Blundell confident Bentley can bring back glory days

Le Mans Endurance Race: Famous British marque must overcome Audi's domination in order to secure first 24-hour victory since 1930
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The Independent Online

They drove down together, two old friends enjoying the craic and eagerly anticipating the weekend. At four-o'clock, local time, on Saturday afternoon, they will be in opposing camps, competing for the most prestigious prize in sports car racing.

Mark Blundell and Perry McCarthy maybe ill at ease cast in the role of gentleman drivers. They are more readily identifiable as members of British racing's "Rat Pack''. But they do embody the spirit and essence of the Le Mans 24-hour race, joining the pilgrimage to an otherwise insignificant French plain for the annual celebration of a reassuringly traditional dignified institution.

An estimated 60,000 Britons are lured to Le Mans, and the majority this time will doubtless be committed to the cause of Blundell and his Bentley team, evoking the patriotic fervour generated by the success of Jaguar in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Bentley registered the last of their five wins in 1930 and then withdrew the work's effort. They returned only two years ago, intent on rekindling the glory, and now, they believe, their 24 hours are at hand.

The climax of Bentley's campaign conveniently coincides with the retreat of the Audi factory team, winners for the past three years. But then both Marques are part of the Volkswagen group, so it is reasonable to assume the resourcing and planning were carefully choreographed.

However, it might not be a straightforward exercise for the two British Racing Green Bentley Speed 8 coupés. Confronting them are three "customer'' Audi R8s, among them the UK backed crew, which includes McCarthy.

Bentley have the pace and a squad of highly accomplished drivers. Blundell is partnered by another former Le Mans winner and Rat Pack member, Johnny Herbert, and the British-based Australian, David Brabham. The sister car is occupied by Denmark's Tom Kristensen, recruited from Audi's treble-winning team, Italy's Rinaldo Capello and a less well known Briton, Guy Smith.

The open top Audi has a proven track record, better fuel economy and is more mechanic-friendly. Time saved at pit stops could be decisive. Their drivers are no slouches, either. Kristensen's former colleagues have stayed at Audi, the Italian Emanuele Pirro with the American line-up and Germany's Frank Biela leading the UK challenge. The third man in that car is Finland's Mika Salo, a Formula One driver only last season.

Blundell, content to travel down in McCarthy's Audi road car, is confident he had the pick of the machinery for the race, just as he had with Peugeot in 1992.

He said: "Bentley have put together a top level team and now they are ready to get the job done. The Audi's are strong but I think all those British fans will have a British win to cheer. The factory is in Crewe, so it's still very much a British car.''

Herbert, who won with Mazda, in 1991, is equally determined to fly the flag. "I think Mark and I have joined the team at just the right time,'' he said. "We've got the pace and the reliability. It's time I won it again and to do so with a British team, with two and a half British drivers, would make it all the more special.''

McCarthy is seeking a first finish in five attempts, let alone victory, at Le Mans. But then that has been the story of his racing life. His grand prix career barely got out of the pits. He joined the impoverished and doomed Andrea-Moda team in 1992, hoping to live his Formula One dream. He was paid no wages or expenses. He worked as a courier with a tour company in return for a free trip to the Monaco Grand Prix.

He recalled: "I stood there at Heathrow, with my little sign, and the punters couldn't believe I was a driver. One old dear asked me if all the drivers did it and I said, 'yes, there's Nigel Mansell over there'.'' McCarthy's car, alas, was never good enough to qualify for a race and he was thankful to part company with the team in one piece, especially after a mechanical failure caused him to crash at a 170mph on Belgium's daunting Spa circuit.

He opted for another route, in sports cars, yet achieved little more and officially retired four years ago. As the joker in the pack - which also included Damon Hill, Julian Bailey and Martin Donnelly - he found work in TV and on the after dinner speaking circuit. He recorded his zany escapades in an autobiography. But for all the laughs, he was an unfulfilled racing driver and could not resist "another look'' at Le Mans last year. He saw enough to be convinced he could still pull it off and now, at the age of 41, he has the opportunity he craves.

"I believe I am a top driver and this time I can prove it," he said. "I'm not too old. I've hired three trainers to get me in the best possible shape. Audi are paying me well for this race and I'm reinvesting that money. I'm feeling really good. There's no way I'm going to be our slowest driver.

"I've always enjoyed myself, always had fun with the other lads, but they will tell you I am serious about my racing. Mark's my best mate and Johnny's a really good friend, too. I look out for them. But when the race starts we're all trying to beat each other and this race means such a lot to me.

"I've had lots of things go wrong in my career, but I've never been jealous of other drivers' success. I feel lucky I'm still in the sport and I believe I've got plenty of racing in me yet. I want this to be just the start of a comeback.

"I always go to the victor's podium at the end of the race and give them a big shout because that's what it's all about, and I think to myself, 'I'll be up there one day'. I want to be up there on Sunday afternoon, for me and for Audi.''

Although Bentley and Audi appear to be the heavyweights, they will do well to respect the speed of the Dome-Judds and the resistance of the French Courages, as ever endeavouring to uphold local honour.

The under card, too, offers the usual array of earnest contests and features, among others, two TVR Tuscans in the GT class.

Whatever the outcome of the main event, Blundell will not be driving home with McCarthy. "I'm flying back,'' the Bentley driver said. "In fact, there'll be about 60,000 of us flying if we bring that British Racing Green car round in first place.''