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.
To make the 557-horsepower Continental Flying Spur more physics-friendly, its chassis is pretty far along to fully active status. It begins with all-wheel drive that incorporates a Torsen center differential. The suspension includes computer-controlled air springs and electronically adjustable dampers, and naturally, there’s electronic traction control and stability control. The optional twenty-inch aluminum wheels carry 275/35YR-20 Yokohama Advan Sport tires, while the front brakes feature massive 15.9-inch discs with single-action aluminum calipers. There’s electronic antilock braking to keep the tires under the car, electronic brake force distribution to maximize fore-and-aft stability under braking, and finally, there’s electronic brake assist, which gives you a big push on the brakes in emergencies to maximize stopping power.
All this sounds as intimidating as the Continental Flying Spur‘s $164,990 price tag. Nevertheless, the Bentley instructors encourage you to treat the Flying Spur as if it were an airport rental car. And, as if by a miracle, the Bentley responds like a Le Mans racing car. It performs every maneuver without drama. No cones are squashed, and no tires are flat-spotted. The instructors even invite you to try a couple maneuvers with the electronic safety net disengaged just so you can feel the car slide sideways until it slithers backwards off the course.
If nothing else, this experience resolves the age-old question about whether it’s safer to lock up the brakes to stop before hitting an obstacle — or to use the steering to avoid it. According to research we’ve seen, there’s usually a crossover point at about 35 mph, where below that point it’s better to stop, while above that speed, it’s better to steer.
In the Bentley’s case, the answer is always to stomp on the brake pedal as hard as you can, and then never let up for an instant while you steer for safety. In fact, the only trick required is to ensure that you hit the long-travel brake pedal first, so that there’s plenty of weight over the front tires to maximize tire grip and steering effectiveness. These brakes are built to take it, too, as Bentley’s engineers built them to deliver fifteen consecutive stops from 200 mph.
It’s pretty common in some circles to be skeptical about the contributions that stability control and other electronic driving aids make to the driving experience. If you’re after a smoky burnout in the parking lot, you’ll want to switch off the Bentley’s stability control every time. But the Bentley Driving Program proved to us that it is only the electronic safety net that makes it possible to drive a car like this at anything approaching its limit.
Derek Bell put it best while hurtling the Flying Spur around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s infield road-racing course. “When the stability control engages with this car, it’s so soft that you can barely feel it,” Bell says. “You can steer the car back and forth across the track, and it seems to have a magic amount of grip. It makes you feel like a better driver, and you’re not afraid of coming around a corner and finding water or gravel or an oncoming car.
“If I switch off the stability control, I’m probably faster around the track by about a second, but I can get in trouble if I have to steer away from the ideal racing line. You also have to ask yourself if you can drive as consistently when the traction aids are switched off. For most drivers, I’m sure the safer, faster way is to use the electronics to help you.”
It might seem unlikely that a turn at the wheel of a Bentley could lead to any particular insight about cars in general, but when you push the limits of physics with a 5456-pound, 551-horsepower car that will thunder to 195 mph, surprising things happen. And this capability is never far from your mind when you drive a Bentley, even while you’re wafting along freeways in Los Angeles, as we did for three days in a Continental Flying Spur a few weeks after the driving program.