At the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche, Ferrari, Audi and BMW were joined on the 24H SERIES grid for the very first time by Bentley. But would an already memorable weekend be capped with a fairy-tale podium finish? Continental GT3 owner Bob Herber looks back on the event with CREVENTIC.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba
Though everyone in the pitlane is keeping a close eye on ‘their car’ on the timing screens, it’s hard to ignore the ripple in each pitbox as the #6 Bentley Continental GT3 thunders down Mugello’s main straight. In its wake is an emphatic, sonorous ‘burble’ that somehow sounds more ‘genteel’ than the more boisterous ‘boom’ emanating from the similarly V8-powered Mercedes-AMG GT3, or indeed the Gatling explosions we know of old from Aston Martin’s Vantage AMR. It’s a unique, and utterly fabulous soundtrack.
There’s more too. Quite apart from the demeanour of having a Bentley on-track for the first time in the 24H SERIES, it becomes increasingly difficult not to let our minds wander – consciously or otherwise – to thoughts of The Bentley Boys, the original ‘gentlemen’ drivers that defined motorsport in the 1920s and ‘30s. Or the monstrous 3 Litre and its EXP 2 forebear bucking at terrifying speeds around Brooklands. Or indeed the indomitable 4½-litre ‘Blowers,’ financed by the original ‘Bentley Girl’ Dorothy Paget, that proved the worth of forced induction to company founder W.O. Bentley by dominating Le Mans in 1929 and 1930.
Amidst this wistful nostalgia, it’s occasionally easy to forget that five-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson is also making his series debut at the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO!
In the ‘BoDa by Bas Koeten Racing’ marquee in the paddock, dressed in a very fetching – and pristinely white – Flying B-monikered racesuit, Bob Herber is loving the attention his car is getting as he prepares for his first endurance racing weekend aboard ‘the English Castle.’
“It’s such an awesome car. It’s just a big castle riding about on the track!” Bob begins, a freshly poured espresso in front of him (mind the suit, Bob). “We’re here to have fun, we’re here to get ahead with testing this car, and we’re here to [finish] the race. But even if we come 20th overall, we’ll still have had a great weekend!”
Beaming equally as hard throughout our conversation – a hallmark of the man, it must be said – is 24H SERIES staple Bas Koeten, whose eponymous team is overseeing the BoDa Bentley this weekend (so-called for Bob Herber and Supercar Challenge teammate, Daan Meijer, just FYI). Although a far cry from the Porsche 911 Cups, CUPRA TCRs, Ford Fiesta STs, BMW M2s, and… well, pretty much every other sports car his vastly-experienced team is used to operating, it’s clear that Bas is similarly relishing this new challenge with the Bentley.
“I mean, this is what we do!” Bas smiles. “We want to make this as much fun as we can. Of course, we are all competitive, Bob perhaps even more than we are…”
“Same level!” Bob grins back.
“…and, of course, everyone has eyes on us this weekend because the Bentley is a special car,” Bas continues. “But for us, as a team of professionals, it’s growth, and we’re very, very happy with the trust that Bob has put in us. We will try to prove that the car, firstly, is reliable, and secondly, is fast. As a team, we’ve made more than 120 starts in the 24H SERIES, and with a proper team, with a proper solution and with a proper strategy, you can be very successful here. We want to prove that with the Bentley.”
Bas’ words ring true as Free Practice draws to a close, the ‘Castle’ having netted the 8th fastest GT3 time of the session in Mugello (Rallycross champ Kristofferson draws some equally impressive raised eyebrows with the fastest lap of anyone in 992). Paddock enthusiasm for the Bentley has barely wavered by the time qualifying begins a few hours later either, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s more to the Continental GT3 after all than ‘just’ a leather-lined luxury grand touring behemoth going racing, as Bob himself discovered in 2021…
“I raced a Lamborghini [Huracán Super Trofeo] for two seasons [in the Supercar Challenge],” Bob continues, “and also put a down payment on a new ‘Evo.’ But Lamborghini ended up selling too many cars, so smaller customers, like me, had to wait a lot longer to get one. So that was the moment we ended our contract with Lamborghini and started the search for something new.
“At first we thought about the Mercedes-AMG GT3, but it’s hard to get, and the new one wouldn’t be available until that November. I didn’t particularly like the BMW M4 GT3” – rather awkwardly, BoDa is sharing a pitbox at Mugello with the M4 GT3 of ST Racing, also being overseen by Bas Koeten Racing... – “and I didn’t want to drive an Audi after years in the Lambo.
“Then in December , I saw one of these Bentleys on racecarsdirect.com, and we got an invitation from M-Sport Ltd” – the two-time World Rally Champion behind the development of the Continental GT3 – “to visit the car. To me at that time, M-Sport was ‘just’ a rally company, but the Bentley was a lovely car to look at. It had a lot of presence! After that I thought, ‘okay, let’s see how seriously this car is built.’ M-Sport has really surprised us.”
