Bentley Continental GT and Flying Spur go to Driving School

If you want to learn to drive fast, there's a school in high-speed driving for you. Almost anything goes, no matter how crazy it sounds. If you want to learn to drive in ice and snow in the exotic, all-wheel-drive, 512-hp Gallardo, you'll be happy to know that Lamborghini itself has already created such a school just for you. And if you'd like to thrash a Continental Flying Spur around a vacant parking lot as if it were an autocross race car, the Bentley Driving Program awaits your pleasure.

Car manufacturers increasingly are turning to driving schools as a strategy to sell exclusive cars to prestige clients. It's an effort to combine responsible business practice, corporate hospitality, and sheer salesmanship in a single, compelling package. We recently had a chance to find out what it was all about at the Bentley Driving Program.

For the past several years, the Bentley Driving Program has been staged only in Europe, but now the United States is on the schedule with a venue at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It caters largely to actual Bentley owners, but sales prospects can participate as well. It might be surprising that Bentley has a driving program at all, yet its heritage has always emphasized automotive performance as well as simple luxury values, and this might be part of the reason that Bentley sold 3654 cars in the U.S. last year while Rolls-Royce sold 382 and Maybach sold 152.

Once you sign up for the school and put down your $1500, Bentley invites you to a full day of roaring around a suitable expanse of asphalt in some of its finest automobiles, and you come away with both improved driving skills and a renewed appreciation for the capability of the cars. Just as important, the program gives you an insider's glimpse of Bentley's corporate culture, the special character that has made this company such a unique success in the prestige car market.

Derek Bell is Bentley's spokesman for the driving program, and his five wins as a racer at the 24 Hours of Le Mans give him plenty of credibility. The program's cadre of British-born driving instructors includes many Bentley employees from Crewe, and they're able to give you insights about the car's engineering, development, and manufacture that you'd get nowhere else. In addition, a couple of private owners with classic Bentleys are there to give you a ride and provide a sense of the marque's heritage.

At first, the program's driving exercises didn't seem to offer us much in the way of motoring romance. There's straight-line acceleration and then braking to a stop. There are maneuvers in emergency single and double lane changes. There's a slalom. There's braking hard into a corner. It's all pretty standard stuff, the kind of thing that you might remember from an afternoon of autocrossing.

What makes it different is the amount of speed involved. You accelerate at full throttle to 100 mph and then brake to a stop as quickly as you can, stomping on the whoa pedal while the brake system clatters and the tires chirp. Almost every exercise takes place at more than 60 mph, and that's fast enough to slew a 5456-pound Continental Flying Spur sideways across the pavement.

The key to speed and safety in these maneuvers will shatter your preconceptions about fast driving. It's a simple as this: stand on the brake pedal, then start steering. No other skills are required. Of course, this advice runs counter to everything you might have ever learned about big cars and speed - every horror story about heavy sedans crossed up on the pavement with smoking tires and then suddenly upside down in a cornfield. As with so many things these days, the speed secret lies in tiny electrons. They hold hands and create a safety net that enables the Continental Flying Spur to perform stunts that seemingly defy the laws of physics.

Bentley cars have always had a love/hate affair with physics. It dates clear back to the Bentleys that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1927, 1928, 1929, and 1930. These were enormous cars meant for luxury-car bodywork, but instead they had been built up with crude, lightweight bodies, as if you had designed a Le Mans racer out of a truck (Ettore Bugatti often said as much about them.) When Bentley got high-speed religion again with the Mulsanne Turbo production car in 1983, its cars once more began to challenge the limits of physics, and since then prodigious horsepower, powerful brakes, and massive tires have consistently been part of the company's performance formula.

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