Readers of european car may well remember a past interview with Guy Smith as he aired his thoughts regarding Bentley's long awaited return to Le Mans. Much has changed for Guy from that first go with the winged B three years ago. Back then he was the rookie kid partnered with some seasoned heavies like Martin Brundle. All of those people are long gone and Guy emerged as the veteran of Crewe having logged on most of the test miles needed to perfect the Bentley EXP Speed 8 for the assault on this years 24 heures du mans.
The thousands of miles in testing have paid off but in Guy's own words, the true test of battle began at Sebring. It was only after the Bentley Boys and their bottle green rockets returned from the humid conditions of Florida to the workshops at Crewe could the preparations for La Sarthe and the race 'round the clock could truly begin.
ec: How did you approach Sebring seeing how it's such a completely different race then anything else you had done with the Bentley. Although you had tested on tracks that were a shorter distance, it must have been somewhat of a struggle.
GS: Sure. Well, basically going to Sebring we were pretty much under prepared. Although we did a relative amount of testing before the race I'd say the quality of that testing was quite low. We probably needed about seven or eight days. And I'd say three or four days were actually any of value to us because of the weather was so bad here in Europe. But, we certainly knew the car was going to be fast and it certainly was an improvement over last year's car. We knew comparing it against the Audi, which we checked alongside, we knew we had the speed that was pretty close to match. So, going to the race we felt confident we probably had the speed but we have the big issues on the reliability because we've never run the car more than 16 laps at one time.
ec: Sixteen laps, including the testing?
GS: In the testing the motor had never done more then 16 laps in a row. We've never even completed the spin. Also, we had a situation where after 5 or 6 laps the tires would completely go away. Bearing in mind it was also very cold in Europe it was close to freezing, 0 degrees. Of course, going over to Sebring where it's much warmer, and basically we saw it as a different situation. So, going into Sebring there were so many issues that were a going cause of concern. We expected that. We thought we'd be reasonably quick but we also thought the car at Sebring with the Michelin tires would struggle at comparison with the Audis. So we were very surprised at a) we were quick and b) we finished the race.
ec: In your capacity as the test driver, making the switch from Dunlops to Michelin, did it require a big adjustment on your part?
GS: Ummm, actually not. Dunlop did a good job under the circumstances but they did kind of reach the end as far as where they can take it. The development was staring to slow down. Michelin basically took over and the car was amazingly quicker on the Michelins and it was just basically improvements everywhere, small gains everywhere. From a driver point of view it really didn't make a big difference. It just gave you the confidence to push a little bit harder than I could with the Dunlops. They seemed to be a bit more durable in a racing area and they also seemed better in the heat in a warmer area like Sebring.
ec: You said you had gone from the cold of Europe to the excessive heat in Sebring, there was some discussion to the cockpit ventilation of the car and obviously some extra holes were punched in to get the air and that was supposed to be a big factor.
GS: Yeah it was a huge thing because it was sort of freezing in Europe and then we came over to the States and we knew it would be quite warm in the car and we kept talking about keeping cool. We were literally talking about, the day we left, about drink systems and what we were going to do about drinks and when we got there it was basically a work in progress for the whole week. We just modified the car everyday. Running scoops, and hoses, there's no air coming into the car..... the car evolved so much in that week. So we had been adding scoops and ducts and cutting the car up. Cutting big holes in the windows and all kinds of things. We got to the race and basically it was bearable, but we were really struggling to do double stints and we knew the Audis could do it quite easily. We knew the tires could do it but the problem was could we do it? So we got in this situation in the race where we could but it was not easy. I asked Ollie about it because I said I had seen you drive the Corvette and you know all about the heat what do you do? Well, really, it's always going to be hot. It's just about getting used to it, I think you do. I think you adapt, you just get to the point where you know it's going to be hot and you just switch off from it in some respect.
ec: Were you surprised that a Bentley ended up being fastest and grabbing pole position?
GS: If you asked me before we went I would have been surprised. As the week went on, immediately we were doing the times as quick if not quicker as the Audis and we thought, "wow". At Sebring you put the car down as competitive or it's not, because if it's not then you're changing things all week long and you can be 10 seconds off the pace.
ec: I can tell you that the view from the press box is that once that you hit the straight the car just had enormous straight line speed.
GS: Really ! We give up with the narrow tires in the corners. Certainly in the medians, but when we've got the better balance and high speed our car is equal to the Audis. In the low speed we're equal to the Audis but it's in the medium speed corners where we don't rely on the downforce, you rely more on the tires. That's where we were doing really well on the lap times. Obviously with the shape of the car and the fact that we've got a slightly bigger air restrictor, we are able to pull that back in the straight. Particularly in acceleration. And that's our advantage over the Audis, but we obviously lose in the corners.
ec: You being a veteran of open cockpit cars at Sebring, how did you deal with the issue of a closed car with limited visibility. It must have required great concentration in traffic, as Sebring is notorious for problems with the cars in the other classes.
GS: Well, it's always difficult. Le Mans is much easier but it's really difficult and in our car it's difficult because it's a work in progress. The visibility is virtually nil. It's OK in the front but you really can't see what's going on around you and there's just cars all over the place. It's just difficult, it really is. That's something we've worked on quite a lot since Sebring and tried to improve for Le Mans and hopefully that'll pay dividends in the race in Le Mans. It's always tough in traffic and I think our car is harder to drive in traffic then the Audi. I think over one lap we're much quicker but I think in our racing area in Sebring our car is more critical to drive....
ec: You have driven the Audi R8, compared to the Bentley, you don't have quite that same comfort level because of the visibility and traffic problems, do you?
