Belfast Telegraph

Bentley Boy Kane brings the thunder to epic Spa

 

Winner again: Steven Kane with teammates Jordan Pepper (left) and Jules Gounon in France
Winner again: Steven Kane with teammates Jordan Pepper (left) and Jules Gounon in France

By Sammy Hamill

Bring the Thunder is the hashtag of the Bentley racing team, but with Europe basking in a heatwave, Steven Kane is unlikely to encounter any thunderous downpours as he prepares for the biggest GT race of the year, the 24 Hours of Spa.

This weekend the Belgian circuit hosts the most important round of the Blancpain European Endurance Championship and the International (World) GT Open, and Kane is one of three Ulster drivers taking part for iconic British manufacturers Bentley and Aston Martin.

Andrew Watson and Charlie Eastwood, who will drive for the Garage 59 and TF Sports Aston Martin teams respectively, are just at the start of their careers, but Kane, now 39, has been racing - and winning - for the best part of two decades.

Originally a single-seater racer with Formula One ambitions, especially after collecting the prestigious accolade of Autosport Young Driver of the Year and a test with McLaren back in 2001, Co Down born Kane never made it onto the grand prix stage, a victim like others before him of the absence of serious financial backing and influential contacts.

But Kane takes great pride in having been able to build a successful professional career which has seem him win in a huge variety of cars, from Formula Three to Porsche Carreras to BMW touring cars to American prototypes.

Now he is the anchor man of the Bentley team, a role he has held for the past six years, and starts the Spa race on the back of his latest Blancpain European victory alongside young co-drivers Jules Gounon and Jordan Pepper at Paul Ricard in France last month.

It was the first victory for the new Bentley Continental GT3, which is built and run by the M Sport organisation, more widely known for their successes in the World Rally Championship, and Kane says it was a relief to get the first win under their belts after difficult season in 2018.

"We were developing the car while we were racing and, unsurprisingly, we struggled at times, even though we came within a lap of winning in France last year," says Kane. "I hadn't won since 2015 and it was such a relief to come out on top after six very tense hours at Paul Ricard last month."

Not only has the car changed in the past year but so have his team-mates, Frenchman Gounon and American Pepper, two young chargers who he says keeps him on his toes.

"They are not only fast but they have the ability to look after the car which is critical in endurance racing," he says.

Having spent the best part of the last 20 years living in England, Kane is back home living near Newcastle with his partner Anna and his young daughters Annabelle (6) and Phoebe (5).

"We couldn't be happier being back in Co Down where I grew up. Who couldn't be happy with the Mournes as a backdrop? If only it didn't rain so much!

"I've been very lucky. I didn't make it to F1, few do, but I've been able to make a career out of doing what I love and have raced all over the world with some success.

"Now I'm driving for a famous manufacturer like Bentley and living back home with my lovely family. I couldn't be happier."

He would, of course, be even happier if he could win at Spa in Bentley's centenary year, but is more aware than most it will be a tall order.

"There is a huge field, over 70 cars, representing all the top manufacturers from Ferrari to Mercedes and, like everyone else in a 24 hour race, we are going to need luck to be on our side," he says.

"It is going to be boiling hot and Spa is a very demanding circuit anyway. We have a tumble dryer in the pits and it is going to be working overtime drying out our racing suits between stints.

"After a debrief with my engineer, outlining any issues with the car and a massage from our physio, I try to sleep between my two-to-three hour stints in the car but rarely manage it because the adrenalin levels are still high."

It will be the same for Watson and Eastwood, who are climbing the racing ladder as official Aston Martin junior drivers.

"It is great to have Andrew and Charlie on the grid and remarkable that a wee country like ours has three drivers racing at this level for major manufacturers," adds Kane.

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