You smelt them, it was said of the Mongol hordes, before you heard them, and by the time you heard them it was too late. At the Goodwood Festival of Speed it’s the other way round: you hear the intoxicating yowl of high-revving engines before you’re close enough to smell the heady mixture of high-octane, burnt oil and hot rubber. But by then it’s too late — next year you’ll be back for more.
Goodwood is motoring’s Glyndebourne, glamorous, smart and bucolic with the South Downs as backdrop and its origins in aristocratic hedonism. On Revival days you wear period costumes to go with your car, assuming you can find a hat to match a 1934 Hispano-Suiza and have worked out how to exit elegantly from a 1929 Blower Bentley.
At this year’s 26–29 June Festival of Speed, however, the big theme is Mercedes as the company celebrates 120 years in motorsport with a fleet of centurion racers and those gleaming, all-conquering, breathtaking 1930s Silver Arrows. Not to mention guest appearances by the Mercedes F1 team, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, an attempt on the 1999 hill-climb record by Sebastien Loeb and the chance to rub shoulders (or wheel-hubs) with the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi, Mark Webber and Tom Kristensen, most successful Le Mans driver ever. They’re also running the monster Fiat S76, the first time the 28.5 litre beast has been allowed out in a century.
Whether you’re there as a petrolhead or hanger-on, whether you’re watching from behind the trackside straw bales, flirting on the forecourt of Lord March’s house or surfing the car park for interesting specimens, you can’t but enjoy the democratic hedonism of Goodwood. As with Ascot, Aintree or Cheltenham, you get all sorts, yet all are united by a common pleasure, a common aspiration making for an informed, good-natured freemasonry. It’s a celebration of the 20th century on wheels, a century which may yet turn out to have been unique in its achievement of accessible independent mobility for millions.
The Festival of Speed was started by Goodwood’s owner, Lord March, in 1993. He wanted to reintroduce motor racing to the Goodwood circuit which his seat adjoins, but the track didn’t meet modern regulations. Undaunted, he looked elsewhere on his land and classed his plans as a hill climb, not a race. It was a success right away, leaving the start line as rapidly as will the 1974 McLaren M23 this year, or the Honda NSX prototype hybrid supercar. Spectator numbers are now capped at 150,000.
Set near Chichester between the Downs and the sea, with its own airfield and with BMW’s ultra-modern, eco-friendly, grass-roofed Rolls-Royce factory nearby, Lord March’s enterprise now seems such an obvious winner that — as with many good ideas — you can’t see why it wasn’t always done. But just as his blend of ancient and modern in a rural setting and the celebratory nature of the event were innovations then, so now they’re part of every Good Times calendar. There’s nothing else like Goodwood.