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That racer's a Bentley, by Jove

The sleek curves, the British racing-green paint, the Union Jack decals _ the combination is unmistakably Bentley.

And it's back.

Bentley will compete on American soil for the first time in 81 years with two Speed 8 prototype sports cars entered in Saturday's 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race.

The British car manufacturer's goal is to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world-famous race held each June in the French city of the same name. The 51st annual Sebring event, the season opener for the American Le Mans Series, is a perfect chance to prepare.

"Just as important as the possibility of winning is the invaluable practice we will get for our ultimate goal this year _ winning Le Mans," said Brian Gush, Bentley's director of motorsport. "History has shown that a team that does well in Sebring stands a very good chance at Le Mans."

After an absence from racing of 71 years, Bentley returned to the 2001 Le Mans and finished third. Last year it was fourth. This year the manufacturer is putting more money and effort into the program with the intention of winning Le Mans.

Sebring is part of the plan.

"Sebring is a great place to come test the machine out and get everyone working together," said driver David Brabham, who joined the Bentley team this year after six years with Panoz Motorsports and ALMS founder Don Panoz.

"Sebring is a pretty tough track. It's renowned for bumps, very hard on machinery and drivers. The way it pounds you to death, 12 hours around Sebring is a bit like 24 hours around Le Mans."

Bentley will field two cars, the No. 8 piloted by former Formula 1 drivers Johnny Herbert and Mark Blundell of England and Brabham of Australia. Herbert was a three-time F1 winner before retiring from the series two years ago, and Brabham is a seven-time ALMS winner.

The other Bentley car _ the No. 7 that paced Wednesday's first official practice session at Sebring with a 3.7-mile lap of 1:49.980 _ is driven by defending ALMS champion Tom Kristensen of Denmark, Rinaldo Capello of Italy and Guy Smith of England.

Kristensen and Capello are two-time Sebring winners, and Kristensen is a four-time Le Mans winner, including the past three driving for Audi.

Herbert put the No. 8 car on the pole, turning the fastest lap of Thursday's 25-minute qualifying session at 123.210 mph. Capello in the No. 7 was second at 123.186 mph.

"The team is very, very happy with the car," said Capello, a member of last year's winning Audi team. "But we'll have to see how it handles in the race with full fuel."

No other car reached 123 mph in qualifying, so Bentley is off to a good start. After the race, the Bentley teams will remain at the track for test sessions Monday and Tuesday.

"This year there is a much bigger effort behind the program," Brabham said. "They will be the cars to beat. People would definitely be disappointed if it didn't win."

The last time a factory-backed Bentley entered a race in the United States was the 1922 Indianapolis 500. But Brabham said fans will have no trouble picking the car out on Sebring's circuit. The Bentley is the only entry in the premier LMP900 division with a closed roof. All others are open-cockpit.

"It's a pretty stunning looking car," Brabham said. "It will stand out beautifully."

FAN FRIENDLY: Fans will notice cars are equipped with lights attached to the sides, part of a new system the ALMS organization developed to help people keep track of the action.

The lights will indicate first-, second- and third-place cars in each class _ one lit for first, two for second and three for third.

MORE QUALIFYING: The Audi team that won last year's race has a new lineup _ Frank Biela and Marco Werner of Germany and Phillip Peter of Austria _ but plans to remain a contender after qualifying third at 122.397 mph.

"I'm content because we are the fastest Audi," said Biela, who turned the fast lap. "We are very close to Bentley, have a lot of experience at Sebring and a very good setup."

ALMS CLASSES

LMP900: Premier, high-tech class featuring exotic purpose-built racing machines _ Audi, Panoz, Riley & Scott, Dallara, Lister, Lola and Bentley.

LMP675: Smaller, less powerful prototypes similar to LMP900 cars, but intended for longer races _ MG Lola, Pilbeam, WR, Reynard and Lola Millington.

GTS: Production-based, two-wheel-drive cars that are highly modified _ Corvette, Saleen, Viper, Ferrari and Pagani Zonda.

GT: Production-based cars modified only slightly _ Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette, Spyker and Morgan.

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