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Stepping through the gate at the Goodwood Festival of Speed is like following Alice into Wonderland.
A three-day celebration of sports and high-performance autos held in parkland near England’s south coast, Goodwood is an automotive overload which floods the senses with the sights, sounds and smells from the glory days of motorsport and introduces the future, in the form of Britain’s biggest motor show.
Just over there, I can see Jackie Stewart and Emerson Fittipaldi – sharing a combined total of five Formula One world championships – having a quiet chat. A little later, Emmo is crying softly as he lowers himself into the Lotus 72 that carried him to his first grand prix crown.
A little further into the Festival, I spy a field of dream cars, including a priceless Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic from 1934 and a $50 million Ferrari 250 GTO. Actually, there are four GTOs here.
Then comes the unmistakable howl of a V8 F1 engine screaming at 13,000 revs on full noise, as Dan Ricciardo throws a racing Renault into action on the Goodwood hillclimb – the main, but far from only, focal point of this most unique event.
Every time it seems things cannot get better, they do. Even when a sunshiney Saturday turns to showers on Sunday, there are no complaints. As one superstar disappears, another arrives.
My visit to this year’s Festival is my fifth, and reinforces my belief that Goodwood is the best motoring event on the planet.
Monaco has glamour and celebrities, but getting anywhere near the Grand Prix action means having friends who are superstars or billionaires; Indianapolis has the biggest one-day attendance of any sporting even on the planet but is really just a race; while the Tokyo Motor Show is the best of a dying breed of old-school car displays.
At Goodwood, the cars move. Many of them really move.
And they cover everything from the earliest days of motoring – like the flame-spitting 108-year-old Fiat called the ‘Beast of Turin’ – to the future of motoring, the Volkswagen ID.R that rewrites the rules for battery-powered performance cars and also rewrites the long-standing hillclimb record.
At its simplest, Goodwood is a giant garden party hosted by the Duke of Richmond and Gordon.
It is run at the height of the English summer, when there is tennis at Wimbledon, horse racing at Royal Ascot, cricket at Lords, sunburn, succulent strawberries, buzzing honey bees, bright sunshine and surprising sun showers.
The Duke, or the Earl of March as he was at the time, first opened the gates to his estate in 1993 for a celebration of all things motoring. He thought it could be a tidy earner, and around 25,000 people came to see what it was all about.
In 2019, the Festival of Speed is sell-out event for more than 150,000 people – who pay a minimum of $50 for a day – that has also become Britain’s biggest new-car show. There are corporates in suits-and-ties at the invite-only enclosures with canapés and champagne, but also a huge throng of regular punters who wander wide-eyed through the event.
Everything pivots around the Duke’s driveway, which climbs from the front gate to the top of the estate in a narrow strip of bitumen that is outlined by the sort of stacked haybales which served as safety barriers in the 1950s.
The Festival runs with military precision through a series of ‘exercise’ events, when cars are driven up the hill in groups which recognise their shared history.
This year includes a very special display of Michael Schumacher’s race cars, staring with his first Formula Ford and including an F1 Benetton that is driven by his deadly rival from back-in-the-day, Damon Hill.
Old-timer cars chug and chunter past the crowds, modern racers scream and howl and slip and slide, and the very latest in road-going supercars are demonstrated for the punters, with well-padded wallets in the pockets of specially-selected passengers.
It takes time to get around the Goodwood estate, but it is worth a 10-kilometre hike to move from the historic displays, past the Grand Prix guest stars, through the motor show displays, and up to a specially-constructed rally stage where old and new cars drift through gravel bends.
Along the way you can dip into a $10 organic burger, or chat to the mechanic working on Peter Brock’s 1987 Bathurst-winning Commodore, or get an autograph from Aussie motorcycle world champion Mick Doohan.
Goodwood ticks every box for anyone with even the slightest interest in motoring, and its intimate formula bringing paying punters within touching distance of both cars and stars, is now being copied around the world. There is even talk of a Goodwood-style festival of speed at Bathurst in 2021.
How good is it, really? Even after five visits, it still sits at the top of my personal bucket list.
Plenty of other people must agree, because the Festival of Speed is already a sell-out for 2020.