Nico Rosberg greets fansat the Goodwood Festival of Speed
From retro thrills to multi-million euro F1 cars, the Goodwood Festival of Speed can provoke a full-on sensory explosion. Ruraidh Conlon O’Reilly reports from the world’s greatest car show.
Glastonbury for cars. A motorsport Mecca. Glorious Goodwood. Spend any time entertaining dreams of fast cars and things get whittled down to only a handful of locations. The Monaco Grand Prix, Indy 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours have been there for decades now, and rightly so. But in more recent times there has been an addition to any self-respecting petrolhead’s bucket list: a relatively new institution known as the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Just as the Festival of Speed itself takes us back in time, to understand the place properly a bit of history helps. After World War II the Goodwood Circuit near Chichester in Sussex, in the the south of England, arose out of RAF Westhampnett airfield – much like the more famous Silverstone circuit’s origins. Throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s, so often regarded as the golden era of motorsport, it was a much-loved fixture for sportscar and non-championship Formula 1 racing. Its open curves, high-speed straights and casual approach to safety ended Stirling Moss’s career and killed Bruce McLaren, and it closed for racing in 1966.
Fast forward to 1993 and the young Lord March of Goodwood House wanted to revive racing at the circuit, but pragmatism saw him opt for a hillclimb on his estate for the time being. It’s hard to imagine that he, or any of the enthusiasts responsible, could have predicted that the Goodwood Festival of Speed would come to dominate the motoring calendar like it does today. Circuit racing returned at Goodwood five years later: as charming and entertaining as September’s vintage-clothes-only Goodwood Revival is for diehards, the Festival of Speed is an international phenomenon.
THE CHEQUERED FLAG
The crowds have mushroomed into six figures, the branding and corporate partnerships have assumed a more central role, but the template remains the same: cars of all shapes and sizes start off at the bottom of a hill, navigate slippery estate roads lined with trees and bales of hay, and a mile later they arrive at the top and the chequered flag.
The Festival of Speed is an international phenomenon
For some cars, the priceless ones, it’s a moment in the sun; a lap of honour. For Nick Heidfeld in a McLaren in 1999 it was cause to floor the throttle so uncompromisingly that F1 cars are no longer timed, but for other categories the competition element thrillingly remains. This year a bespoke, and insane, Subaru Impreza ‘Gobstopper’ somehow prevailed over a McLaren P1 LM.
Laps of honour are not to be sniffed at. Irish interest perhaps peaked when Eddie Jordan and his designer Gary Anderson took the Jordan 191 and 197 carefully up the hill a few years ago. The festival’s newfound importance makes current-day F1 teams come out in force, and Goodwood is scheduled on an off-weekend for the F1 circus. This year seven of the current 11 outfits dispatched their valuable creations up the hill, most of them rather gingerly.
A few hundred cars tearing up a hill is just one part of the fun, though: this weekend Goodwood is an endless sprawl of tented garages, displays, stalls and punters. There’s no other place on earth that allows an enthusiast to get so close to cutting-edge machinery and multi-million euro vintage cars alike. The paddock is chaos.
This is key to the charm: onlookers mingle with drivers in an environment far removed from today’s sterile F1 compound of featureless buildings, access passes and private security. This year frontrunner Nico Rosberg, the ever-present Stirling Moss and former champ Jenson Button were perhaps the headliners, Rosberg obligingly donutting his Mercedes in front of the packed grandstands.
Meanwhile, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason took the wheel of an ancient (and supremely expensive) Auto Union and former F1 star-turned-Paralympic-gold-medalist Alex Zanardi received a hero’s welcome in his specially adapted BMW. Keanu Reeves is here. That’s real mud underfoot – maybe the Glastonbury comparison isn’t so wide of the mark after all – and in the paddock hordes ogle over cars once driven by Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Alain Prost, James Hunt, Graham Hill and Ayrton Senna.