GS: Yes, that's right, you've got that issue and when we overtake somebody because of the narrow tires, let's say in the Audi with a wider set of tires when you go into a corner or lose it you've got the grip to...in the Audi when you make a mistake you're able to pull it together quite quickly and just drive off and you don't lose any time. That performance window is probably half in the Bentley. So when you go into a corner you're literally diving into the corner and it's literally nicer all the way through because you've got that narrower tire so you literally drive on the edge of the tire. Of course, in the Audi, with the wide-base going in, you can barrel in, going a little bit sideways, a little bit crossed-up, but then the tire grips and you just drive out of the corner. Whereas in the Bentley, it's really tentative. You have to be very precise and smooth and of course when you're in traffic it's really difficult to keep that smoothness and keep that precise. Therefore, that's where the Audi probably, particularly in Sebring was a better race car then ours was. But I think in Le Mans where you're overtaking many in the straights I think our car would do better in that scenario then the Audi.
ec: When the team left Sebring to head back to the UK, were they pleased with the results?
GS: We were very surprised. I mean, everyone was saying during the week 'yeah the Bentley's not going to finish' and this and that. Of course, we were kind of half agreed with them but we didn't want to believe it, that kind of thing. We thought we didn't know what was going to happen. But we obviously wanted to all get a result and we had problems throughout all of testing the week before and then all these little issues and we thought if these happen in the race, then we've got big problems. On the toughest track on the world probably for 12 hours the car held together really well. It really surprised us all. It's kind of a testament to the guys who built and designed it really.
ec: You just recently had completed a 12 hour test at Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France. Since we haven't received any press releases on it I'm assuming it went fairly well.
GS: Yes. At Sebring we stayed on for another 12 hours with the #7 car and did another 12 hours after Sebring so we did 24 hours with the car with no problems. Then we did another 30 hour test at Paul Ricard a couple of weeks after that. Then we did another 24 hour test. No problems really. Just a few small problems here and there but nothing like the gearbox which had been crapping itself after 5 hours. Major hardware is solid. Mainly just little things that need find tuning but there's nothing that major that should cost us major problems. But Le Mans is Le Mans and anything can happen but I guess all we can do is prepare ourselves as much as possible.
ec: Well, you have now become the veteran of the team. From being the youngest member of it during their return to Le Mans in 2001 and now you've done the primary testing and in the lead car for this race. Do you feel that this is the best prepared you've been to finally get that win?
GS: I do. It was a learning experience in 2001. In 2001 the car was good but it was still really new and had some problems with it. Unfortunately, I was in the car and the least experienced out of the three drivers, probably out of the six, and I had the car at the worst time. Which was unfortunate but you learn a lot from that. I didn't just blank it out of my mind, I've learned a lot from that. Even my year of testing, it's disappointing not to be racing, but all the miles I did, all the driving I done I've learned quite a lot. I think this year I'm a different driver with two years more experience. I feel ready for what Le Mans can throw at us.
ec: What are some of the differences you can let us know about between, as the speed 8 has evolved over the years?
GS: Basically this year's car is 90% new from the previous year's car. Predominantly, most of it is actually under the bodywork. The engine is basically the same. The biggest differences are our front geometry changes and our front aero. The original Bentley was designed in the late 90's, and obviously since then the technology was moved on quite significantly particularly in the aerodynamic department. The last year's car was lacking in that area. It lacked front downforce and this year's car has been able to rectify that and bring it a little bit more up to speed. I'd say that is the biggest improvement. Obviously, you can see from the outside you can see aero wise it's been improved. The engine cover is much smaller, much sleeker, from the previous version. Also an improved rear wing as well. It's mainly front geometry and aero, that is it's biggest gain.
ec: So is it an easier car to drive than the 2001 and 2002 versions?
GS: I would say it's about the same but the lap times are more consistent, whereas the other car you drive it hard and do a lap time and that would be it. But I think with the combined improvement in the car and the Michelin tires we'll probably do a lap a second or two faster then we could with the old car. And that's a combination, with a big chunk of it being the Michelin tires. I think the other second has come from all these other improvements. Although it doesn't feel that much different driving, but the lap time does seem to come much easier.
ec: That's what important isn't it?
GS: Exactly. It's not like, wow, but it's much better. You come back from your lap on the start-finish line the proof is in the pudding of the lap time. So, obviously that's what's important.
(Editors note: This interview was done just before Guy Smith left for France. It is now fact and part of motorsport history that Bentley finished first and second at Le Mans. After several weeks had passed and the countless interviews and quotes had been filed, I spoke to a much more relaxed Guy Smith.)
ec: You must be feeling pretty good right now.
GS: Yes, in a way I can't believe it all happened. The car was perfect for the entire week and the race. Dindo and Tom were on top, our biggest challenger was the sister car, after three years of living with this program, well, words are hard to come by now, you know?
ec: I think I can understand what you mean. All that time testing, the solitude, the long hours with just the engineers. No press, no TV or crowds. And then you are on top of the podium with the trophy, P1, etc.
GS: That is it exactly. The last stint was a great honor and showed the team had a lot of trust in me. I know I have said it was the longest time in my life over and over, but it was, every noise became amplified.
ec: Regardless of the German company that owns Bentley, it was always viewed as a British icon. Of the three winning drivers, you were the only Brit thus will be the one most associated with the victory, even to a point of overshadowing Tom Kristensen's record-setting performance.
GS: I don't know about that, Tom's record is something special but I know what you mean. I am proud of what has been accomplished; there was no other place in the world I would have rather been than in the car for the final stint. Seeing the fans waving flags, the cheers, and then knowing we had won Le Mans only after crossing the line at the finish.