Bentley was only a myth, until suddenly we were standing there, victorious, next to that beautiful green car.
The Monday after the race, the PR team took us up the Champs Élysées in our battered Bentley racer. Derek Bell, the English gentleman who’d won Le Mans five times, was driving our winning car, number 7, while we rolled behind, sitting on top of the back seat in historic Bentley blowers.
The only problem was that at the time of the procession, there was the usual extreme traffic on the boulevard. We did contribute to that though. Although the police knew we’d be there, they hadn’t blocked off the area, so we crawled along. The car’s motor engineer was boiling mad as the water temperature rose quickly towards 150 degrees celcius, because his racecar wasn’t built for inching along in street traffic. In fact, the engine of our winning car hasn’t been started since then, because it was destroyed by the slow drive along the Champs Élysées. Still, Bentley got their winning picture of both the Le Mans car, the drivers, Dr. Paefgen and the new production car with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
Later that week, we celebrated our victory in London in classic English style. The Hotel Savoy on the Strand set the stage, and Bentley’s five winning cars from their history at Le Mans were disassembled to get them through the doors. Our 2003 car sat in the middle of the Grand Ballroom – and all the drivers were dressed in impeccable black tuxes. I had Woolf Barnato’s daughter, Diana Barnato Walker, as my dinner mate.
Her late father had helped win three of Bentley’s Le Mans victories in the 1920s. She was 85 years old – Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – and an amazing woman. She had been a fighter pilot during World War II and was the first English woman to break the sound barrier. She received her pilot’s licence in only six hours.
During the party, some lively folks got the idea that we should re-enact pit stops in the Bentley. Like we did during the race, this involved a mechanic ripping open the door, the driver jumping out, and a new driver flinging himself into the depths while a mechanic strapped him in.
Diana and I had to try that, too. I sat in the car and ready to jump out during our little stunt. She played along, jumped in, got the seatbelts on and I smacked the door. The hall cheered. Many from the Bentley camp still talk about it as the highlight of the party. Wonderful night.