The Escort darted off the line like Linford leaving the blocks, but about 100 times faster
Saturday 12 April 1997
The scene was glorious Goodwood. But if you think the horse-racing track is special, you should visit Goodwood House, where his Lordship the Earl of March and Kinrara (Charles March to his mates) lives. Even better, visit Goodwood House in mid-June, and you'll see a peculiarly British event: the Festival of Speed.
Last year almost 100,000 people turned up for the fun. It is the Royal Ascot of motoring, a magical mix of lovely cars and picnics in one of England's most beautiful corners. This year it'll be better than ever and, as if to prove it, the organisers put on a press day recently and invited various hacks and top racers along for some fun. The racers asked the hacks to sit shotgun as they stormed up the hill-climb course, as used in the festival.
That's how I came to be sitting next to Gwyndaf in the cramped, hot, spartan cabin of an Escort rally car, just returned from the East African Safari, welded inside the bucket-shaped passenger seat by a seat-belt that could hold down King Kong. It straps around your chest, your waist and your groin.
Once buckled in, you're stuck. Gwyndaf told me how he crashed in his last rally, the Welsh, before powering on to second place. He's a little, balding bloke, quietly spoken and unassuming. He was wearing his Nomex space suit. I was wearing a pair of chinos and a thick jacket that was all crunched up in the bucket seat, making me even more uncomfortable. Gwyndaf said this Escort has a turbo-charged 300bhp engine (not bad from two litres), seven speeds in its gearbox and four-wheel drive.
Ex-Fl driver Derek Bell had just stormed up the hill in an old Ferrari sports racing car, and some other guy, who was clearly nothing like as good as Bell or Gwyndaf, had just spun his old Lotus 72 Formula One car on the first corner. It was our turn, and I was thinking what a beautifully peaceful and tranquil place Goodwood is, just as it was time to go.
I have been driven in racing cars and rally cars before; I have driven racing cars myself, and I have even been up in a Red Arrows Hawk. But my ageing body has never, ever been abused and shocked so thoroughly as it was on that start.
The Escort just darted off the line like Linford leaving the blocks, but about 100 times faster. No dipping rear end, spinning the tyres or wagging the tail, as you normally experience from fast cars accelerating off the line. This car just went. Just like that. In an instant. Goodbye.
My body was there with Gwyndaf, my eyes were there in the Escort, but the rest of me was back there with the starter. Gwyndaf changed gears with little wrist flicks, and I reckon we were already in about sixth, and probably doing well over 120mph, when it was time to negotiate the first corner. Gwyndaf braked hard - hard and long enough for my viscera to catch up. And after that I was fine. He drove fast up the rest of the circuit, all right. We screamed past the stately portico of Goodwood House, and then left the open, elegant grounds and sped through a forest, familiar Gwyndaf territory, and through various fast and slow bends. But Gwyndaf so obviously knew what he was doing that the fear and fright were left behind. Where my stomach had once been.
Timing: 54.52 seconds. Fastest time of the day. Faster than all the old sports cars and old Fl cars and new supercars on hand to impress the press. What a victory! And all I had to do was sit there and enjoy it.
The Festival of Speed, at Goodwood House, takes place from 20 to 22 June. Gwyndaf Evans will drive on the special rally stage in his British championship-winning Escort.
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