This article first appeared in the 17th April edition of Autosport magazine
There is nothing like Monza in spring. It’s the perfect place to start the season and in my mind it is the true spiritual home of world racing. To compete there as a works Bentley driver last weekend in the opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Series gave me the same thrill as winning the McLaren/Autosport BRDC young driver award earlier in my career.
As ever at Monza it was a fairly epic weekend. It was the European race debut of the Bentley Continental GT3 and although it is very early days there is massive potential for us to get really excited about 2014.
The Blancpain Endurance Series is seriously competitive and probably the most intense in the world for the sheer quality of teams and drivers. Last year I was with Peter Dumbreck and Lucas Luhr at JRM, both of who are seriously quick boys. I stacked up well against them and Bentley got in touch with me after seeing some of my performances.
After our test race at the Gulf 12 Hours last December we have committed to a full Blancpain campaign in 2014. It was our first event with two cars at Monza last weekend but we showed that the Bentley Continental GT3 has some serious pace. Over the winter we have had a lot of development upgrades for the car, including suspension setup changes, driveability and fuel economy on the engine and also some welcome ventilation enhancements to the cockpit.
Last weekend at Monza I qualified the no.7 car I share with my ex-Dyson team mate – Guy Smith and fellow Brit Andy Meyrick on the second row. I was on a quicker lap in the dying moments of qualifying and really gunning for pole position when I went off at the Ascari chicane and damaged the car.
As a team unit we are intent on going for the absolute maximum and on my final lap I believed we had a chance of something special, indeed the data showed we would have grabbed 2nd place on the grid. Unfortunately on this occasion it didn’t quite happen for us. Next time, I will make sure it does.
The M-Sport Bentley team played an absolute blinder to get the car repaired. The guys worked all-night and by Sunday morning the car was like brand new. It was just another reminder of the strength of the Continental GT chassis and just how good the M-Sport Bentley mechanics are because the car felt great during the race. Reliability wise it has been sensational too, which is a big testament to the respective teams at Crewe and Cockermouth.
The race started well and Andy was up to second place in the early stages before the tyres really started to lose their edge after some big fights, particularly with the Kessel Racing Ferrari. Guy took over but some delays in the pits cost us, so it was initially up to Guy and then myself to get us back in to the top ten. As ever Guy was excellent and then I completed the final stint bringing the car home in 8th place just behind the sister Continental GT3 of our stable mates Antoine Leclerc, Jerome D’Ambrosio and Duncan Tappy.
As a driver you always want to win but it was a really good team effort for our first race in the series and it sets us up nicely for the next round at Silverstone on May 23rd.
Just before we left for Monza we all went to the Bentley headquarters in Crewe. What a place! The pride and dedication within every member of staff in the Bentley factory was something I have never come across before.
The great thing for me in 2014 is that I am also racing a Bentley Continental GT3 in the British GT Championship, again to be run by M-Sport. I am sharing with Humaid Al Masaood who I have raced with in both ALMS and Grand-Am over the last few years. So from one great circuit we now head to another – Oulton Park this weekend.
In the Blancpain Endurance Series we have points on the board already but in the next round at Silverstone we will be really pumped up to deliver a great result on home soil. As a BRDC member, racing passed the clubhouse in the #7 Bentley Continental GT3 is going to be a very special feeling indeed.
Ever since I was one of the original drivers chosen by Bentley I have immersed myself in the Bentley way. The brand has such a distinctive and successful place in motorsport history, dating back to the ‘Bentley Boys’ in the 1920’s and we all fully intend to carry on that winning tradition in 2014 and beyond.