Travelling across Europe in a Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible is a tough job, but someone has to do it. Matt Robinson hunkers down for a 1,300-kilometre stint behind the wheel.
A gentlemanly road trip in the Bentley Continental GT Speed Convertible
Sitting in the sun-baked grandstand behind Monza’s old banking, on the inside of the super-tight first corner of the track (Variante del Rettifilo), we’re waiting anxiously for the first sight of a Bentley sports car racing in anger for more than 80 years. Admittedly, the marque competed at Le Mans from 2001 to 2003, taking a glorious victory in the last of those years, but the Speed 8 bore no resemblance to anything that you could buy in a Bentley showroom.
This, though, is different. Two Continental GT3s are competing in the 2014 Blancpain Endurance Series and the legendary Italian circuit in a Milanese park sees the first competitive motorsport appearance by Bentley since the Blowers of the 1930s last took to the banked curves of history. Sitting alongside us are some of the most senior figures from the British marque, who were behind this escapade.
At the end of qualifying the previous day, the session was closed when No 7 carried too much speed into Variante Ascari and ended up tagging the barriers, necessitating an all-night rebuild by the mechanics of M-Sport, the Cumbrian outfit running the factory cars for Bentley. M-Sport, which has done so much in the World Rally Championship, is made of stern stuff and, come Sunday morning, No 7 takes its rightful fourth place on the 38-strong grid, while No 8 is back in 13th.
The start-finish straight at Monza isn’t visible from our vantage point, and instead we see the cars as they enter the braking zone at enormous speed, banging down through the gears in a series of barks and yowls. It’s epic, and made even better by the fact that Andy Meyrick, the first driver in the British three-man crew piloting No 7, has made up two places during the rolling start and is now in second. No 8, meanwhile, in the hands of Antoine Leclerc, has also made progress, moving up to 10th.
What follows is three hours of stunning racing; be-winged, liveried supercars bashing doors, trading paint, tussling throughout the field in a fantastic concoction of noise and fumes. The Bentleys, new boys here, perform admirably. No 7 has a slight issue with a wheel nut at the first driver changeover, plus a couple of Ferrari 458 drivers feel like they need to rearrange its bodywork. But both it and the guys in No 8 regularly post lap times almost as quick as the very fastest cars in the field – the Conti GT3s come home in seventh and eighth. Back slapping ensues in the M-Sport pit; it’s been a splendid return to battle and the season offers promise.
For us, our personal celebration of the GT3 team’s wonderful achievement is a crystallisation of that adage “race it on Sunday, sell it on Monday”. Because Bentley’s PR team chose to decant four very lucky and slightly sun-crisped journos into the current Continental GT Speed, point them in the rough direction of the UK and let them loose. As jobs go, it’s hardly taxing work.
There are some differences between the GT3 and the GT Speed. The ultimate road-going Conti (for now; rumour has it that another Supersports might be on the way) uses a monster version of the venerable W12, 6.0L, twin-turbo engine, here making a colossal 625hp and 800Nm. The racer’s engine is based on the smaller V8, for the purposes of weight balance, and the exact power is unknown. The road-going car doesn’t boast a rear wing that’s visible from space. Oh, and this one’s a Convertible, too.
The GT Speed has been done before, in the first generation of Continental that finished production in 2011. Next year, there’ll be a revised Speed that has an extra 10hp and 20Nm, allowing it (in coupé form) to become the fastest production Bentley ever: its 332kph maximum velocity will top the old 630hp Supersports’ 330.
Not that there’s anything deficient with the 325kph, 625hp GT Speed Convertible, mind. It’s brutally fast, yet as creamily refined as any Bentley should be. Pottering about Milan on the morning of our journey north, with insane Latin drivers slicing us up at every junction and mopeds appearing in your peripheral vision at angles that shouldn’t be physically possible, we remain unruffled because the car is a cinch to place, thanks to quick, accurate steering, a well-judged throttle map that treads a fine line between being too soft and dramatically sharp, plus the Conti’s four-wheel traction. It’s a pleasure to waft about in.
But when you decide to burst the dam holding back the GT Speed’s massive reservoir of torque, the resulting flood of acceleration is devastating. It hauls up to and beyond 250kph with disdain, staying so planted and composed that you might believe you were only going half as quickly as you are. The automatic gearbox can be reluctant to shift up under full throttle, but when it does hook up, the drive train delivers face-bending acceleration that’s totally at odds with the car’s 2,495-kilogram kerb weight. It’s addictive summoning it up time and again; even more so in Sport mode, when the gases through the back box are re-routed to give a fruity exhaust note that rewards with some truly memorable tunnel-running.
