"Whatever you do, don't touch that," Derek Bell hollers through his helmet, pointing to the very large red button on the dashboard that controls the Halon fire extinguisher. "It takes all the oxygen out of the air and you pass out."
All I can do is nod dumbly. In the 1970s, Bell was one of the top racecar drivers in the world, winning Le Mans five times; and now that we're sitting side by side in the suffocatingly hot cockpit of Bentley's new Speed 8 sports car, I've pretty much put myself at his mercy. A few seconds and several micrometers of well-laid rubber later, we're tearing down the test track at 190 miles per hour-an experience that looks, sounds, smells, and feels like being inside a prolonged explosion. The world shakes. The air reeks of gasoline. And with 3 Gs pinning me to the window through each turn, I couldn't hit the red button even if I wanted to.
The Speed 8 is Bentley's gamble, 73 years since their last win, to take the title at Le Mans. A grueling 24-hour ordeal, Le Mans is as much about endurance as it is about speed, and in the gentlemanly world of European auto racing, where the top events—Monte Carlo, the French Grand Prix—are all tuxedoed affairs, France's venerable Le Mans is considered the most gentlemanly of all. To differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack, the "Bentley Boys" are banking on a radical departure from standard Le Mans design: a closed cockpit, which though it makes the car subject to additional handicapping design restrictions, reduces aerodynamic drag. It's April 15—exactly two months before Le Mans—and Team Bentley has come to the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track near Bandol in southern France to put their twin Speed 8 racecars (known as numbers 7 and 8) through 30 hours of nonstop, high-speed driving. They've invited me along for the ride.
"We're trying to break the car," explains Alistair Macqueen, Team Bentley's technical operations manager. "In a single race we do all the mileage that a Formula 1 car does in a year. Speed is important, but durability is paramount." I question that durability in the turns, which cause this finely tuned sports car to chatter like a 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera on a cold day, but I am nevertheless impressed by its performance, especially at the end of my ride, when we brake from 190 to
70 mph in just 100 meters (a sensation akin to having your speed sucked away by a giant vacuum cleaner).
As the Speed 8 tears off again around the track, Macqueen explains that racecar design is subject to a complex matrix of rules, both physical and man-made. Each year the man-made rules change slightly, sending design teams into their laboratories to calculate seemingly minor adjustments to gain the upper hand. (This year, for example, the size of air-intake restrictors was cut by 10 percent, effectively making every car on the circuit that much less powerful.) But because the cars are subject to such intense physical forces—gravitational, aerodynamic, thermal—each tweak inevitably throws a thousand other details out of whack. When Macqueen and his engineers adjust the cars' rear wing, for example, they unexpectedly increase the strain on the springs, which changes the ride height and further increases the downforce.
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