Racecars break. F1, NASCAR, IndyCar, GT3 – you name it – every go-fast machine built for the track is living on borrowed time. So it wasn’t a complete surprise when, after traveling halfway around the world to drive Bentley’s Continental GT3 racecar, the darn thing unceremoniously blew its rear differential on someone else’s hot lap.
While mentally recalibrating to the idea that my only takeaway from the three day commitment might be frequent flier miles, I realized an alternate vehicle on hand could make the trip worthwhile: the roadgoing, not-so-evil twin to the all-out race machine, the 2015 Bentley Continental GT3-R.
You can hardly blame Bentley for the failure to proceed. The Flying B has been performing swimmingly well in the Blancpain Endurance Series, scoring three wins in its debut season and racking up a respectable 2015 so far. The dropped, spoilered, and severely trimmed-down GT3 racer reflects a ruthless abandon of all things luxurious and civilized. Over 50 ECUs were ditched from the road car; the doors alone, which typically weigh a lofty 125 pounds apiece, have been trimmed down to a wispy 15. Yes, the race version is a fearsome, sexy beast – and yes, this was quickly proving irrelevant because that drive was simply not meant to be.
The Next Best Thing
It’s hard to call a $339,725 exotic a consolation prize. Climbing into the roadgoing GT3-R reveals a dramatic departure from the standard issue Conti: Not only is the color scheme unexpected (acid green on black and grey), so is the choice of materials (carbon fiber, Alcantara, not an inch of wood veneer in sight). Some pesky legacy remnants remain (antiquated navigation system, some weirdly pedestrian VW-sourced buttons and switches), but there’s also a smattering of sweet details (those famous organ stop air vents, the green center indicator on the steering wheel, the pleasantly gripped Alcantara shifter). In all, 300 examples are being built, 99 of which are destined for the US.
Unlike the somewhat sonorous GT V8 S upon which it’s based, the GT3-R’s titanium exhaust enables an even more exuberant, unapologetic, voluminous roar. Those exhaust gases are summoned from the 592-horsepower, 553-pound-foot, twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V8, which gains 71 hp and 51 lb-ft over the V8 S model it’s based on. The peak numbers reflect an overboosted state that can be held for 15 seconds; sustained max output is 572 hp and 518 lb-ft, not that it’s likely you’ll find a stretch of road clear enough to peg the throttle for more than 15 stopwatch clicks. Complementing the power gains is a re-programmed traction control system that enables greater slip angles. The eight-speed ZF gearbox shifts more aggressively, a shorter final drive quickens acceleration, and rear axle torque vectoring helps quell understeer.
Where It Matters
More crucial than the pumped up drivetrain bits – especially when considering the philosophical level of the tweedy, nearly century-old brand – are the GT3-R’s weight savings. The donor car has been alleviated of 220 pounds of mass, and the first evidence of this is the absence of rear seats and a delightfully un-Bentley rim of carbon fiber trim that surrounds the cabin. Grab the door handle, and a tall, glossy swath of the shiny stuff fills your peripheral vision. Though it still has considerably more heft than its race counterpart, the door’s carbon construction manages to make it feel less unwieldy and more buttoned-down than before.
Fire up the turbocharged eight-banger, and you’re greeted with a noticeably louder bark than its more pedestrian sibling. At the relatively short, 2.1-mile Anglesey Circuit (in its International GP configuration), good sightlines and dramatic elevation changes offer a solid blend of familiarity and challenge. There’s a bit of power surge as the GT3-R lays into turbo boost, at which point it charges ahead with reassuring, ass-kicking urgency. Though it’s easy to find the meaty part of the powerband (the torque plateau starts at a measly 1,700 rpm), this isn’t exactly the stuff of classic, naturally aspirated muscle cars. But when it’s in full-tilt, balls-to-the-walls boosted mode, the GT3-R charges ahead with awesome grunt, helping it score a 0-60 time of only 3.6 seconds, making it the fastest accelerating Bentley in history.
Steering feel, suspension dynamics, and that difficult-to-achieve connection between seat-of-the-pants and tarmac are all wonderfully spot-on. The level of responsiveness might make you second guess the fact that you’re behind the wheel of a Bentley. After all, a certain sense of wallowy insulation has been a hallmark of the brand. The GT3-R’s disarming chassis obedience and directness of steering flies in the face of everything we’ve come to expect from the Flying B. This is still a hefty beast with a big footprint, one that will never be confused with smaller, nimbler sports cars. Tossed around the track, there’s still some reluctance to slide the tail out and right pedal steer, as is possible with more unabashedly sporting coupes. In fact, the GT3-R exhibits a resolutely safe tendency for the nose to pull gently away from the apex when you’re railing on the throttle. On the other hand, massive carbon ceramic discs feel as effective as boat anchors, reeling in all that four-wheeled inertia before the right pedal slingshots it around the next corner. Outside the context of the track, the GT3-R’s refinements are more readily appreciated. On public roads where the Continental lineup tends to feel stately and stolid, the GT3-R comes across as tight and athletic. Some busyness over bumpy surfaces is to be expected – and is enough to surprise the brand cognoscenti – but the overall dialed-in dynamic is refreshing for those accustomed to lesser, loosey-goosey Bentleys.
In The Grand Scope Of Things
The Bentley Continental GT3-R represents a noble experiment for the VW-owned brand. Though built on a platform that will soon seem dated with the model’s mid-2015 facelift (and not without faint remnants of Bentley’s earlier days), the GT3-R takes a significant step towards bigger performance and more involving chassis dynamics. While this particular specimen doesn’t quite compete with the Porsche 911 GT3s or Nissan GT-Rs of the world, it does represents a notable departure for the Bentley brand, a firm step in the direction towards more driver involvement.
How much does the GT3-R alter Bentley’s DNA? For starters, its effect certainly isn’t as extreme as it could have been, had Bentley gone with a rear-drive setup. For what it’s worth, Bentley says rear-wheel drive was explored but not utilized this time around, though a more extreme rear-drive arrangement is likely coming next year.
As it stands, the Bentley GT3-R is wonderfully glued down and more focused than ever, though it still displaces a nearly 2.5-ton footprint and its safety-seeking, all-wheel-drive-induced understeer might not satisfy the most hardcore of performance purists. But as a stand-in for its real-deal GT3 alter ego, the GT3-R proves to be a surprisingly capable and dynamic gentleman racer for the road, traits which should make a small handful of well-heeled enthusiasts very happy.