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A Day In The Life

Portimão was the scene of a history-making 24-hour endurance race for pre-war cars. The inside story – from an all-female Bentley team.

Aspirations and goals are essential elements to a fulfilling life; they are what motivate us to get out of bed every day to earn a living. William Medcalf set out his stall higher than most, however. Since he was a child, the vintage Bentley specialist has been enthralled by the Bentley Boys’ exploits at Le Mans and Brooklands in the 1920s and ’30s.
His dream of seeing those old cars back on track for a full 24 hours never abated and the approaching 90th anniversary of Bentley’s first win at Le Mans was the inspiration he needed to turn his dream into reality.

History was in the making, then. And not only that: the race would also feature the first ever all-female Bentley 24-hour team. But more of that later.

William is a proud member of the Benjafield’s Racing Club, formed 24 years ago and inspired by the ethos of Dr Dudley Benjafield – better known as ‘Benjy’ – and his 1920s Bentley racing comrades Woolf Barnato, Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin, Glen Kidston, Sammy Davis, John Duff and, of course, WO Bentley. The club’s members are buoyant extroverts who compete and party like their pioneering forefathers.

Club president and Bentley specialist Stanley Mann asked William to take on the mantle of competitions captain in 2012. And during a holiday in the Algarve, William visited Portimão circuit and was enthused by its myriad challeng-ing corners pitched on gradients and angles that flowed to-gether, as well as by the ‘anything goes’ attitude of the Por-tuguese operating team.

To overcome club members’ incredulity, he transported two vintage Bentleys to the Algarve for a 24-hour test run, and they demonstrated that the track could be driven at speed in top gear without touching the brakes. William then presented his findings to the club and its patron, HRH Prince Michael of Kent.

‘I knew the hardcore pre-war racers were going to be tough to convince, as the 24-hour was such a leftfield challenge,’ he says, ‘so I set the ball rolling in the field of endurance rallyists who thrive on unique challenges. They’d think nothing of hurtling a vintage Bentley across the Gobi desert.’

Scepticism began to fade, the entry list filled and Wil-liam’s workshop took on beautiful examples of WO’s finest creations in preparation for Portimão. His dedicated army of mechanics worked tirelessly to prepare ten vehicles that were far from natural racing machines. Not only did the cars have to be capable of running for 24 hours, their charging systems would also have to cope with powering additional lights in the dark for 12 of those hours.

Closer to the race, I’d received an email: ‘Wanted: female racing driver with experience of racing pre-war cars and preferably vintage Bentleys’. The longest race I had com-pleted in a vintage Bentley was all of ten minutes alongside Julian Majzub in his glorious Keston Pelmore 4½ Litre at the Bentley Driver’s Club Silverstone event a few years ago, al-though I’ve enjoyed lots of road miles aboard several exam-ples of Cricklewood’s finest export. This was going to be my biggest motoring challenge yet.

So there was an air of nervous anticipation as we sipped champagne at the welcome reception in the heat of the early-October Algarve evening. The Friday before the week-end’s race had seen a driver’s briefing and familiarisation laps: three in daylight and three in the dark. Gantry light-ing had been erected to illuminate the gloomier extremes of the circuit, but this was the least of our worries as all four ladies on my team – Katarina Kyvalova (owner of our 1928 4½ Litre Bentley), Georgina Riley, Georgina Bradfield and self – had to grapple with the intricacies of a newly installed plate clutch.

There are few things more intimidating than piloting someone else’s pride and joy, but we were heading for disaster if we couldn’t master a gearchange between us. William’s patience prevailed and he coached us on the quick shift, which requires more aggression than the gentle cone-clutch change we’d been used to. The car was perfectly pre-pared and sailed through scrutineering; all that remained was to adorn it with our team decals. The ‘Bentley Belles’ and 20 other teams were about to embark on the biggest challenge of their motor sport careers.

Benjafield’s had constructed a beautiful period pit, to serve as a fabulous backdrop to the safety car: the Pacey Hassan Bentley special. And suddenly the flutter of butterflies increases as William turns over its 4½-litre engine and drives out to open the track: our pre-event preparation time has evaporated and it’s time to start. Stopwatches are poised for action and cars line up in tradi-tional Le Mans style. Drivers dash across the track and erect the cars’ hoods, ready for the first 20 minutes of the race following Stanley Mann’s drop of the Portuguese flag.

