Bentley will tackle the toughest course in hill climb competition later this month, when their striking Bentayga SUV attempts to scale Pikes Peak at record-breaking speed. In an exclusive piece for Mobil 1 The Grid, John Hindhaugh gathers the thoughts of Bentley’s key players as he sets out the challenge ahead for the modified green machine and its experienced driver, Rhys Millen.
Ever since 1919, when W.O. Bentley first put his name on a motor car, the letter ‘B’, flanked by wings on the radiator of an automobile, has signified the epitome of comfort, style and – most importantly – driving satisfaction.
Through the 1920s and ’30s, the Le Mans 24 Hours race was the challenge of choice for Bentley’s intrepid customers. Initially sceptical, W.O. soon realised that doing well in this test of speed and endurance was good for business and, thereby, he got the factory involved. Le Mans wins in 1924 and in every year between 1927 and 1930 resulted in the legend of the ‘Bentley Boys’ that remains today. It was a legacy which helped define the marquee and, ultimately, to establish the brand as “the driver’s choice”.
You were driven in a Rolls Royce. But you drove a Bentley.
Fast forward to this year, and Bentley has chosen a motorsport challenge that is 3 years older than its own enduring brand. As motorsport events goes, this is one of the toughest. Not the longest. Not the fastest. But 12.42 miles, 156 corners, a climb of 4,720 feet, an average gradient of 7.2% and a finish line sat more than 14,000 feet above sea level of tough. Make no mistake about it, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is about the hardest test you can put a motor vehicle through.
“We are Bentley Boys,” says Brian Gush, Head of Bentley Motorsport, when I ask him the obvious question of ‘Why?’
“We like to do this sort of thing. We are going to drive up Pikes Peak because we can.”
The event has a rich history of its own. When Spencer Penrose widened the narrow carriage road into what he called the ‘Pikes Peak Highway’, he had motorsport in mind. The first event, for the Penrose Trophy, was run in 1916, and won by Rea Lentz, who covered the all-gravel run in a little under 21 minutes.
Environmental concerns relating to the dispersion of huge amounts of gravel which were required to maintain the road, meant that the climb was gradually paved over. Indeed, 2011 was to be the last event to have any loose sections.
Many predicted that that would be the end of the race. Far from it. The smoother, all-asphalt surface has since allowed many more types of vehicle to compete, including converted circuit racing cars. This year, there are classes that include GT3 and GT4 cars that we are more used to seeing in IMSA competition, or at classic circuits like Spa, the Nurburgring and Bathurst.
So obviously having just launched the second iteration of the Bentley Continental GT3 racer, the natural choice for the Crewe firm is to send that to challenge the mountain.
In fact, the weapon of choice is the Bentayga, Bentley’s premium Sport Utility Vehicle: very premium and very much an SUV although, as Brian Gush points out, the ‘S’ in SUV really does mean ‘Sport’.
“Bentleys have always been drivers’ cars, and the Bentayga is an exceptionally capable car, and has shown that capability off-road. We know that it’s capable on-road as well, so this is a great opportunity to prove that.”
Bentayga Product Line Director Peter Guest has been looking for this type of challenge for some time.
“This is something we’ve been keen on doing since we started the Bentayga project seven years ago,” he says. “We have been looking for something that will demonstrate the full capability, from luxury to off-road, to performance. So when Brian came to me with the Pikes Peak idea we said, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s get on with it.'”
Bentley could have chosen to make a special ‘race car’ version of the Bentayga, but Peter was adamant that the standard production car was more than adequate.
“The combination of the 12-cylinder engine, with 600bhp and 900 Newton metres of torque, with the state-of-the-art chassis, including the 48-volt active roll control system, really gives astonishing performance,” adds Guest.