This bombastic performance couples with supremely refined manners, hood up or down, at any speed, so making progress is no hardship. Before long, we’re standing at the mouth of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, sipping a coffee and admiring the views – both natural and metallic. The second-gen Conti is a revision of the original 2003 model, but familiarity has not bred contempt. It remains a glorious-looking machine, especially in a strong colour like azure purple or blue crystal and with a contrasting interior. The GT Speed gets extra accoutrements, such as 21-inch wheels, a jewel fuel-filler cap, quilted leather inside, drilled pedals and a knurled chrome gear-lever, but it’s the things that you can’t see that help elevate it above a normal Conti – lower, revised suspension, optional carbon ceramic brakes with massive 420-millimetre front discs, not to mention the higher-powered W12 that’s so much more than an ECU re-flash.
We head through the tunnel and start to systematically dismantle France, first spearing towards Bourg-en-Bresse and then swinging north for Dijon, Troyes and our overnight destination of Épernay. On the run down the crazy autoroute from the tunnel, which is a maze of intricate twists and turns that make rapid driving near impossible, the Speed shows incredible body control. Lean is quelled by the fast-acting air suspension and the electrohydraulic steering offers more weight and feel than a fully electromechanical system would, even though it is geared for comfort.
But despite being on low-profile tyres all round, the Continental GT Speed’s ride is never less than sublime. It dismisses all kinds of compressions, expansion joints and imperfections, without the body ever heaving on its air springs. Even those Mulliner Driving Specification 21-inch wheels don’t spoil things.
The rest of the autoroute run passes in a blur of competent, high-speed cruising at velocities designed not to annoy the gendarmes, and when you finally arrive you know full well that you’ve covered a big distance. We chalk off 864 kilometres in less than 10 hours, at an average of 90kph (multiple stops and varied roads/conditions included), but we could have easily carried on, were it not for a dinner appointment in central Épernay. Never has a car been more aptly named than this Continental Grand Tourer – it crushes big distance into an easily digestible package, so that you emerge from a mega-kilometre marathon feeling fresh. It all makes the Bentley’s high ticket price a bit more palatable.
The morning dawns bright and blue, yet chilly, and another 467km beckons to our final rendezvous with Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin’s legendary racer Old No 1, at no less evocative a place than Brooklands, England; the first purpose-built motorsport venue in the world. So where better to continue our racing-themed trek than with a brief stop at the abandoned pit buildings of the defunct Reims road circuit, just 33km away, outside Thillois? These eerie relics of a bygone age stand forlornly by the side of the D27 between Reims and Gueux, the ghosts of heroic drivers haunting your steps through concrete and rusty metalwork forsaken to the elements. On the one hand, it’s sad to see decay, but also appealing that these monuments have been allowed to endure the passing of decades.
Talking of the march of time, we’re going to be late if we don’t press on. Out onto the Autoroute des Anglais, the objective now is sustained pace. Brimmed with 90 litres of fuel, the Conti can cover more than 480km, and we set off with some very rapid motoring. The Speed feels utterly serene, as if it could do this all day, every day – if you can stand the fuel consumption, which at least isn’t shocking at 14.1L/100km, a little ahead of the official figure.
We cross back into England, where the weather is bizarrely warmer than on the continent, but the roads are emphatically worse. Still the Conti eases away frustration, its silky eight-speed auto the perfect companion to the mammoth powerhouse up front. You might feel tempted to use the paddle shift or the Sport mode, but the transmission is so capable in “D” that you just plonk it there and forget about it for countries on end.
Rolling into Brooklands after a Herculean, 1,331km, two-day dash, the GT Speed has proven that it has no equals in this specialised arena. Nothing can combine its supercar pace, ultimate interior luxury and genuine everyday usability at any price. It might not be as capable at handling as its GT3 cousins that we saw perform so well on debut at Monza just 48 hours earlier, but it’s well-sorted nonetheless and worthy of its price tag. If you want to transport three friends in open-top splendour quickly across any continent of your choosing, there’s really only one choice. And the clue is in the Bentley’s name.
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