Although we’d established a strict schedule for the ‘Bentley Belles’, we’re jostling for posi-tion as everyone wants to be involved in the thick of the action. The first five hours rattle by and darkness falls after a stunning shepherd’s delight sunset. Smooth driving is key to finish-ing and we try to use top gear only and no braking.
Carrying speed through the tight corners certainly tests the nerves but the mantra proves to be correct as the only mechanical issue we encounter is a seized brake shoe, which costs us half-an-hour while Medcalf’s boys work frantically to free the hub.

The Lagonda 3 Litre of VSCC friends Andrew Howe- Davies, Tony Lees, Tim Parker and Tim Greenhill is spluttering with a damaged valve, but some ingenious engineering sees the ‘Grey Lady Boys’ continue into the dusk. There are no other major mechanical issues in the field and the only activity in the pit garages is of cars receiving methodical service checks.

Circuit-driving in the dark is an exhilarating experience; your braking points are consumed by the gloom and as Saturday wanes into the early hours of Sunday there is an eerie feeling that we are the only certified lunatics doing something so utterly ridiculous at this time in the morning. The pit wall becomes quieter as supporters retire, and off duty drivers try valiantly to catch some shut-eye. As the night draws on, the camaraderie grows as teams will each other through the graveyard period, when it seems daylight will never reappear. Then the first hints of dawn arrive and a much-needed second wind finally takes hold.

I prefer the dark driving experience, although you have to fight with your psyche to focus ahead as faster approaching cars’ headlights can easily distract and knock you off your line. I drive for a near-two-hour stint from 4.30am and feel empowered by the mental challenge of staying sharp when your body is sapped of physical strength and your brain is crying for a rest.

With six hours to go, everyone has the bit between their teeth to get their cars to the fin-ish, having completed more than 2000km and around 500 laps. Only one car retires (with a gearbox issue) and the positive atmosphere never wanes. Although William Medcalf’s pas-sionate team of mechanics has barely snatched a wink of sleep, their pit bay is awash with smiles as they faithfully stick to their scrupulous service schedule on the ten vehicles in their care – and the chequered flag is in their sights. In the dying minutes, the Pacey-Hassan is lit up once again and heads out for one last time to herald the end of the race.

Anyone who has attended Le Mans will know that swell of excitement as the cars cross the line: it’s a unique experience, like an army returning from a great war. The fleet of charg-ers arrive to a scene of jubilation in the pitlane.

William addresses the drivers: ‘We’ve done it. Now go and party!’ The pitlane is awash with champagne bubbles and tears of joy as we celebrate in the heat of the Portuguese af-ternoon, yet an eerie silence follows as we thank XV 3207, patting its fabric body, now sticky with champagne. It has been a magnificent steed and looks relieved to be resting alongside the cars with which it has shared the Portimão circuit for 24 hours.

Three awards are presented: the Spirit of Benjafield’s Award goes to Paul Carter, Bill Cleyndert and Nick Swift, who shared Paul’s 1936 Derby Bentley. The Endurance Rally Associa-tion Award for Sportsmanship is presented to Gerd A Bühler and his team of Dr Karl Schäfer, Thomas Feierabend and Jochen Bader, who drove his 1938 BMW 328. Finally the Brooklands Team Award is presented to the 1925 Bentley 3/4½ Litre team of Robert Abrey, Matthew Abrey, Julian Riley and Robert Fellows. Despite having no previous track experience, the Abrey family operated their team very professionally, crossing the line with only one gallon of fuel left.

Will there be another race? Clearly there is a thirst for an event that offers far greater re-ward than a blink-and-miss-it scratch race on an unloved British circuit. It was an incredible feat for 20 of the 21 cars entered to cross the line with no serious mechanical issues, and the participants who were new to endurance racing cannot wait to do it again. Even those with experience found something new; Marc-Remo Kündig, who participates in modern endurance racing, says he learned more about driving and car control in the Benjafield’s 24 than in any other event. So what now for the ‘Bentley Belles’? We became the first all-female team to complete a 24-hour race in a pre-war car, but Katarina muses that this is just the start: ‘Watch out for the Bentley Belles – we are planning lots more!’.

The work of William Medcalf, Philippa Spiller and their team has secured Benjafield’s Racing Clubs’ place in motoring history. Like so many others who participated, my own personal achievements have been engulfed by sheer pride that I was experiencing a man’s dream of a lifetime become reality – a great lesson in life that anything is possible, and even more so behind the wheel of a pre-war car. It is a rare and privileged thing to be privy to someone’s dream, but to be right in the heart of it is a rare gift. William’s dream fostered others who in-turn fulfilled their own ambitions and his ‘Bentley Boy’ forebears would be bursting with pride.

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