Long before Formula One, NASCAR or the World Rally Championship were even conceived, motor racing was becoming a tradition in the hills of the United Kingdom and neighbouring France. Mountain roads offered a twisting test of skill for any driver and a well-defined finish line at the top of the hill. Thus, the hillclimb was born.
Today, the Goodwood Festival of Speed brings together hundreds of thousands of motorists for one of the best-known hillclimb events on the planet. The event’s host, Lord March, is the 11th Duke of Richmond, and the 11th of his line to preside at Goodwood House.
History will tell that the ninth duke was the first to hold a hillclimb on Goodwood grounds in 1936, but what Lord March has built in the aptly named Festival of Speed is above and beyond a simple motor race. It is a celebration of motor racing achievement, packed with nostalgia and the smell of racing fuel.
The Festival of Speed
Located in West Sussex, England, the historic Goodwood House has stood in some form since roughly 1570. The estate lands spread over nearly 12,000 acres, and its original purpose was to serve as a hunting lodge for the English gentry to take part in the most fashionable fox hunts of the day.
With so much land, you might be concerned about getting lost at the Festival of Speed, but all the main attractions are spread out in a fan-like arrangement with the magnificent Georgian manor at center. The 1.16-mile hillclimb course is located just outside of the manor grounds on a part of the estate called “the infield,” but the festival entails much more than just the hillclimb.
Spend the considerable money for a ticket to today’s Goodwood event, and you’ll experience what is arguably the single greatest car show on the planet. Goodwood is one of the few places on Earth where you can and will rub shoulders with racing greats like Jenson Button, Damon Hill, Bobby Rahal and Sir Stirling Moss.
Lord March takes pride in offering Goodwood attendees a glimpse of both cutting-edge and vintage racing machines. Fans can watch their favorite car in action tearing up the hill, and can also get up close and personal with a visit to the event’s main paddock. F1 machines, which are relegated to burnouts instead of timed racing for safety reasons, have their own dedicated paddock.
Over the years, the event has evolved to the three-day, 150,000-person jubilee it is today. Additional attractions have been added, like a special forest rally stage along with the moving motor show, which gives new supercar owners the opportunity to test their machines on the famed Goodwood hill.
Watchmaker Cartier hosts a formal concourse-style car show that stands up to the American Pebble Beach concourse, individual manufacturers showcase their latest and greatest — and there have even been sightings of vintage Royal Air Force planes on the grounds for good measure.
Goodwood’s Historic Moments
When you’re in the business of bringing together motor racing fans, the amazing machines and drivers take center stage. Every year, Goodwood plays host to elite members of the motor racing community and heralded racing machines, giving fans a chance to meet their heroes.
Because the rules can change in motor racing, there are a handful of records that will stand forever, nearly without question. One such record is the fastest hillclimb time at Goodwood. That honor goes to Nick Heidfeld, who accomplished the feat in 1999 in a McLaren MP4/13 F1 car (video below) . His time of 41.6 seconds is more than a full second faster than the next closest competitor. These days, F1 cars mostly do burnouts for the fans as a substitute for actual racing on the narrow, short course.
Goodwood brings together an unparalleled collection of cars from all over the planet. British Touring Car Champion Tim Harvey, winner of the 24 hours of Le Mans, offers the perfect example of this in the famous Hemi Under Glass and Sebastian Loeb’s Peugeot Rally Car — ironically built for the famous Pikes Peak race in the U.S.
Even after having the privilege to compete in the hillclimb event, Harvey recalls watching driver Bob Riggle take the Hemi up the famous Goodwood mile almost entirely on two wheels as one of his favorite moments. Loeb, handily one of the most talented rally drivers on the planet, followed it up with one of the all-time quickest runs up the storied hill.
Few names in motor racing carry more gravity than the late Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian F1 champion has been called the greatest ever, so in 2009, when Senna’s nephew Bruno took the wheel of the car his uncle used to win the 1988 world championship, it was a particularly sentimental moment for the crowd.
In 2013, World Touring Car Champion and former F1 driver Gabriele Tarquini gave the crowd a special treat by piloting a nearly 50-year old Honda RA272 Formula One car — complete with a wailing 1.5-liter V12 — for the hillclimb. Goodwood was virtually the only place fans could ever have the chance to see this magnificent beast at full gait before it returned to the climate-controlled recesses of a Honda museum.
For each one of these stories, there are dozens more that could only happen at Goodwood. We’ve mentioned a few famous names already. Indeed, the best part of the Goodwood festival often isn’t the what, but the who.
Celebrities and Heroes
Those who watched the first season of The Grand Tour might recall “The American” laying down his professional résumé hustling a NASCAR truck up the hillclimb (video below) at the 2017 event, but at Goodwood, it takes more star power than a failed attempt at replacing the Stig to make an impact. Sorry, Mike, you can sure as hell drive.
If you think winning a world championship in Formula One is impressive, try picking up a motorcycle and conquering the world on two wheels once you finish. That is precisely what John Surtees did, although not in that order. He was the 500cc motorcycle world champion in 1956, ’58, ’59 and ‘60, and went on to become F1 champ in 1964. Surtees contributed a run up the hill on a 1938 BMW motorcycle in 2016. Sadly, he passed away shortly thereafter.
Younger members of F1 royalty like Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton are, understandably, regulars at the event. British racing god Sir Stirling Moss consistently makes appearances, but sometimes those from outside of the racing world give us a little surprise.
For example, British rapper Dizzee Rascal joined the famous marque Morgan for the 2011 event, and for 2016 American actor Keanu Reeves rode a motorcycle he designed himself in the two-wheeled hillclimb competition. Whoa is right.
A Dangerous Game
Driver safety has come a long way since cars like those you can only see at Goodwood first turned a wheel in anger. But pushing these machines to the limit is inherently dangerous, and in Goodwood’s history, there have been more than a few crashes.
Most of the time, the only victims are hay bales. However, in the 2000 event, racing fans were shocked to witness a double fatality. John Dawson-Damer veered off course while piloting his 1969 Lotus 63, fatally striking marshal Andrew Carpenter and severely injuring another marshal, Steve Tarrant.
That there have been few other fatalities in the name of Goodwood festivities is a positive. There are, however, a few drivers who may have wished they were dead after careening into the barricades in priceless vintage race cars. In 2017, Pat Doran slid Ken Block’s favorite car, a low-production Ford RS200, into the hay.
During the 2015 event, fans indulged in a showing of the famous 787B Mazda racer that put rotary power on the map when it won the 24 hours of Le Mans. Examples of the car have sold for $1.75 million. This one was unquestionably less valuable after driver Seniji Hoshino careened into a pile of hay while behind the wheel (above).
Goodwood is a British event, and if there’s one thing the Brits know how to do, it’s make an entrance. The Jaguar XJ220 is perhaps the most iconic British supercar built to this day, and a regular at Goodwood for just that reason. In 2013, however, the 220’s lap included some extra flair as it briefly kissed a hay bale after swapping ends out of a tight right-hander. Tally ho, old chap!
An Automotive Institution
Pebble Beach may have the most spectacular collection of vintage cars, and Monte Carlo or Pikes Peak may be home to the hardest-fought racing on Earth, but no single event so thoroughly embodies the spirit of motor racing as Goodwood.
Whether you’ve only just begun to follow racing, appreciate the incredible workmanship of classic cars or are a veteran driver yourself, Goodwood is a bucket-list event that continues to improve every year. 2018 marks the gala’s 25th anniversary. Hope to see you there!