Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Goodwood Festival of Speed

What on earth to make of the Goodwood Festival of Speed? Thanks to a work colleague who had a spare ticket that he was willing to part with, and to Goodwood’s policy that 12-year-olds could get in for free, I went along for my first-ever proper Festival of Speed on Saturday. I use the word ‘proper’ as I had visited the “Moving Motor Show” in 2012, but this was my first time at the Festival of Speed itself. I had been to the Revival Meeting in 2003, and had really enjoyed it – it is a race meeting, after all – but the Festival had never quite held the same appeal for me.

My son Robin was in his element though. From the moment we parked up in the car park, and a McLaren MP4 12-C drew up alongside us, until we spotted an Austin Healey 3000 in the same car park on our way back to the car some nine hours later, Robin delighted himself, getting up close to some true motoring icons.

For a young, impressionable Top Gear Magazine reader like Robin, there was something to see at every corner, but for me, somehow the event failed to hold me in the same thrall. The Festival of Speed is, as someone said to me, a big garden party. It unquestionably attracts some extremely well-heeled folk, for whom perhaps the British Grand Prix has fallen out of favour, but for whom the social ‘see and be seen’ events at Wimbledon, Henley and Glyndebourne are opportunities to parade the latest addition to their wardrobe, jewellery box, garage or (dare I say it?) bedroom. And like all good garden parties, you invite some ‘ordinary people’ as well, in order to gain credibility in the eyes of the public.

But this is too cynical a view. Especially as the over-riding feeling at Goodwood is one of naïve enthusiasm, where the commercial and political realities of modern motorsport are far from evident. Gathering together winners from F1, WEC, WRC, BTCC, Moto GP and other disciplines beyond my ken, means that there is indeed something for everyone; and the wealth of manufacturer stands presenting their message, gives even more breadth to the appeal of the event. A Festival indeed.

It may be that the very breadth is what makes me feel uncomfortable at Goodwood. At Le Mans, there is a certain security in the knowledge that my fellow-spectator knows about the WM-Peugeot, about Jean Rondeau and about Jaguar’s and Bentley’s heritage. But at Goodwood, there is the Sin R1 and the Peugeot Onyx, about which I know nothing, and there is a song and a dance about Peter Fonda and Captain America. And the fact that Spana and Tauro make road cars has somehow passed me by. I know about the 250 GTO’s racing heritage, but what is a 599 GTO? Am I alone here in feeling somehow overwhelmed by it all? I did take some recompense at Robin’s joy at seeing a real Ferrari F40, though.

I found the whole affair somewhat unstructured: we never quite knew what was happening or where we were supposed to be. It was unfortunate that the Vulcan bomber display coincided with the action on the track before us, although there had been nothing going on for the previous hour. Maybe I should have been listening to the commentary more closely on the radio – quite how that could be described as “free”, when the event programme cost £15, was something of a mystery. The raceday programme at Le Mans was a mere five euros. At least the queues for hamburgers and ice cream were pleasantly manageable.

The ‘festival’ mentality was carried over into the lack of structure of the event. The fact that one would suddenly ‘happen upon’ something or someone of note – for example Lord March himself strolling through the crowd trying (and failing) to look inconspicuous, or Andy Wallace on his way from A to B, or Derek Bell on his way back, was kind of nice, but if there was something you particularly wanted to see, then it was rather random whether you would succeed or not. You always had the impression that by doing this, here, now, you were missing something else happening somewhere else.

The activity on the hill was similarly haphazard. Some runs were competitive, being against the clock; but most were merely demonstration runs. With the track being so narrow, and run-off areas non-existent, you couldn’t doubt the wisdom of this approach, but it meant that watching the action on the track was as much of a lottery as the goings-on in the paddock. And again, this may be as much a reflection on my approach as on the event, but I found the “blink and you’ve missed it” nature of the runs up the hill annoying as well. Driver interviews, when they were out of the car at the top of the hill, were sometimes live, and sometimes delayed; the pictures on the screen, similarly were sometimes of live action and sometimes repeats. If you’re only looking occasionally at the big screen, you’re not in a position to follow a narrative flow of pictures.

This sounds far too negative; you’d think I hadn’t enjoyed my day. Wrong; I had a really good time, and I am so glad I went. Many of my gripes are because I didn’t have a proper strategy for the event: I just turned up and followed my nose (or Robin’s). Maybe I needed to be a VIP or have a proper guide, telling me where to go and what to do next.

Or maybe it’s because the pleasure is in just being there. History is not made at the Goodwood Festival, but it is celebrated. And for that, you need to approach the event in a different frame of mind. I’ll know next time!

(All photos: Robin Truswell)


  1. Hi Paul, I’m really glad you and Robin enjoyed going along – past festivals have given me the rare chance to spend a full day with my dad. Although curiosity triggered my visit to the first festival, the celebration of the history of the sport – and increasingly the celebration of the sport more widely – has kept me returning. Initially the highlight was the opportunity to experience things I’d only previously read about in evocative magazine articles: the sound of a Honda 6 cylinder 250 or an MV Augusta 500; the “tearing calico” noise of a BRMV16; the “boot-polish smell” of the fuel in a 30’s Silver Arrow; and so on. The ability to see machines designed for speed actually moving (albeit nowhere near their capability) rather than as static museum exhibits has an attraction for me – for example I’d seen the Napier Railton at Brooklands Museum, but it looks fantastic moving in the sunlight and the 1967 Eagle Weslake is truly gorgeous in the flesh (metal?). I’ve also relived some of my personal spectating history from the late 70’s onwards of Superbikes and GP bikes, F1 and Le Mans, but I think if the event had remained only as a retrospective event focussed on these disciplines it would have had limited appeal, so I appreciate the organising team’s efforts at expanding the scope and I usually see something I’d not seen before. I’m not sure every attempt works - picking up on your peter fonda comment, Easy Rider isn’t iconic to everyone – but things such as Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Vaughn climbing out of their custom cars with guitars and blasting out Foxy Lady had a certain appeal! With experience, I have tended to build a schedule to work out which batches we really want to see run up the hill, but the air display nearly always clashes with something! Your comment on the “see and be seen” nature of the event resonates as the hospitality element seems to have grown and I did see a lot of people happy to sit near the champagne bars and only really pay attention to the action when it was the contemporary F1 cars, but everyone seemed happy (and not necessarily just because of the champagne and salmon!).
    By the way, a couple of the themed Breakfast Club Sundays at the circuit might appeal to Robin.
    Best regards.

  2. Thank for your comments, Martin. Although I never saw the Napier Railton in period, I did have the good fortune to see Dan Gurney's Eagle winning the first race I ever saw!

    Your absolutely right, of course, cars in museums are all very well, but the first hand sights, sounds and smells of real cars cannot be beaten. Which is why, although it's good to see the cars on the big screens, I'd rather see them for real.

    Hopefully in thirty years time, Robin will take me back again, and we'll be able to go all misty eyed about the petrol and diesel-guzzling cars that used to go racing before it was all banned!