Somehow, that isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea. Towards the north of the site there’s a forest rally stage, and the WRC Polo and Group B cars cater for those who like their cars pointing sideways. Long queues form outside the Land Rover stand, where punters are driven up and down dizzying hydraulically operated hazards. Jaguar’s stunt drivers, meanwhile, donut around the place all day in F-Types whose passengers look like they’re going to lose their lunch. Even more extreme are the drift cars, whose drivers seem to prefer Monster energy drinks instead of the champagne on sale down the posher end of the venue. Irish drifter Derek ‘Buttsy’ Buttler and his specially adapted Sauber F1 car drive like they have a vendetta against tyre rubber.
Speaking of Irish interest, a Mondello Park banner is to be found among Bernie Ecclestone’s phalanx of ‘80s Brabham BMW F1 cars: the 1986 Benetton BMW is over from the Kildare circuit’s museum. This year the Munich marque is celebrated at the Festival of Speed, and as a result three of its cars are suspended atop a jaw-dropping, gravity-defying sculpture in front of Goodwood House.
Timed competition, high-speed thrills and motorsport memories perhaps catch the headlines most, but road cars are at the centre of things too. It’s become a very busy weekend for the major manufacturers, an occasion for press launches and first appearances on the hill. There’s a dedicated paddock where punters can peruse cars yet to hit the showrooms, around 30 of which are making their debut. Pride of place year was the brand new Bugatti Chiron, which makes the Veyron look a little humdrum as the latter can only do 253mph.
That’s real mud underfoot – maybe the Glastonbury comparison isn’t so wide of the mark after all – and in the paddock hordes ogle over cars once driven by Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, Alain Prost, James Hunt, Graham Hill and Ayrton Senna
Two-wheel varieties get a look-in too. Stunt-riders supply some of the best entertainment of the weekend, their balancing antics making one wonder just how and where they get to practise their art in the first place. An array of ludicrous machinery bombs up the hill and poses in the paddock, from today’s cutting-edge Ducatis right back in time to MV Agustas and Triumphs.
But for all the nostalgic fun, the moment of the weekend was provided by something far more recent. Perhaps the most warmly received car was the Brawn BGP 001, driven by Sky F1 commentator Martin Brundle. F1 technical guru Ross Brawn cobbled together the team’s 2009 season against all the odds after Honda pulled out, and the nearly sponsor-less squad won a shock world championship with Jenson Button at the wheel. In storage in Brawn’s garage since then, the car hadn’t turned a wheel since its victory – and to see and hear it tackling the hill is the kind of magic that makes the Goodwood Festival of Speed such a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Until next year, that is.
PICKS OF THE PACK
Under wraps since the Leicester City of Formula 1 won the title in 2009.
Porsche 919 Hybrid
Fresh from winning this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours in the final three minutes.
Built in 1911, has a 28.5-litre engine. Wonder why they call it The Beast of Turin.
The ‘Senna’ decal on the airbox tells its own story.
Will send grown men back to their Scalextric sets.
Mercedes W25 Avus Streamliner
The future, as viewed from 1936.
GOODWOOD FESTIVAL OF SPEED: TOP TIPS
Book your accommodation early – very early
Hotels in the locality sell out rapidly; miss out and you may find yourself resorting to options further afield such as Brighton. Camping may be an option.
Gatwick is your best bet from Ireland, and a hired car makes the journey very simple. South-east England has plenty of attractions if you want to make a weekend of it, or venture into London. Drive via Holyhead or Fishguard for a good old motoring holiday.
Arrive early and well-provisioned
Gates open first thing and traffic is heavy, so prepare for a frantic day of activity. It’s almost impossible to take everything in in one day – if at all possible, give yourself two. A programme, schedule and entries list are essential. A picnic is nice, and prepare for all weather conditions.
Bring a camera and big memory card
A DSLR, a good lens and a clear vantage point will deliver a glorious album of the world’s finest cars – but be prepared for the odd close-up or selfie with drivers mingling in the paddock too.