Motor racing: Festival party has right spirit

David Tremayne studies an event which evokes boyhood dreams
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The Independent Online
LAST YEAR, racing drivers at the Festival of Speed amused themselves completing a jigsaw left out for them by their hosts, Lord and Lady March. Eventually, it was finished, bar one piece. Enter the 1978 world champion Mario Andretti, who calmly produced it from his pocket, with the remark: "I guess that means I win."

Goodwood is as much about the social side as it is the action up the hill outside his Lordship's stately pile. This is where the man in the street gets a unique opportunity to rub shoulders with the stars, unhindered by the chickenwire fences that have become so familiar at Formula One stalags.

The entry reads like a Who's Who of motorsport, with Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks, Emerson Fittipaldi, John Surtees, Rubens Barrichello. And a lexicon of marques: Lotus, Ferrari, Cooper, Vanwall. But this year add an impressive phalanx of Honda cars and motorcycles hot from Japan, and American marques such as Howmet, Cadillac and Kurtis, and you have the full international flavour of an event even more popular than the British Grand Prix.

The hill is a tarmac tightrope. "It's incredibly narrow, bumpy and intimidating in an F1 car!" admits the course record holder Jonathan Palmer, who this year drives a McLaren-Honda. "The challenge is the surface; you forget just how smooth a GP circuit is. Here you have to cope with the effect of the camber and the bumps. The car darts around all over the place. A lot depends on how much aerodynamic grip you've got and how much tyre grip. They can vary a great deal, especially as you don't really go fast enough to create much downforce.

"You've got no time to warm the tyres or the brakes, so in the first corner you have to guess how much grip you've got. The second is relatively quick, and with cars this wide you can't get very sideways otherwise you've got a wheel on the grass. As soon as you get that, it's looking like history very quickly.

"Going flat out in any of the corners is very difficult, because if you get out of shape you've got very little chance of correcting it. There's a tight left-hander which is very tricky, because the corner is over a dip. There's no margin for any recovery when you've got 700 horsepower on tap.

"It's pretty impressive. Then there's a section where you've got a 10- foot high flint wall staring you in the face, which is quite intimidating when you're driving half a million pounds worth of car. It's meant to be fun, but your reputation is on the line. You don't want to jeopardise future opportunities by doing something silly. It's like balancing on a knife edge."

The Swiss former F1 racer Marc Surer, a past record holder, loves the place. "You maybe haven't driven your car for years, but the strange thing is the feeling comes back immediately. Some sort of programme is still in your head. You just do a few metres and you remember immediately. It's challenging going up the hill and you have mixed thoughts then, because it feels bloody dangerous. But it also feels just wonderful to get the old feelings back, to meet old friends."

Every self-respecting driver wants to be invited to the Festival of Speed. This year American legends Rick Mears, Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward and Johnny Rutherford appear for the first time. "The whole ethos behind it is very different to the motorsport I'm used to," said the former Le Mans winner Allan McNish. "This is what it should be about, the passion and the cars, and the fact that you can see drivers. I've spoken to more in an hour today than I did the whole of last weekend at Le Mans. Everybody is so relaxed. The accessibility of cars and drivers allows people to come and be enthusiastic. It's like a great big party, with a definite touch of class."

Imagine a grand prix where you were welcomed with open arms, running alongside a garden party in the rolling Sussex downs, with Le Mans, Indianapolis and the RAC Rally all thrown in. Then wrap it all in the dreams and passions of your childhood. Well, you get the picture. No other event in the motorsport calendar evokes the emotions of the Festival of Speed.