At the Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia, Bentley lets its best performers do the talking
For its Symphony of Speed event, intended to showcase the cream of its production car crop, Bentley chose the setting of South Australia. The Australian state is famous for, amongst other things, its half-hour time-zone, its grand vistas and its vineyards. The last includes Penfolds, one of the most famous names in Australian wine and with whom Bentley partnered with for the event’s welcome dinner. Penfolds is a brand that Bentley finds kinship with; it was founded in South Australia by a British couple in 1844, some 75 years before WO Bentley would start his own firm. The two brands have stood the test of time on the strength of their renowned craftsmanship.
South Australia is also known as a motorsports destination. The streets of its capital, Adelaide, were the venue for the Australian Grand Prix from 1985 to 1995. Within an hour’s drive from the city are two world-class racing circuits, and the newest of these is the Bend Motorsport Park. It was here that Bentley trotted out some of its fastest, most high-performing, most suffixed vehicles: the Continental GT Speed and the Bentayga Speed.
The Continental and the Bentayga need no introduction. The former is a name indelibly associated with the grand tourer and has been making rounds since the 1950s. Its modern incarnation has a claim to being the only true luxury grand tourer left on the market and has been on the highway for nearly two decades over three generations. The Bentayga was also an early start for Bentley, introduced in 2015 as a pioneer of today’s increasingly popular ultra-luxury SUVs.
As for the ‘Speed’ moniker—well, it is as it sounds. Although other Bentley models are outfitted with the automaker’s still-formidable V8 and hybrid V6 powertrains, Speed variants pack an unapologetic dozen cylinders by way of 6.0-litre twin-turbo W12s. The Continental Speed has a maximum output of 650bhp, the most powerful of the current lineup, and will do zero to 100km/hr in 3.6 seconds, to a top speed of 335km/hr. The Bentayga Speed is just behind, with 626bhp good for zero to 100km/hr in 3.9 seconds, and its 306km/hr top speed puts it amongst the fastest SUVs in the world.
With numbers like these and a racing circuit available, it is not unreasonable to think that the Speeds are Bentley’s track weapons—but this is very much not the case. The power is there, but so are the steering wheel heaters, Naim audio systems, hand-stitched diamond-quilt leather upholsteries and adult-sized seats. Speed does nothing to temper the journey-focused design of the base models.
The circuit still presents a chance to push these cars in a way the road almost never does. It is a cold and rainy day for testing, which means that the seat warmers and all-wheel-drive systems are primed for action. Aside from the two Speed models, the Bentayga S and Continental GT and their V8s are offered by way of comparison. Outside, a Flying Spur V8 represents the Bentley four-doors and is made ready for short jaunts on the roads around the track while waiting for the Speed’s carbon ceramic brakes to cool.
Off the line, the W12s pack an impressive punch to the tune of 900Nm, the kind of chest-shove acceleration that is only beaten by an electric. More so than their smaller cousins, the W12s are raucous and aggressive both inside and out, providing greater feedback and thrill to the pedal. To combat the tyranny of height, weight, and physics—the Bentayga weighs more than 2.5 tonnes, while the Continental not far off that – to go with the ferocious horsepower takes a lot of engineering and a lot of brainpower. These include the three-chamber active air suspension with adaptive damping, as well as the 48V active anti-roll system, which sees electric motors in each anti-roll bar that resist body roll. The Continental GT Speed ups the ante even further by introducing an electronic limited slip differential in the rear axle for improved stability and traction, as well as all-wheel steering. The latter has been seen before on the Flying Spur, but where that was more benignly aimed at smaller turning circles and cramped parking, it is far more active in the Continental GT Speed to improve low-speed response and high-speed stability.
Combined with other various bits of tuning such as rear-biased torque distribution and a dual-clutch transmission that shifts up to twice as fast, the Speeds feel more nimble, more reactive and, well, sportier than their stablemates. There is a lot of technology between the driver and the road, so the interaction is not exactly intimate or connected, but they are tuned precisely and responsively and require a surprisingly light touch. On the track, the limits of that technology can finally be pushed—the active anti-roll system, for example, which is basically black magic on the road, can finally be overcome to fling one about the cabin a little. Even in the wet, the stability control keeps things nice and tidy. Rumour has it that turning this off creates something of a drift-happy monster in the Continental GT Speed, but that sort of experimentation was discouraged on the day.
“I think the whole point of a Bentley is a breadth of capability. So a GT car is, as it says, there to grand tour. But we offer various flavours of that grand touring,” explains Paul Dickinson, Chief Commercial Offier – Mulliner & Motorsport at Bentley Motors. “For some customers, the Speed is critical to them because even though you can’t harness the performance and power that we just demonstrated on a track every day, knowing that the car can deliver is what the customer needs. And it means that on that one-in-a-thousand time when they end up on a very wet road with a very sharp corner they’re not expecting, they know the car is going to do that they need it to do.” A Bentley, he goes on to say, is a car that should be able to be as docile as one wants and as aggressive as one wants, and could be used in wet, snow and ice in ways that perhaps a rear-wheel-drive mid-engine sports car could not.
More than that, the Speed is an ode to a dying breed: the 12-cylinder petrol engine. Once, these were sprinkled throughout the range; now, they can only be found on a Speed. Bentley has committed to be going end-to-end carbon neutral by 2030, and its first all-electrics are on the horizon—the famed Crewe manufacture may not have many W12s left to make.