“Oh yeah!” – Bas again – “If you look at the development of this car by M-Sport… UN-believable! If you look at the position of the engine, if you see every electronic component on the car… if you don’t need it, it’s not there. We’ve had unbelievably good support too from M-Sport. If we need to order parts from the UK, which can be difficult these days, we can place an order at 1.30pm in the afternoon; at 9am the following day – for a reasonable price! – it’s been delivered to our race shop in The Netherlands. That’s how you go racing!”
It’s an early thumbs up then from Bob and Bas on both the Continental and M-Sport. But how did the Bentley make its way to the 24H SERIES?
Bob – “In January 2020, Bentley said, ‘we’re finishing our racing program,’ but they still had three cars to move on. So we started talking, and chassis 018, chassis 019 and chassis 020 were the three last cars built to order by Bentley in December 2019.”
Bas – “The gen two.”
Bob – “Oh yeah, I wasn’t interested in gen one because it wasn’t as quick [see sidebar]. I wanted to buy chassis 020, the last car ever built, but it had already been sold to an Australian customer. They had rented chassis 018 to an English race team, and the car had only done 6,000km in two years. So it was low mileage, and really well-maintained by M-Sport. During our talks, they also showed me chassis 003, a Bentley Motorsport factory car…”
Bas – “That car won the Bathurst 12 Hours in 2020.”
Bob – “Another good reason to buy! Plus, with chassis 003, there was a huge spares package. And as we’re the only ‘Bentley team’ here, we need to take care of ourselves. But we had some struggles on the price of one car, so I thought, let’s see if we can do a deal on two cars. So now we have chassis 018, which will race in the Supercar Challenge, and 003.”
Bas – “Bob has driven races with us in the past, in the TCR and the Porsche 991.2, and he knows our style of working. So when he was dealing with M-Sport, he called me and said, ‘I now have the opportunity to buy a second car, what should we do with it?’ I thought, why not go for a new challenge, and bring ‘the English castle’ to the 24H SERIES?”
Their faith in the Continental is quickly rewarded. Despite the enormous learning curve awaiting both Bob and teammate Marcel van Berlo in Mugello, and despite – by their own modest admissions – neither being likely to harry the frontrunners, the Bentley secures 8th on the grid for its 24H SERIES debut. In the Bas Koeten garage, backs are deservedly slapped and hands shaken (no-one is wearing period ‘20s coveralls unfortunately, but you can’t have everything…) as the Bentley is wheeled back into its pitbox. It’s a solid start to the weekend.
Okay, there are a couple of tweaks needed overnight – understeer needs to be dialled back, and the mechanics are keeping a close eye on the brakes – but overall, Bas, still beaming, is very confident ahead for race day.
Bas – “I think many people will be surprised when they see this car. They will see the real Bentley. For example, everyone I’ve asked about the weight of the car is at least 150kg off. Everyone thinks it’s more than 1,450kg, and it’s less than 1,300kg. Specifically, the base weight is 1,270kg. That means the centre of gravity is very low. We specifically didn’t paint it either – the car is all black carbon – because paint brings weight. It’s all about the details with this car, and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised.”
The following afternoon, the grid starts to form on the Autodromo’s main straight, photographer DSLRs and iPhone lenses still magnetized by those famous British ‘wings.’
There’s a long, long way to go, but… what if… a Bentley finished on the podium on its 24H SERIES debut?
Shortly after 3pm local time, the green flag drops for the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO. No newboy to endurance racing, Bob, in the hot seat for the opening stint, takes a cautious approach around the outside of turn one before slotting back into ‘the train,’ without incident, through the opening esses. So far, so good.
“There’s a lack of downforce on the [Lamborghini Huracán] Super Trofeo, because there’s a big wing but not a lot of groundwork on the aero,” Bob reflects, looking back on the 2022 Hankook 12H MUGELLO a few months later. “With the Bentley, there’s tons of downforce: you think ‘this is the limit,’ it isn’t, and you can push even more. It’s easy to drive too because the traction control system works perfectly, and when you look at the power, it’s being delivered very smoothly. So, looking back, I think our race speed could have been better than in qualifying.
“The problem we had was that the car was only run in the past by PRO drivers, and they were used to a hard setup, which makes the car tricky to drive. That’s why we, as AM drivers, went back to a softer car, but of course, that meant we were slower. But because we were not that fast, we were capable of doing longer stints as the fuel tank in the Bentley is quite big. We could take on 10 litres more than the other GT3 cars, and that was an advantage.”
True, the GT3-AM-entered Bentley struggles to hold off Lithuanian young gun Julius Adomavičius in the JUTA Racing Audi R8, as well as a determined David Gostner at MP Racing’s home event, but Bob keeps the Castle comfortably in the top 10 during the opening 30 minutes. Aided by a Code 60 25 minutes in to recover a stricken Vortex, the BoDa Bentley even takes the overall lead for two laps.
It’s not long however before Bentley’s 24H SERIES debut starts to go pear-shaped. Just before the second hour, and having pitted once – and in some cases twice – fewer than early frontrunners Phoenix Racing, ST Racing and JUTA (Bas Koeten’s proven pit work paying dividends once again), Bob is running an impressive 3rd overall as he completes his 47th lap.
