SA Bentley man to hand in his wings
Mark Smyth spoke with South African Brian Gush ahead of his retirement after 20 years at Bentley
When you can say that the two main highlights of your career are winning Le Mans and handing over a state limousine to the Queen, you can safely say you’ve had a good innings. But South African Brian Gush has achieved a great deal more over his 32 years in the automotive industry.
His early career was with Volkswagen SA, but the big move came in 1999 when he moved to Bentley in the UK to become head of chassis and powertrain development. It was the early days of Volkswagen’s ownership of the luxury marque and Gush was instrumental in the reconfiguring of the brand.
He says he was allowed a considerable amount of freedom, enabling him and his colleagues to forge a new identity for Bentley after years of being understandably compared to its former sister company, Rolls-Royce. There was still some legacy work going on though and Gush was involved in the set-up of the Bentley Arnage, which used a BMW engine.
Then it all changed and along came the Continental GT, a car Gush was not only instrumental in developing but which he took racing in his additional role as director of motorsport, a position previously held only by the company’s founder WO Bentley.
Gush says that when he became solely director of motorsport in 2013, he faced a great deal of scepticism that the Continental GT could be turned into a race car. Then it took its first win at Silverstone in 2014, followed by another at the Paul Ricard circuit. The critics went quiet, even more so when Bentley won the Blancpain GT championship in 2015 against premium rivals like Audi, BMW, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
“We proved them all wrong and that was very satisfying,” he says proudly.
The GT3 went around the world as part of a grid of up to 72 cars. “Twelve manufacturers, all premium brands and you never know who’s going to win. Nothing in the world comes close,” he says.
Gush agrees with BMW Motorsport head Jens Marquardt who told Motor News recently that series like GT and DTM represent the purity of racing, but there are significant changes coming.
“New changes are exciting times,” says Gush. “As engineers we are excited.” He says the changes are likely to include a move to hybrid technology but as the organisers of the legendary Le Mans 24-hour race (ACO) implement plans to introduce a hydrogen category, Gush says it is also an opportunity.
“The ACO is pushing hydrogen and that’s a great way to go,” he says.
So does Bentley plan to return to Le Mans?
“If there’s a way, we’d certainly like to do it”.
Gush points to plans to introduce a hypercar category, which he describes as interesting, but adds that to enter the first season in 2020/2021 a manufacturer would need to have a hypercar already in production and Bentley doesn’t. The company is looking at the regulations but not surprisingly Gush would not be drawn on whether the brand is likely to join Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lotus and McLaren in the hypercar market any time soon.
Gush’s retirement on August 1 comes as a surprise to those who expected him to conclude his career when the GT series visits SA for the first time as the Kyalami 9-Hour in November 2019. A change in the calendar saw the event swap with the round at Laguna Seca in the US.
“It will be a proud moment,” says the South African. “I will struggle to stay away.”
Expect him to be there, checking in on one of his fellow South Africans, Bentley GT racing driver Jordan Pepper, who Gush says has fitted in really well with the car, the team and the brand.
Before then, Gush will say goodbye to the team he created at the 24 Hours of Spa in Belgium this weekend. It will be a fitting event as the company will also use it as part of its centenary celebrations.
What’s next for him then?
Not surprisingly, he says he is looking forward to having his weekends back but he has a lot to catch up on. He owns a 1966 Lotus Elan, which he has rebuilt, and is rebuilding a works Ford Escort Mark 1 rally car, which he plans to enter in hill climbs and other motorsport events with his wife Ginnie in the navigator’s seat. He also owns a number of classic motorbikes including a pre-1965 trials bike that he is working on.
It seems unlikely that Gush will be enjoying a quiet retirement, but for the man that took Bentley to its Le Mans win in 2003 and a GT championship title in 2015, that’s probably just the way he wants it.