Goodwood festival of speed: Gentlemen, start your engines

Petrolheads and posh types love this annual automotive jamboree in June. Guy Adams reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The English aristocracy loves fast cars. They're in its DNA, along with horses, bad haircuts and surnames that imply ownership of half a county. That's why Mr Toad, a copper-bottomed toff's toff down to his leather goggles, boasts the cheery catchphrase: "Toot toot!"

In 1993, the Earl of March decided to do his bit for posh petrolheads by hosting a vintage car rally at his home near Chichester. It was supposed to be a small gathering of oily enthusiasts; instead, a crowd of 30,000 turned up.

Today, the Goodwood Festival of Speed has grown and grown to become a minor phenomenon. It's now one of the biggest car events in Europe, drawing 150,000 smartly dressed visitors each June to a hill-climb course up Milord March's drive, in parkland next to the South Downs.

The idea is for punters to see a unique array of iconic vintage cars (and iconic vintage drivers) being tested to the limit and polished in the sunshine amid the convivial atmosphere of a midsummer garden party.

There are cocktails, smart lunches and a hundred and one exhibitions, rides and chances to gawp at well-heeled socialites and minor celebrities. In fact, the festival has become part of the so-called Season, a sort of automotive version of Ascot or Wimbledon.

So, off to Sussex for a preview of this year's event. It will be an improved version of previous jamborees: a bigger, better and (claims the Earl) downright nicer way to inhale burning rubber on a sunny afternoon. So, strictly in the interests of research, my visit involved a white-knuckle ride up the 1.16-mile track lined with hay-bales. My chariot was a sporty Chevrolet that boasts the power of 500 horses and raced in US Nascar in the 1970s.

Like most festival exhibits, the Chevvy has a fascinating history. Now owned by EDB Racing - a firm set up by the Vision Express squillionaire Dean Butler to service his fleet of classic motors - its glory days saw it piloted by Graham Hill. It behaved like a Texan oil baron: noisy, loud, showy and overbearing.

In June, plenty of other automotive eye candy will be competing for visitors' attention. This year, they'll be able to get within spitting distance of 60 years' worth of rare Ferraris, and a century of original Isle of Man TT bikes. The jewel in the crown, though, will be the presence of no fewer than four 1920s Bugatti Royales (only six were built) for Cartier's Style et Luxe design competition. These rare, opulent machines are renowned; the last example to sell at auction (in 1987) fetched $8.7m, making it the most expensive car ever.

Apart from machines, festival-goers will spot the likes of Jenson Button, Colin McRae, Damon Hill, Stirling Moss, John Surtees and Riccardo Patrese in action, plus keen amateurs such as Rowan Atkinson, Nick Mason and Jay Kay.

Lord March recently built a rally course, tested at the festival launch by McRae. "There's tricky narrow bits, trees and winding roads," he said. "It gives me the perfect opportunity to give people an insight into what my sport is all about."

For a change of pace, a selection of Formula One drivers have agreed to take part in a cycle race up and down the daunting hill.

The Gatsby-esque Lord March ("LM" to his staff) describes his mission as making people "come here and think 'Wow!' and feel almost overloaded. It's like a huge garden party. Whether you're a sponsor, or you've paid 20 quid to look round, I want to make it, without sounding naff, a shared experience."

The real draw of the Goodwood festival, though, was neatly summed up by Damon Hill: in a sport hedged about by security cordons and awash in sponsors and exclusivity, he told me, the festival provides an opportunity to see the men and machines close up.

"We can learn a lot about the way we run motor sport from this event. I don't want to knock Formula One, but it's a sport with a great emphasis on preserving rarity. And I wonder if the true fans are not being pushed out to the fringes. Here at the festival, they can always find the true essence of motor sport."

As the fans might say: "Toot toot!"

Goodwood Festival of Speed, 22 to 24 June ( www.goodwood.co.uk)

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