Competing in a production-based class means the chassis, engine, gearbox and driveline all have to be exactly as the car would be at a showroom. Taking on Pikes Peak with a near stock car, therefore, is quite some challenge. And, as Bentley Engineer David Argent points out, partners have been key to the effort. “It’s very important to have good technical partners and, just as for the race team, we have Mobil 1 for the engine oil.”
Brain Gush agrees, explaining: “We have done our homework. We have to know that we can deliver on our promise, and that’s where partners like Mobil 1 come in. I’ve worked with Mobil since my early days here at Crewe. All Crewe Bentayga engines have Mobil 1 as their first fill. Mobil were first to come and assist us with this project and were really keen.”
Given the extreme conditions – the start line is over 9,000 feet above sea level, and temperatures can vary from 20 degrees Celsius at the green flag, to below zero at the summit – it’s surprising that the engine oil chosen to keep the V12 in the sweet spot is exactly the same composition as the first fill at Crewe.
Global Motorsport Technology Manager for Exxon Mobil David Tsurusaki explains that they wanted to meet this challenge head on, with a standard product.
“Anytime you have an extreme test of the skill of a driver and the capabilities of a car, that’s something we want to get involved with,” says Tsurusaki. “A Pikes Peak run fits us perfectly. Within Mobil 1, we have added ability to handle extremes of pressure, temperature and performance that the everyday consumer isn’t going to see very often. We like to show that, when you push the limits of your car, one thing you don’t have to worry about is the engine oil.”
The production class regulations mandate the inclusion of an FIA safety roll cage and fire extinguisher system, the removal of seats and carpets, as well as allowing a change of exhaust. These modifications mean that the Bentayga that tackles Pikes Peak will be about 300 kg lighter than a fully-equipped car. Although no changes are allowed to the suspension, the active ride system fitted to all Bentaygas will be able to cope, states Peter Guest.
“It’s more than clever enough [in standard form] to cope with different loads,” he says. “The road car can tow three and a half tons, carry 150 kilos in a roof box and seat between one to seven passengers. The 48-volt active roll system is transformational technology. It can switch in milliseconds.”
The Bentayga is already in the USA and has done some testing on hilly racetracks on the West Coast. Nothing can accurately replicate what it will be put through in the less than 12m35.6s that it will need to clock in order to take the production SUV record.
“The engine will be under a lot of stress, the [engine] temperature will rise,” says Tsurusaki. “The air gets thinner as you climb. The engine gets pushed harder and harder. The stresses on every component will rise. Mobil 1 has got to protect the engine and keep it cool at the same time.”
The extreme nature of the roadway is only part of the unique challenge of the so-called ‘Race to the Clouds’. As Gush explains, the format of the event adds to the degree of difficulty.
“You cannot do a full practice run,” he says. “You do the bottom third, then the middle, then the top third, all in different sessions, you can’t string them together.”
And as for the timed run?
“There’s one run, once. One chance. No second go!” Gush affirms. “It’s so important that you select the right team to back you up, get the logistics sorted, and of course get the right driver.”
That right driver for Bentley is New Zealand born American Rhys Millen. He has won overall twice, still holds two records at Pikes Peak and, as much as anyone can, knows his way up the mountain.
The Millen family have more than a little history at Pikes Peak. Rhys’ father Rod has won overall 5 times. And I’ll be talking to the man himself in Colorado when the whole Bentley team comes together for the event.
The final word here goes to Brian Gush. Brian put together the Bentley Le Mans programme which culminated in the 2003 win. He sums up a 12-mile, 12-minute Pikes Peak run in his typically down-to-earth and understated way.
“There are no guard rails,” he says. “It’s a challenge.”
Radio Show Limited operate 3 full-time free motorsport channels via their portal at www.radiolemans.com, and will be broadcasting a number of special features and programmes on Bentley’s Pikes Peak Challenge in the coming weeks on the RS1 Channel, including during their week-long live coverage of the 24 Hours of Le Mans from Monday 11th June, as well as from The Pikes Peak event on June 22-24.