Despite a reputation for being a slightly lardy, louche grand tourer (albeit hugely fast), the Bentley Continental GT has spawned more than its fair share of racier offshoots. The original Supersports, for example, was configured as standard with just two seats and more than 100kg removed from the kerbweight; the follow up boasted in excess of 700hp and featured equipment like ceramic brakes and a titanium exhaust. And who can forget the GT3-R? V8-based this time and with shorter gear ratios, also with huge weight loss and torque vectoring, it was a surprisingly enjoyable old bus.
The latest Pikes Peak Edition ought to have been another special edition in the same mould. After all, it's not every year that you beat a 911 Turbo up North America's most famous hill climb. As it was, the 15 cars were resprayed and rebadged, with a course map stamped above the glovebox. Which felt like something of a missed opportunity given the achievement it celebrated. Still, driving one of those would be nice (because every Continental GT of this generation is basically superb) but this one isn't a Pikes Peak Edition - it's the actual race car.
Yep, this very Bentley is the one that recorded the 10:18.488 up the Colorado course last summer with Rhys Millen at the wheel. You can watch the record run here, Millen averaging 70mph across the 156 turns. The following is how it drives across rural Northamptonshire.
Because Pike Peak regulations stipulate production entrants must be near enough identical to those cars which roll out of the showroom, this Continental GT only has the additional equipment required for motorsport: fire extinguisher, roll cage, racing seats. And an Akrapovic exhaust. The livery suggests otherwise, but the rest of the package is stock W12 GT.
Except, of course, it isn't. Because where you might once drop into opulent leather chairs, this one requires clambering through the scaffolds of a cage and plummeting to the floor in a bucket seat; a seatbelt that would have once glided silently from its rest is now a battle of dexterity with harnesses; and what was once a reasonably muted idle is now vocal and fierce enough to be heard in the next county.
It's a fascinating four-wheeled oxymoron, the Pikes Peak GT, and all the more lovable for it. Because the same beautiful clock faces were available to Rhys Millen, only with a smattering of warning lights illuminated across them; the same imposing cliff face of a dash remains, only with cut-off and ignition switches at the bottom; and beautiful leather doorcards hang loose as they've been smashed into the cage innumerable times. It smells of fuel. 'Patina' is a horribly trite phrase when it comes to racing cars, but there really is nothing to match the wear and tear of a car that's competed. The one-off model is intriguing and engaging before moving an inch.
You'll certainly know when you've moved an inch in the Pikes Peak car, not only because its minders like to keep a careful eye on it, but because it's louder than a space shuttle launch. An intimidating, menacing growl now emanates from the Bentley's exhaust pipes, as demonic and deranged as the standard car is docile.
On the road (and out of sight), it's the noise that continues to dominate the Pikes Peak experience. If the standard Continental GT could be accused of not letting all that much noise in - and the sound being more blare than tuneful - the green car initially seems nothing but noise. It's almost overwhelming though, crucially, shows the W12 can have a voice as well. Around 4,000rpm it takes on a bark that sounds more like a V6 than this engine ever has, rasping, growling and snarling all the way to the 6,500rpm cut out. Still not melodic perhaps, but so much more exciting than standard. Every upshift makes the standard DCT sound like a race sequential, and then the exhilarating race to the redline begins all over again.
It happens faster than you'd think, too. Taking so much weight out of a Continental honestly makes it feel like it has more than 700hp, such is the effect of the reduced mass (and probably all that extra noise) on perceived performance. The Pikes Peak ravages through every gear, taking what was an already a very fast car and making it a stupendously rapid one. Sat so low, surrounded by bucket seat, roll cage, stopwatches and scrutineering stickers, the Bentley is a total overload in a straight line, the Continental turned Mad Max.
But it's actually the handling improvements that leave the more lasting impression. And which, crucially, should have more relevance for any future race-inspired Bentleys. Because Continental GTs with wires hanging out of the footwell, oxygen onboard and an Akrapovic exhaust louder than their motorbike pipes might be a tough sell; one that drives like this car does ought to be much easier.
It's the familiar benefits that come with a weight reduction, the big Bentley steering more incisively, rotating more accurately and responding more swiftly to every input. Moreover, an increase in the rearward bias of the four-wheel drive system has given the Pikes Peak car greater neutrality, it displaying an improved balance over the standard GT. The dynamic centre now feels a lot more around you, the enormous seats and the miles of roll cage than somewhere in the bulkhead, which is nice. With slightly more aggressive Pirelli P Zeros as well, the Continental's steering - as well as boasting that directness off centre - has a more natural, less gloopy resistance than standard. Ignoring the paint, the noise and the performance - which is easier said than done, granted - it all adds up to a Bentley that's better connected to the road and more rewarding as a driver's car. And that's the sort of satisfaction which lingers long after the W12 fury has subsided.
The record-breaking time in Colorado proved the latest GT was not lacking in potential; a brief road drive merely confirms it. Park any preconceptions, because it's as enthralling as many a lightweight road racer. As mentioned, something this raw is really suitable only for competition use (or turning journalists into giddy schoolchildren); the lessons from it, however, the tweaks that made for an even better Continental GT, are surely applicable to a production run. Because the return of a Supersports model, one authentically inspired by the Pikes Peak car in a way the slightly cynical limited edition was not, would be very special indeed.
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