The starting line is just ahead of us, and the guy behind the wheel of this 650-horsepower muscle car is showing off for the crowd. We're spinning the tires, doing burnout after burnout. Ostensibly it's warming them for a quick blast up the 1.16-mile hillclimb, but really it's to show off. This is what the Goodwood Festival of Speed is about.
It's glorious. And I think I can safely say that the this event, held every year in the south of England, is the greatest car show in the world. I've been to a lot of car shows, and none of them are like this.
In the early '90s, Lord March wanted to bring motor racing back to his family's Goodwood estate, which included a motor racing circuit dating back to the 1940s. In spite of his best efforts, he was unable to begin racing at the Goodwood Circuit, which had been dormant for nearly 30 years, because of local opposition. Undeterred, Lord March decided to hold a race up his driveway — a 9-turn strip of tarmac running uphill for just over a mile. That first year was a smallish affair, attracting a handful of classic cars and a modest crowd. These days, nearly every automaker shows up — some erecting enormous temporary buildings to showcase their wares — and attendance is capped at 150,000 over three days to avoid overcrowding.
The center of it all is the hillclimb up Lord March's driveway. F1 cars, 1,000-horsepower motorcycles, priceless classics, and the newest supercars roar up the hill over the weekend, and the course slices through the festival like an uphill river of combustion. The action on the hillclimb never stops. That's part of the joy of it. Petrolheads can watch cars scream up the hill all day long (arrive early to snag prime seating) and never worry about getting bored. There was even a Tesla Model X making the climb, though it more whirred than screamed.
I got to ride up the hillclimb in a brand-new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 with Chevrolet Europe's Patrick Herrmann at the helm. The ZL1 is the new 650-horsepower, top-of-the-line Camaro. It's a pure muscle car. After an hour of waiting in line (the logistics behind the hillclimb are essential to keeping things on schedule, thus the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere), showing off for the crowd, the actual blitz up the hill was over in less than a minute. It was a blur, and I still giggle thinking about it. Herrmann was on the edge of grip the entire way and we actually caught up to the Alfa Romeo Giulia (a perfectly lovely, albeit much slower, sports sedan) in front of us by the end.
For the drivers, the most difficult part of the climb is that there's literally no information about the state of the driveway. Whether it's wet or dry or muddy (the edge is just grass), the run up the hill is a new experience every time — and if you push it a little too much, you'll find yourself off in the straw bales that line the course. Embarrassing.
Then there's the fact that sports cars work best when the important bits (tires and brakes, mostly) are warm. Drivers will do burnouts on the way to the start line, but it's still not enough. That means the first corner (a double-apex right hander in front of huge crowds) is particularly exciting. Perhaps the tightest part of the track, at least psychologically, is the right-left chicane that hugs the stone wall. It's not quite as close as it looks, but when you're driving in a million-dollar supercar, it's damn intimidating. Get past that, and you can gun it up the hill to the long finishing straight.
As a passenger, everything is literally a blur, but it's one of those things that you just want to do again and again. My colleague Vlad Savov got a ride too, his first ride in a supercar (he compared it to astonishingly great sex), and his write-up is well worth the read.
My second ride up the hill was the next day in the new Aston Martin DB11, driven by Aston CEO Andy Palmer. It was simultaneously more and less exciting. It was much rainier than the day before, when I rode up in the Camaro. As a result, the drivers were being much more careful on the climb to avoid an shunt into those ever-present straw bales.
This run was much more... slidey. The 20-inch Bridgestones at the back struggled for grip through most of the drive, but Palmer kept the car under control and we made it to the top of the hill — it was much less of a blur, partially because it was my second run and I had a better idea of what to expect, and also because we just went slower. The pass by the stone wall left a lot more room than we had in the dry.
It left me wishing that Turn 10 Studios would include the Goodwood climb as a track in the Forza Motorsport video game so I could try it, too.
The final day of Goodwood, a friend of mine joined me and we just wandered the grounds, trying to take it all in. Finally, I wasn't a journalist but a car enthusiast. There was so much to see. The concours event filled with priceless classics that were, amazingly, not fenced off from the attendees — want a selfie with a Lamborghini Miura? No problem. There was the forest rally stage where SUVs tore up Lord March's landscaping. Car paddocks where the public gets better access to priceless supercars than anywhere else. I'd always wondered what the engine of the Aston Martin Vulcan looked like in person, and here I got to see it.
There are new cars and old cars and manufacturers and T-shirt vendors and ice cream and the gorgeous Goodwood House watching over it all. The Festival of Speed is perfectly named, and perhaps the perfect automotive event.