Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Goodwood preview day

Last Thursday began with a chance encounter as I cruised down the A286 on the way to the Goodwood. I noticed a blood red vintage sports car waiting to join the road ahead, slowed down to let him out, flashed the headlights. We then had one of those ‘no you go... no you go’ moments as we both hesitated, then decided to go simultaneously. Slightly red faced, but fortunately intact, I sheepishly my way past the beautiful car and its (presumably now somewhat confused) driver and continued on my way.

Once at Goodwood things took an altogether more surreal turn. The characteristic sound of rotor blades echoed off the front of the house as an Army Air Corps Lynx appeared over the tree tops and began a jaw dropping low-altitude display, looping and rolling its way across the horizon. As a climax it accelerated towards us across the lawn, pulled the nose up in a dramatic stop and then came to a rest, hovering about 20 feet above the ground. Then – and I swear I’m not making this up – Amanda Stretton fast roped out of the helicopter, ran over the lawns to the front of the house and interviewied Lord March for the beginning of the day. You can’t deny that’s quite an entrance.

Next, after a brief introduction, it was time to hit the hill. All manner of mouth-watering machinery from the 1920s to the present day was lining up at the start line, including no less than three priceless ‘silver arrow’ racers. Many of the cars there I’d never even seen in a museum before, let alone witnessed performing a full-bore standing start a matter of feet away. Group C Le Mans racers and Group B rally cars became virtually de rigeur in a field that also included a very enthusiastically driven Aston Martin DB3S, a Bugatti Atlantique and a unique Ferrari 250GT ‘Breadvan’. The modern era was well represented too with a brand spanking new Nissan 370Z there, along with its bigger brother the GT-R , a Ferrari 599GTB and a Maserati Granturismo driven by none other than Jodie Kidd.

My trip up the hill finally came in a Morgan Aeromax. Now let me make one thing clear: it’s a spectacularly desirable car - fast, apparently progressive at the limit, atmospheric and beautifully crafted. In any other setting I would be overjoyed to get a ride in such a fabulous machine, but with automotive royalty like the actual Le Mans winning McLaren F1 GTR offering passenger rides it seemed, well, a tad underwhelming. Even so it was a magical experience and It’s testament to the breathtaking scale of Goodwood that I can take such a spoilt attitude.

The BMW-sourced V8 catapulted us away from the start line with surprising vigour and a thunderous soundtrack. Even in one of the more road-orientated cars, the hay bales were flying past at a considerable rate by the time we reached the first corner. As the Morgan’s auto box found its footing on the exit, the front end gently tucked in, with only the slightest touch required from the driver, chief designer Matthew Humphries to reign in the slide. The whole experience was remarkably relaxed, illustrating just what a superbly executed GT the Aeromax is.

Sat in the paddock at the top of the hill Matthew showed me around the features of his car like a proud father. The detailing is indeed sublime, and unlike some limited-production supercars it really does feel like a £100,000 product – part comic book racer, part gentleman’s club on wheels. Unfortunately as we sat around discussing its finer points I was oblivious to the fact the final passenger rides were coming to a close on the rally stage. I had to blank this from my mind later in the day as my fellow guests recounted stories of airborne Quattros and sideways Integrales and I swore to be quicker on the uptake next time round.

One area which I did manage to capitalise on was lunch. Although the atmosphere was wonderfully informal (in fact I felt a bit out of place in my suit) the food was very much what you would expect from a society event at one of England’s great country houses. Then came the champagne, which if anything surpassed the cuisine, causing me to curse the decision to drive down. Once again I made a mental note for next year’s event.

Much like the opening, lunch time had a somewhat quirky feel as no less than 12 mini-skirted girls posted themselves into a mini, in a scene straight from Austin Powers’ wildest fantasy. Add to that the occasional passing supermodel or famous racing driver and the other-worldly feel was complete. In fact, surveying the crowd of familiar faces I made a discovery: Stood on the lawn was TV presenter and gentleman racer Alain de Cadenet and next to him was his car. It just happens to be a priceless 1930s Alfa Romeo 8C. In blood red. Suddenly I was particularly glad I hadn’t T-boned that car on the A286...

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