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Bentleys invade Le Mans Classic 2023

Words and photography: Jayson Fong

Spectators at this year’s Le Mans Classic were treated to a true spectacle as 71 vintage Bentleys from the Benjafields Racing Club descended on the Circuit de la Sarthe. The occasion was a special centenary race to celebrate the marque’s rich heritage intertwined with that of Le Mans. In true Bentley Boys style, the Le Mans experience wasn’t just confined to the track, but was accompanied by a flurry of activity that took the club from the UK to Le Mans and back again.

Following a celebratory lunch, HRH Prince Michael of Kent flagged the cars away from London’s Royal Automobile Club. The convoy of Bentleys then dashed across the Sussex countryside towards an overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, via a supper stop at Cowdray House. The following day, residents on the French side of the Channel woke to the echo of the iconic Bentley burble as a full deck of the pre-war supercars landed and made swift progress inland to Le Mans.

Action on track began on the Friday morning with Le Mans Classic qualifying, and as spectators were given a glimpse of what was to come, the paddock came to life with drivers and teams preparing for the weekend ahead. Off the circuit, the centenary celebrations started with a contingent of Benjafields Bentleys taking over the roads around Le Mans on the way to an evening reception with the city’s mayor. Fresh from their morning on track, they were given an escort through peak hour traffic to the foot of the city’s cathedral by Le Mans’ finest motorcycle police officers.

Bentleys at Le Mans Classic in 2023

Only a handful of cars were unable to pass the chequered flag after 45 minutes

Bentleys at Le Mans Classic in 2023 Bentleys at Le Mans Classic in 2023

Only a handful of cars were unable to pass the chequered flag after 45 minutes

As anticipation grew for the race start on Saturday afternoon, visitors were given the opportunity to enjoy the Bentleys up close on the pre-grid, showcasing everything from 3 Litres to 8 Litres, Blowers to SuperSports. Among the assembly of 71 cars (and a real treat for the Bentley aficionados) were a number of significant Bentleys that had originally competed at the circuit in period. From the very first Bentley raced at Le Mans in 1923 by John Duff and Frank Clement to a series of the original ‘Team Cars’, many were racing at Le Mans for the first time since the 1920s.

Single-marque racing is nothing new, but seeing such a vast collection of vintage Bentleys and drivers assembled for a Le Mans running start is hardly an everyday sight in motorsport. ‘This has been a unique chance to bring together so many significant WO-era Bentleys. We believe it is the biggest grid ever assembled for a race,’ said Chris Lunn, chairman of the Benjafields Racing Club.

As much a part of the Le Mans story as the Bentley name is, Derek Bell had the honour of waving the French national flag to mark the start of the Benjafields Le Mans centenary race. As the drivers sprinted across the track and started their engines, this year’s record attendance at Le Mans Classic was captivated by the sights, sounds and smells of a completely different time. Incredibly, only a handful of cars were unable to pass the chequered flag after 45 minutes of racing, showing that, even a century later, vintage Bentleys remain as versatile and robust as ever.

Despite being a race, competition was not high on the priorities for the Benjafields at Le Mans. ‘There is no podium for the race,’ said Lunn. ‘Just as it was in 1923, when there was no official winner at Le Mans, the Benjafields also don’t have an official winner. It’s all about the experience, having fun, sharing the heritage and enjoying the camaraderie.’

The Centenary week came to a close in the quaint village of La Chartre-sur-le-Loir, with a village square full of Bentleys parked outside the Hôtel de France, inside which a Blower Bentley formed the centrepiece of the dining room – mirroring the iconic Bentley Le Mans dinner at the Savoy in 1927. Steeped in motorsport heritage and famous for hosting teams and their cars throughout Le Mans history, the hotel was the perfect setting for a gala dinner before the Bentleys got back on the road to the UK.

It was in 1923 that WO Bentley made his thoughts on the 24 Hours of Le Mans very clear: ‘I think the whole thing’s crazy. Nobody will finish…’ He quickly changed his mind once he visited, but one must wonder what he would have thought about this celebration week with the same cars, fully 100 years later.

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