What would Bentley be without the 24 Hours of Le Mans? It’s hard to say, as the history of the prestigious English brand and that of the mythical French endurance event seem to merge, at least at their origins. Founded in 1919 by engineer Walter Owen Bentley with the ambition to counter the many manufacturers of luxury cars still reserved for the “happy few” of this interwar period, Bentley quickly perceived the tremendous publicity what competition could bring to its very sophisticated engines for the time, large 4 cylinders with dry sump and overhead camshaft operating 4 valves per chamber. All it took was the entry by private crews of the brand’s 3-litre models during the first two editions of the 24 Hours of Le Mans for its founder and designer to measure the interest of this new and very demanding event.

Indeed, as early as 1923, when the original race was won by a Chenard and Walcker (French car as its name does not necessarily indicate), the only Bentley to reach the finish was already the fastest of the peloton on a round. Alas, its brakes acting only on the rear wheels and its inefficient headlights prove to be penalizing on such a difficult event, and the “3 liter” entered by John Duff and Frank Clement will also lose a lot of time with the puncture of its tank, caused by the projection of a stone raised by the preceding car. This Bentley finally finished 4th, the worst place for its drivers since the first not to allow them to experience the joys of the podium at the finish of such a grueling event.

Armed with this experience, the same crew managed to take the first victory of a “3 liter” improved by Bentley (equipped with front brakes and more powerful headlights and protected by grilles) in the Sarthe in 1924, this time taking advantage of the massacre of breakdowns among its competitors Chenard and Walcker, Bignan and other Lorraine. Enough to motivate Bentley, which officially entered two cars this time in 1925. For the anecdote, it was during this edition that the first “Le Mans type” start was experienced: the drivers ran across the track to take the wheel of their car parked on the cob in front of the pits. With one nuance, however, the drivers must then close the hood of their car and wait for the green light from a scrutineer checking that the operation has been carried out correctly before starting… And in this little game, it is John Duff who proves to be the fastest and therefore takes the lead in the race at the wheel of his Bentley.

But the problems will accumulate. The team’s second car, driven by the Kensington/Benjafield crew, quickly fell victim to the evolution of the regulations prohibiting refueling before having completed 20 laps – the circuit then developing 17.26 km, which represents more than 345 km – and retired due to lack of fuel. The other Bentley driven by Duff/Clement suffered a fire during the night. But the team is not discouraged. Woolf Barnato, wealthy “gentleman driver” and new president of the brand, will even generate a new dynamic by creating the group known as the “Bentley Boys” bringing together drivers engineers and mechanics sharing a camaraderie forged for most of them by their experience. military. However, success was not forthcoming in 1926, an edition during which the pace set by the French cars, Peugeot and Lorraine in the lead, undermined the reliability of the three Bentleys entered, which successively retired due to engine and braking problems.

The accumulated experience enabled the English brand to win the following year in 1927, still with a “3 liter”, and above all to prepare for the future with the development of a brand new, more efficient model, driven by a new 4.5-litre engine which won the day in the hands of the Barnato/Rubin team as soon as it appeared in 1928. The momentum was now there and the 1929 edition was that of consecration with four Bentleys finishing in the first four places, the victory being won again by a new model called “Speed ​​six”, because powered by a 6.6-litre 6-cylinder engine allowing it to exceed 200 km/h on the straight line of the 1950s. Speed ​​sixes took the top two places again in 1930, bringing the number of Bentley victories to five in just eight appearances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. An unchallenged domination that ended in 1931, marking the beginning of Alfa Romeo’s domination, but that’s another story. Bentley thus established a record of victories which would only be equaled in 1957 by Jaguar before being beaten by Ferrari in 1962. During this period, Woolf Barnato became the first triple winner of the 24 Hours (1928-1929-1930).

Bought by the Volkswagen group in 1998, Bentley returned to La Sarthe in 2001 with two V8-powered “Speed ​​8s” and won a third place there. In 2002, the only car entered finished 4th, and finally, in 2003, the two “Speed ​​8” finished in the first two places, allowing Bentley to claim its sixth victory in the Sarthe, which made the English brand the fifth most titled in the event, behind Porsche (19 victories), Audi (13), Ferrari (9) and Jaguar (7). Finally, in 2023, Bentley will be back in Sarthe, but this time for Le Mans Classic, with what should be called a continuation of the famous “Blower”, an exact replica of the Model 4, 5-litre supercharged supercharged came second in the 1929 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The circle is complete !