This was the year that Bentley simply had to win Le Mans. The Speed 8 cars, resplendent in British Racing Green, were at the end of a three-year development cycle. The rival Audis were at least a year old and no longer had full works support. Moreover, the six-strong line-up of "Bentley Boys" was one of the most talented sextets ever to grace the Le Sarthe circuit. If it wasn't now, then it was surely never.
In qualifying, everything went according to plan when Tom Kristensen in Bentley number 7 claimed his first Le Mans pole. "Pole means a lot to me," said the Dutchman. "For the past two years I've been fastest on the first day only to be beaten by [teammate] Dindo Capello." Kristensen was over 2 sec. faster than Johnny Herbert in Bentley number 8, while the Audi Sport UK R8, driven by Frank Biela, lined up third. In the GTS class, the Prodrive-run Ferrari 550 Maranellos had the measure of the Corvettes.
Heavy rain around noon on race day increased the tension for the teams. Local forecasters suggested that it would last until around midnight, but by early afternoon it had stopped, and at 4 p.m. sharp, Capello converted pole position into a first-lap lead. He was closely followed by Herbert, and within a handful of laps it became clear that the Audis had no answer to the pace of the 4.0-liter British cars.
Reliability aside, the only hope for Audi was that the Bentleys would need more fuel stops and that their narrower Michelins would suffer greater degradation. Sadly for them, such thoughts were eradicated at the first round of pitstops. The Speed 8's were able to complete 14 laps on a tank of fuel, just one less than the Audis. It also quickly became clear that Bentley would be able to run their tires for three or even four stints.
Bentley's optimism was compounded by the early retirement of the Audi Sport UK car in bizarre circumstances. Frank Biela attempted to overtake a Panoz before the pit lane, but he failed to complete the pass and, having missed the entrance, was forced to start another lap. "I knew it would be almost impossible to get around and the car started 'coughing,'" said a distraught Biela. "I had to park, but then I tried to get it back to the pits again by using the starter button but it was impossible."
It was a rookie mistake from a three-time winner. The driver line-up of Biela, Perry McCarthy and F1-refugee Mika Salo was one of the strongest in the field, and the car had been in a comfortable third place before the first stops. The sight of Biela frantically waggling the wheel on the Mulsanne Straight was one of the most potent images of this year's event.
With the lead Audi gone, it was left to the Japanese Goh and the American Champion Racing R8s to take the fight to Bentley. Jan Magnussen was particularly impressive in the Goh car, but the team was compromised by a couple of offs during the night. First, the car had to be repaired after Marco Werner damaged the nose. Then Magnussen left the track after suffering suspension failure. The team would eventually finish fourth, seven laps behind the lead car. "The car is good," said Magnussen, "but we lost too much time at night."
The U.S. Champion Racing Squad enjoyed a less troubled race. A brace of punctures and two new batteries were the only hiccups on the way to a solid third place. "That was the best we could do," said Stefan Johansson. "Our only hope was that the Bentleys hit trouble. They didn't, so there was nothing we could do." At least teammate Emanuele Pirro was able to enjoy a fourth consecutive trip to the podium.