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YESTERDAY IN PART 1, we began the tale of Bentley’s first entry at Le Mans, the inaugural 1923 version of this French 24-hour race. Today in Part 2, we continue gleaning tidbits from Andrew Frankel’s Bentley The Story and David Venables’ Bentley A Racing History, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
The 1923 Le Mans. May 26-27 was chosen for the event to minimize the chances of bad weather. Curiously, May 26 11 p.m. was also France’s change to “summer time.” The race started at 4 p.m. Saturday, and thus finished at 5 p.m. Sunday. (Several reports neglect this oddity.)
David Venables notes, “The race had 35 entries [33 starters] ranging from two 5.3-litre Excelsiors from Belgium to a 1000-cc Amilcar. The race was intended to be the first round of the Triennial Rudge-Whitworth Cup. Cars would race in 1923 and 1924 to qualify for the final round in 1925, with the Cup being awarded to the car gaining the best result on an Index of performance.”
Following national racing livery, the Excelsiors were painted yellow; the sole British entry, the Bentley, green; and the rest, French blue.
Bentley Preparation. Duff’s No. 141 was prepped by the works’ Experimental Department. Frankel notes, “WO was not even going to attend the race until an attack of guilt made him and Hillstead [Bentley sales exec] catch the night-boat to Dieppe and endure a particularly unpleasant train journey across France, where they arrived just in time to take over the running of the pit. As for the team itself, the two drivers and two mechanics had simply bundled themselves into the racing car, loaded it with as many spares as they could carry and driven to Le Mans.”
The Start. Venables notes, “As the flag was about to fall, the circuit was enveloped in a fierce hailstorm. A 3-litre Chenard et Walcker driven by André Lagache and René Leonard took an immediate lead, followed by another Chenard, a 2-litre Bignan and the Bentley. The hail turned to heavy rain and the road surface began to break up.”
The Bentley profited from being the fastest car on the circuit’s long straights. But it was hampered by having only rear-wheel brakes. Venables notes, “Duff passed the Bignan and moved into third place. He just avoided ramming it, as the Bignan slowed more efficiently with its better braking.”
A First Stone. A flying stone shattered one of the Bentley’s unprotected headlights, which functioned only intermittently from then on. At half-distance, the Bentley was still running third. After dawn, Duff pushed after the two Chenards; he was initially hampered by inferior braking, but eventually took the lead.
Another Flying Stone. Just before midday came drama: This flying stone punctured the Bentley’s fuel tank and the car ran out of gas near Arnage. Frankel reports that Duff “ran four miles to the pits to alert Clement, who stole a policeman’s bicycle and cycled the wrong way around the track to reach the stricken Bentley. ‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ he would later remember. ‘I thought they were going to mow me down every minute.’ He duly plugged the leak, apparently with a wooden bung—although WO recalls the more time-honoured chewing gum method—and resumed racing.”
Venables notes, “Two and a half hours had been lost, but the aim was to finish and to ensure that the car would qualify for the 1924 race. Despite broken front and rear brackets for the Hartford shock absorbers, Clement pressed on with such verve that he set the fastest lap of the race and a new lap record at 66.69 mph.”
After 24 Hours. The Bentley was classified fourth, tied with an Excelsior and a Bignan. Their 112 laps were 171 miles aft of the winning Chenard. Venables says, “Number 141 had done all that was expected of it. Mechanically it had not missed a beat and but for the punctured fuel tank could well have pulled off a win. Duff’s faith in the car had been fully justified, but perhaps as important, WO had been wholly won over to the importance of the 24-Hours. He said, ‘I was quite certain this was the best race I had ever seen.’ ”
The next year, the Bentley was fitted with front-wheel brakes. Steel-mesh stone guards protected its headlights. Coconut padding and wooden slats encased its fuel tank. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
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Who disdained the Bentleys as “lorries”? After seeing on up close I can’t imagine driving one in a 24-hour race. A lorry indeed compared with some of the lighter, quicker cars of the day.
Ettore Bugatti, “Les camions plus vite”.
I drove a 4 1/2 22 miles, and yes, driving one in a race is a daunting thought.