Track day #4 – three cars, triple the fun?

For my fourth track experience I decided to treat myself to three cars rather than just the one. It wasn’t easy deciding what to drive after the Aston Martin DB9 and Audi R8. I ended up booking the Bentley Continental, BMW i8 and Nissan GT-R.

Bentley Continental

Ever since I saw a Bentley Continental race in Blancpain I was a little bit in love with it. It’s a massive car and it’s almost inconceivable that it can be fast. But it is!
I went on a factory tour at Bentley in Crewe to see where this beast was born. And then I decided I wanted to drive one.

Bentley Continental
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The Continental available for a driving experience is of course nothing like the race car. A bonus however is the fact that this particular car is a convertible. My friend drove it first and since the rain had just stopped she opted for the top down. I couldn’t fault that, so the top stayed down for my two laps.

The Bentley is an extremely smooth drive. Like most cars at this venue it has shift paddles, so you keep your foot on the accelerator while gearing up. It’s quite snappy for a big car. At no point did it feel sluggish. It’s not extremely fast, but that was not the reason I wanted to drive it. I simply wanted to find out how it handles. And it handles really well. It’s fun to drive and doesn’t feel as big as it actually is. At the end of the drive you have to park the car (forward, nice and easy) and that’s when I found out how extremely small the Continental’s turning circle is.

Overall I really enjoyed driving this car. The one comment I have is that under braking the car noticeably dives down. It’s not a bad thing, but I would expect a less aggressive move from a car in this price range.

BMW i8

Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact I am not a fan of BMW. Their look simply doesn’t appeal to me.
This is different for the i8. The lines of that car made me look twice the first time I saw one.
Now liking a car is usually not just about looks, and I’m no different. The fact this is a hybrid car made me curious. So I decided to drive one.

BMW i8
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The i8 is a big and low car. Emphasis on ‘low’, because it’s best to sit on the ledge of the door, slide your bum into the seat and then pull your legs in. Imagine getting out again…

The engine is a modest 1.6, but the electric motor provides boost…quite a lot. Even though this is also not the fastest car available at this venue, it is not slow by any means. It speeds up rapidly, but is as quiet as you would expect from a hybrid. There is some engine sound, but not that much. The drive is smooth. In short, it’s a fun drive.

The car seems to move effortlessly and responds really well to whatever I ask of it.
Of all the cars I’ve driven so far (including on public roads: rented or borrowed) this one is fun, but not much more. I’m happy I’ve driven it, yet it is unlikely I’ll ever drive it again. But that is ok with me, because I really wanted to drive it for the experience. After this I’ll stick to enjoying watching it; it’s still a good looking car.

Nissan GT-R

To complete my set of three cars I had hoped the Aston Martin DB11 was available, but it wasn’t on this day. McLaren 570 s? No, not available.
Had I ever considered the GT-R? Well, not really. I mean, I like the look of it and I had seen it go around the track in quite an impressive way. But driving it hadn’t occurred to me.

My doubts continued almost until the moment I got in the car. You can upgrade and swap on the day and I almost did. I am very happy I didn’t!

Nissan GT-R
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The instructor for the Bentley already commented I would probably enjoy the Nissan. He was right. What a beast!

When I was about to drive off I was told the car would respond choppy in first gear, but would be better in second. I hope that’s not normal for every GT-R, because it does make you feel as if you’re in a car for the very first time without any notion on how cars actually work. It’s almost embarrassing.
But the instructor was right; as soon as I geared up to 2nd (shift paddles again) the car started behaving. And when I took it out onto the track it ran off with me. The cars I have driven so far are not slow, but nothing compared to this!

The power you control is almost overwhelming. The GT-R speeds up like nothing I’ve driven before, brakes incredibly hard and is loud. I absolutely loved it.
Whereas the previous cars were smooth and behaved perfectly well, the Nissan had more of a ‘you want a piece of this?!’ attitude. I had a grin on my face for quite a while after my drive.

The car handles great, but very direct. For example: I commented on the handling under braking of the Bentley. In comparison the DB9 brakes more evenly; you can’t really feel the nose going down at all. The Nissan just gives it to you straight. You tell it what to do, it does it. No questions asked.
Incredible handling, great sounds, considerable speed (despite the short track and my lack of experience) – I would jump into a GT-R again in a heartbeat.

I do believe I should go for ‘double the distance’ next time, because two laps per car is not really enough. Other than that I had a great time, as before.
Next on the list: DB11. And maybe another trip in that crazy Nissan.

If you want to see the videos of the drives, have a look at my YouTube channel.


