Last weekend’s Blancpain GT Series race at Silverstone marked the end of an era, with long-serving Bentley factory driver Guy Smith hanging up his helmet following his home event
Smith has had a long and illustrious career that stretches back to the early nineties and includes wins at some of the world’s most prestigious races. He has a superb record as a test and development driver, particularly with the Bentley brand, and is a popular figure in the paddock.
In 2014 he was a leading member of Bentley Team M-Sport’s new Blancpain GT Series programme. Driving the #7 car, he spearheaded development of the Continental GT3 and earned two wins during the brand’s first season of competition.
Silverstone was a fitting location for his final competitive outing: not only did he bow out at his and Bentley’s home circuit, but the Northamptonshire venue was the scene of Smith’s first Blancpain GT Series victory for the marque in 2014. In this respect, the journey had come full circle.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to end my career as a factory driver than Silverstone,” says Smith. “I had many races there throughout my career and to drive a Bentley at the home of the BRDC, of which I’m a member, was very special.”
Among his career highlights, Smith takes great pride in Bentley’s successful entry to the Blancpain GT Series, particularly the victory that he secured alongside Steven Kane and Andy Meyrick on home turf.
“I got a call from Bentley Motorsport in 2013 saying they were making a return to racing after many years out of the sport. They wanted to come back with the Continental GT3 and the Blancpain GT Series was the perfect place for that car.
“It was great to get on with testing and development. I had never driven a GT3 car before and I was amazed by how fantastic it was. Although they look like road cars, they actually perform like thoroughbred sports cars.”
The season began positively enough with a points-paying finish at Monza, but few would have predicted the success that was to follow at Silverstone.
“It was the first time Bentley had been back on British soil in many years and we were fortunate enough so score the first win for the Continental GT3,” Smith recalls. “It was an emotional day and certainly a highlight of my career.
“We then backed that up at the following race at Paul Ricard with another win. We were on a real roll. The car was competitive and we were enjoying the experience.”
Their title bid was derailed at the Total 24 Hours of Spa, where Belgian Audi Club Team WRT led at six hours, 12 hours and the chequered flag to score a significant points haul. Bentley had a more taxing time at the 24 Hours, which ultimately left them second in the end-of-season standings.
“It was a great first year for Bentley in the Blancpain GT Series and a great first year for me in GT racing,” says Smith. “2015 was a similar story. We didn’t quite get the wins or the headline results of 2014, but in this series it’s all about consistency: seconds, thirds, fourths, just scoring points whenever you can.
“So, although we didn’t win any races, we had many podiums and were fighting for the championship until the last race. Unfortunately, we fell short again by just a handful of points, but it was still a great season.
Despite the lack of wins, 2015 turned out to be an even narrower defeat for Bentley than the previous year, with just three points separating them from eventual champions Nissan. But for a few twists of fate, Smith and Bentley could well be two-time Blancpain GT Series champions.
As was the case in 2014, Bentley did not enjoy a strong result at the Total 24 Hours of Spa in 2015, with the #7 car retiring after 118 laps. Indeed, if Smith has one regret from his time in the Blancpain GT Series, it is that he never conquered the Belgian classic.
“As a sportscar driver, it’s one of those races that you really want on your CV.
“The conditions are always changing, because with the Belgian weather it can be raining on one side of the track and sunny on the other. The difference between night and day at Spa, the undulations of the track… it’s such a cool event and one that I’ll miss being a part of.”
Which begs the question: why did Smith hang up his helmet at Silverstone and not give the 24 Hours one final attempt before calling it a day?
“Spa is the pinnacle event of the Blancpain GT Series season and it’s a race that I would love to have won,” he says. “But I felt that I had a lot of things going on outside racing – whether it be business or family – and I didn’t have the energy or time to tackle it 100 percent this year.
“So I thought my home race was a good opportunity to step down and it gives Jordan [Pepper, his replacement in the #7 car] the chance to bond with the team at Paul Ricard and be well-prepared for the 24 Hours.”
As Smith mentions, his place will be taken by 21-year-old South African racer Jordan Pepper. With 23-year-old rising star Jules Gounon also part of the #7 crew, Steven Kane will be the sole remaining member of Bentley’s longstanding all-British trio.
“Steven and I have worked together on and off for the last eight years and become very good friends,” says Smith. “He’s a fantastic driver and I have a lot of respect for him.
“I think he’s probably disappointed that he’s now the oldest Bentley Boy! Seriously, he’s a fantastic teammate and he’ll be able to take on my role helping the younger drivers. And I won’t be far away, so I’m sure there’ll still be a lot of laughs to be had.”
Above all, Smith will retire from racing proud to have represented Bentley on the international stage for such a length of time.
“I’ve been with Bentley for almost 18 years now and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked with some fantastic drivers.
“As a Bentley Boy, there’s a real honour about being part of the brand's history. It’s just that little bit different to most other companies and I am very lucky to be a small part of that history.”
And, while he may be stepping away from his duties as a factory driver, Smith plans to remain closely linked to the brand.
“I’d like to continue to offer some of my experience,” he says. “I’d like to work with the drivers and the team to make sure we’re getting the best out of ourselves. In my ambassadorial role, I’ll be at the 24 Hours of Spa, Goodwood Festival of Speed, and other events like that.”
In fact, he’ll be at the next Blancpain GT Series event at Paul Ricard. Though his factory racing career may have come to a close, it will not be easy to keep Guy Smith away from the track.
“Being a racing driver is a fantastic job and it’s been a real privilege,” he says.
“It’s all part of the cycle. As I’m getting older, I’ve got more demands on my time and it’s a job you have to give everything to. These young guys racing in the Blancpain GT Series, I can see the hunger in their eyes. They’re the future.”