► Actual Bentley record-smasher driven
► Not one of the 15 special editions
► 626bhp, rollcage, straight-through titanium exhaust
In late 2019 – its centenary year, no less – Bentley broke the Pikes Peak production car record with a W12-engined Continental GT. The marque has since sold, built and delivered 15 special edition Pikes Peak Continental GTs. But this isn’t one of them; this is the actual Pikes Peak record breaker.
If you haven’t yet treated yourself, take ten minutes out, open YouTube and search ‘Bentley Continental GT Pikes Peak Record’. Do so and, as well as a reminder of the humbling rugged beauty of Colorado, you’ll be treated to a compelling demonstration of just how much bandwidth there is within the Continental GT, a car that – driven in its default modes – is every inch the hushed and effortless grand tourer.
Rhys Millen’s time of 10:18.488 was fast – eight-seconds-under-the-previous-record fast – but such is the composure of the Bentley’s chassis and the effortless might of its twin-turbo 12 that the run looks calm and composed rather than wild and ragged. It is magnificent to watch, just as, thanks to the car’s straight-through titanium Akrapovič exhaust system, it is magnificent to listen to.
Now, in a mildly hysterical state, we’re driving that car.
Read our Bentley Continental W12 review
Hang on, are we sure this is production car?
We are, though opening the door reveals a space quite unlike the cockpit of a regular W12 Continental GT. Good things come to those who wait, and there’s no little waiting to be done between being given the nod to drive this thing and actually getting moving. Like all good doors, the Bentley’s driver’s-side door (on the left, what with Pikes Peak being in America) is no barrier to entry, but thereafter the car’s extensive rollcage, enormous bucket seats (less a seat, more a small and very fitted padded cell with a semblance of forward visibility only) and multi-point harness mean the peace and quiet of your chosen location gets to go unmolested for a good two to three minutes after you’ve begun the boarding process.
Once installed, the incongruity inside is excellent. The familiar start button on the familiar centre console still wakes the W12 but you must prod a few additional red buttons first, and the Conti’s driver’s display is lit up like a warning-light Fourth of July. The cockpit – usually a cocoon of butter-soft leathers, unctuous carpet and tactile stitching – is a metal shell chicly dressed with heavy-duty cabling and fuse boxes. You sit low – as low as you might wish you sat in the standard car – your view backward and to the sides obliterated by the ‘ears’ of the seat, there to give the pilot’s head and neck a fighting chance should you drift either into a rockface or off the edge of a vertiginous hillclimb course and out into thin air.
Quite rightly then, given the safety requirements, this Continental feels like a race car inside. Plumbed-in fire extinguisher? Check. The evocative machine-gunning of gravel against the car’s uninsulated underbelly? Check. A grimly serious place of work? Kinda. For while this is undoubtedly a car prepared to do a job (the ESC system defaults to the most laissez faire and oversteery of the standard settings, and – as in the production car – only a token fraction of the W12’s oceanic torque is ever sent to the front axle), it’s also a machine that has you giggling, swearing and jabbering out loud to yourself with hysterical excitement like nothing I’ve driven since Ariel’s Tamiya-buggy-made-real Nomad.
Explain yourself man – isn’t this a luxo-barge in lime green fancy dress?
First off, there’s the noise. The Pikes Peak is extraordinarily loud, urgent and exhilarating, its soundtrack a frenzied shriek of rabid acceleration that’s entirely unlike the demure and cultured standard car. (Pikes Peak regulations allow replacement of the standard exhaust, as well as the removal of the interior trim to save weight and the fitment of performance rubber – slightly stickier Pirellis in this case – as well as the installation of the various safety systems.)
The twin-turbo W12 – never shy, it has to be said – feels monumentally potent here. With less weight to pull around the sensation of abundant torque (which peaks at less than 1500rpm, at a gravity-battering 664lb ft, and hangs on in there for much of the rev range – witness Millen short-shifting 1000rpm short of the redline quite often, and working the midrange like Gordon Ramsey works a kitchen) is ever-present and this, together with the exhaust noise, makes it very easy to pull the right paddle at 4500rpm and think you’re flying. You are, but this thing has more – much. much more. So, pull on your brave pants, figuratively put your fingers in your ears and keep your foot in…
Not yet. 5000rpm… Not yet. 6000rpm… Now. Instantaneous shift, and then it happens all over again – freefall acceleration, wheelspin if the road’s wet (up to third gear) or the tyres are cold (in first or second) and your mouth spitting expletives like you’ve dropped an engine on your big toe.
Out of one village a modified Mk.1 Mazda MX-5 ‘gives it the beans’. The thing’s rump drops and off it goes, gathering speed like toothpaste squeezed from a tube. Bless him. The Conti eviscerates the gap between us in a heartbeat, screams past in an industrial wall of noise and goes on accelerating, even as a corner looms, like some kind of nightmarish vision of unchecked physics.
And when you get to a corner?
If anything, your smile gets bigger. You see, the Continental GT is already a sweet drive – nimble, grippy and apparently vice-free thanks to its roll-control systems and four-wheel drive.
The Pikes Peak car, though, is on another level; rear-biased, pointy, light, alive and addictive like Jaffa Cakes. With less weight to slow the brakes feel mighty. And because you sit lower and the car refuses to roll, the upper limits of its cornering grip and poise are exhilaratingly high – higher, you might think, than you’ll ever be able to exploit on the road. Then you find yourself peeling into a big, dry, empty roundabout and all of a sudden the Conti’s lift-off oversteering like a Peugeot 205 GTI in the rain, you’re catching it without thinking and then, without so much as a threat of understeer – and more than a suggestion of the opposite – you’re leaving said roundabout more in love with an entirely unobtainable car than is probably healthy for long-term happiness.
Bentley Continental Pikes Peak: verdict
That Bentley’s Pikes Peak record-breaker is an event to drive is not surprising. That it’s also a hugely enjoyable, adjustable and exploitable hot rod on the road is slightly more surprising. But the real juice here is that the Pikes Peak racer is a stark reminder of the potency of the Continental GT.
Bentley, it tells us, is not in the business of building sports cars. But there is a sports car within the Conti GT – that much is clear when you drive this thing. And if, like me, you’d like to see a little more of the Pikes Peak car in the standard Conti GT, the good news is we only need to wait until spring 2021, and a new Conti GT Speed.
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