In search of the home of the Bentley Continental GT3

Race cars are cool. At least, I think so. Motorsport is cool, especially GT racing. I can imagine some people find the rather large Aston Martins I love so much a strange choice for a race car. They are big and rather heavy. I never thought much of that…until I saw a Bentley Continental GT3.
Positively the biggest race (?) car I’ve ever seen and, oh, that sound! Every time my best friend and I now see a Bentley Continental on the public road we happily proclaim “They race them buggers!”. I have seen these big boys race a few times now and I’m still amazed at how they manage to go so fast (yes, they win!).
When I heard Bentley Motors opened their doors to the general public I was on the phone like a shot. Result: a fascinating factory tour.

The #7 Bentley Continental GT3 of Bentley Team M-Sport which races in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup. Photo taken at Silverstone 14/15 May 2016.
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The tour starts at the gorgeous new showroom called CW1 House in Crewe. Several cars are on display and open so you can explore to your heart’s content. Of course the materials used for the cars are on display, so you can pick just the right colour for the exterior and matching leather for the interior. I would love to, but they are a little bit above my budget.
In a corner there is a display of some of the merchandise Bentley has on offer. Probably most people would get away with a key ring or a mug, because not everyone wants (or can afford) a GBP 4,500 bag, no matter how lovely they are.

Of course I am not drawn to handbags (ahem), but I was drawn to the gorgeous Bentley Speed 8 bearing the number 7 which is positioned next to the doors. This car was the Le Mans winner of 2003. Now I could give you lots and lots of details on this particular car and Bentley’s racing heritage, but that would result in an essay rather than a blog post. I can however show you the car.

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For the factory tours they like to keep the groups small. I was one of only three guests, which means you get a lot of time to have a good look around and ask questions. Our host (I don’t dare call him ‘tour guide’; he is much more than that!) was Mr. Lee Grogan who has seen a lot of the company. He made his way to his current position via the production line and being chauffeur for SMT members and distinguished guests.
He seems to know everyone there and has a lot to say (which is a good thing on a factory tour).

After being transported to the factory itself we got to see the Lineage Exhibition and told about the company’s history. Considering Mr. W.O. Bentley was born in the late 19th century you can imagine this company has been around for a while. The Lineage Exhibition isn’t very large, but it is home to five classic Bentleys and a lot of memoribilia. The displays are often changed, because “some of our customers like to come back and we don’t want them to see the same things over and over”. Very considerate.

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I love classic cars and was very happy we spent quite some time with the older models. The history is quite extensive and Mr. Grogan managed to sum it all up quite nicely. Throughout the tour I noticed he can tell a model from its badge, the tail lights or even the exhaust. Oh, and he seems to know every colour, even the ones that are specifically requested by customers and not to be used by others.

After the Lineage Exhibition we went onto the factory floor. Photography prohibited, for very obvious reasons.
I have been on other factory tours (only three, but still enough to compare) and, as was to be expected, some things are the same, others are different.
Compared to Lotus the line itself is run in a similar way. Every station has an certain amount of time in which to do the work. At Lotus the car moves on after this time, at Bentley the car moves to the next station very, very slowly. In both cases – and I would imagine at every car factory in the world – you can stop the line, but you don’t want to. Again, for obvious reasons.

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We were shown how the cars are manually assembled. The doors take a different route: at the start they are removed from the car and sent on their own path. They are assembled separately and then reunited with the car later on.
Let’s compare again: at Aston Martin only a few people at any given time are working on one car’s interior. This is done to ensure constant quality and consistancy of the work. At Bentley that works the same way. They have four people assigned to one interior.
We spent some time looking at how a steering wheel is covered and stitched. We were shown the types of stitching available and in which colours.

There were several convertible cars on the production line and I asked if Bentley also creates hard-top convertibles. They don’t.
Why? They don’t want to limit the boot space and there is a chance the parts of the roof will not line up properly when closing it which may cause leakage. Fair enough.

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The entire experience takes about two hours and 30 minutes. You may think that’s a long time. You may think that’s a bit boring, especially after having been on other factory tours. You’d be wrong.
Of course there are similarities, but each manufacturer will do things their way. Each will create things differently. Some buy parts from other companies, some create everything from scratch.
Most of all, every company has a different history.

I am not giving you Bentley’s history, because:
1. I really don’t want to end up writing an essay;
2. if you are curious, you should go on this factory tour yourself.
Bentleys may not be the car of choice for everyone, but they do have a story to tell and, most of all, they race them buggers!
And that was all it took for me.