On lap 48, and just over two minutes later, television cameras pick up the Continental nestled against the tyre barriers at Buccine, its rear axle buried in the gravel. The Bentley’s anti-lock brakes have failed.
“At some point, a sensor was damaged, and that was a little bit strange. Normally you get a big warning on your dash that the ABS is off. And in the Bentley, it’s only a small red light, just behind the steering wheel. So I couldn’t see it! I got to the corner [Buccine], it just wasn’t stopping, and I didn’t know why!”
Having been inelegantly towed out of the gravel, the Castle is soon back in the pits, fortunately, for only minor renovations. An overall podium – already a long shot – is no longer on the cards as Marcel re-emerges 30 minutes later, now down in 38th place. There’s still 10 hours to go, however, and if Bas Koeten Racing can get on top of another, unexpected trait of the Continental, maybe… just maybe… a top three finish in-class might be do-able…
“Normally I only drive sprint races – maybe an hour – with the Bentley. And with the Hankooks, you can normally get an hour of full-speed racing. But after eight laps, we were losing more than a second a lap. At that time, we didn’t have any experience driving the Bentley on the Hankooks, so we had to figure all that out. And that meant, compared with the other GT3 cars, in the beginning we were close to them, but then we just kept losing time.”
A heroic comeback is made yet more difficult when, 90 minutes before the end of ‘part one’ in Mugello, Marcel brings the Bentley back to the box (“Marcel got a puncture, and that caused a bearing issue which was then a recurring issue for us.”) Another 33 minutes are lost. There’s another puncture to contend with on Sunday too, though, mercifully, this is the only ‘major’ issue for Bob, Marcel and Bas to contend with, the Bentley, now using a softer setup than it had done a day earlier, taking a more gingerly pace over the final seven hours to finish 23rd overall and 5th in the GT3-AM class.
‘Even if we come 20th overall, we’ll still have had a great weekend.’ Do those words still ring true, months later?
“We entered Mugello to have fun, because the Bentley is a special car and it’s a special track, and we wanted to have a great weekend. But the result wasn’t what we hoped for. Y’know, when shit happens, it continues causing issues!
“But we did learn a lot at Mugello, so [for the next round] at Spa, we changed a lot of things. We secured more sensors and put carbon shields around them. We also drove with a PRO setup, which meant we had hard anti-roll bars, hard springs, and that worked out pretty well on the track. And, as two AM drivers, we could gain the boost a little bit.”
The difference is pronounced. During qualifying for the 2022 Hankook 12H SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, the Bentley ‘burble’ down the Kemmel Straight is even more raucous – especially in sixth gear – and the pace of the ‘race-tuned’ twin-turbo V8 is devastating. Incredibly, Bob and new teammate Mark van der Aa put the #6 Continental on the front row of the grid. A fairytale podium is back on the cards.
Alas, hopes of a successful run at Spa are also dashed, albeit in more dramatic fashion. With the Bentley eating through its tyres even quicker around Spa-Francorchamps – “Mark had a puncture pushing on the first laps with low pressure, the tyre exploded, and that caused a lot of damage, so we had to drive quite slowly from that moment on.” – the Castle has already slipped back to 9th as ‘part one’ of the event draws to a close. Things get even worse the following day when the Bentley collides heavily with SAINTéLOC Racing’s Audi R8 at La Source.
“Things were actually going quite well until an Audi decided to drive over the front of the car! We were four seconds a lap faster – he may even have been a lap behind me – and he had blue flags all over the place, but I couldn’t get past him. And the moment I tried to get past him at La Source, I was on the inside, I braked, and I turned hard. But as I turned, he was already driving over the front of the car. I saw the complete Audi go over the front of the car! That was a shame, because from that moment on, the steering rack was damaged.”
Bas Koeten’s team works its typical magic, but sadly, the wounded Bentley is soon parked up for good at, what might well be, the last time Bob Herber’s ‘Castle’ competes in the 24H SERIES.
“The main problem with the car is that it’s so fragile. It’s so lightweight to get it down to a ‘proper’ weight that’s it’s very delicate. When there’s slight contact, or even an impact with a big piece of rubber on the fender, it destroys something. Also, it turns out the running costs are quite extreme! A six-hour race could work, but I don’t think the Bentley will be back.”
Out with a literal bang, the BoDa Bentley’s 24H SERIES record thus stands at two 5th place finishes in-class, one of which is a technical classification. The Mugello and Spa 2022 weekends then were not the romanticized debuts many 24H SERIES fans had hoped of the Bentley, nor indeed was it the beginning of a three-year run that would eventually lead to a high-profile win at an esteemed 24-hour motor race à la 2003.
Still, and while he hides it well, Bob can’t help smiling as we reminisce about Mugello 2022, and our conversation even ends with Bob scrolling through pictures of the sister chassis 018 on his phone, charting the progress of a complete rebuild. In readiness, no doubt, for another great weekend.