July 6th, 2011

Goodwood Festival of Speed

The Festival of Speed returned to Goodwood House over the weekend, with Lord March’s grounds hosting another typically spectacular event. The theme, for there always is one, was ‘Racing Revolutions’, described as quantum leaps that shaped motor sport, although sometimes referred to as an unfair advantage.

Walking in to the Festival, I immediately bumped in to Rene Arnoux, a Formula One driver (and winner) for 11 years. Behind him lay an array of Renault F1 machinery, including the RS01 that he was to drive up the famous hill; this model was the first turbocharged F1 car and, whilst fragile, lay down the foundations for the F1 turbo-era. Renault never won a championship with the ‘yellow teapot’, but did prove that a 1.5 litre turbocharged engine could dominate over  the likes of Ferrari’s  three litre flat 12.

A few cars down was an F1 car that was to dominate the championship in 1992. The Williams-Renault FW14B was so fast, Ayrton Senna declared that anybody could have won the championship in that car. Thanks to the active suspension, traction control, ABS brakes and semi-automatic gearbox, he may have been right. However, such was the draw of Williams, who would routinely qualify multiple seconds clear of the field, Senna himself offered to drive free of charge for 1993. By 1994, when the deal was done, most of the technical advantages Williams had were banned.

The FW14B was the work of Adrian Newey, who took to the Goodwood hill in the Red Bull Racing show car, despite being the owner of an RB5, the 2009 Red Bull F1 car. The current RB7, while not a revolution in design terms, is still some way ahead of McLaren, a team no stranger to innovation.

Lewis Hamilton got his hands on the McLaren-Honda MP4/1 for a quick blast up the Goodwood hill. The brainchild of John Barnard, the MP4/1 was the first Formula One car to use a carbon fibre composite monocoque, a development other teams feared would end in tragedy thanks to the perception that the lightweight and brittle material lacked strength. John Watson’s crash at Monza in 1981 put paid to those views, and the carbon era started in earnest.

Formula One cars turned from a crude behemoths to a space-age projectiles within a 10 year period. From teams being run out of vans and phone boxes, technological breakthroughs, revolutions, iterations and blind alleys made the sport far safer, faster, more exciting, and forced it in to the world of big business.

The same happened in the world of rallying, with an explosion of developments in the early 80′s. Audi’s Quattro heralded the arrival of four wheel drive to the rally circus, one of which Hannu Mikkola took up the hill this weekend, as the infamous Group B rally category attracted entries. There were few restrictions on Group B cars, with teams being able to run unlimited turbo boost, low minimum weights, and a manufacturer-attracting requirement of just 200 road cars.

Audi produced the first serious contender with four wheel drive, and that became the must-have drive train, despite the rear wheel drive dominance to date. A drive shaft and differential was all that was required to turn rallying on its head; following the Quattro was the Lancia Delta S4, which introduced a combination of supercharging and turbo charging at the same time, while the MG simply threw the rule book away with the Metro 6R4, installing a 3 litre V6 engine in the rear of the dreary shopping car to create a fearsome beast.

Not to be outdone, their rivals at Ford designed a custom built rally car, the RS200. Effectively a kit-car designed from components found in the parts bin, with a plastic body designed by Ghia, and finally assembled by Reliant, the RS200 was rumoured to produce as much as 600bhp from its mid mounted 1.8 litre engine. Weight distribution requirements meant the gearbox was at the front of the car, leading to a complex drive train set up. Whilst the RS200 never managed to win a rally in its short time on the world stage, it did, along with the other Group B monsters, change the face of rallying, and not necessarily for the better; a series of high profile fatal accidents and ever increasing power outputs meant that Group B was abandoned after just five years.

While the Group B cars would struggle to be compared to their road going siblings, the Super Touring car of the late 90′s looked every part the tarted up repmobile. Whilst no one car really made a leap forward, the concept itself was the breakthrough this time. Andy Rouse’s idea to bring relatively low cost and similar cars together ignited an enthusiasm for saloon car racing, and for ten years the formula dominated the world of touring cars. Manufactures queued up to enter, with Vauxhall generating huge media interest with the Cavalier and star driver John Cleland. Their rivals at Dagenham entered a Mondeo, piloted initially by crowd favourite Andy Rouse. TV viewing figures went through the roof, and crowds of over 80,000 would attend the circuits – numbers that would embarrass many an F1 circuit. As ever, costs got in the way and Super Touring evolved into Super2000, but the blueprint had been set; familiar cars, close racing, and controlled costs. Super Touring took racing from being a minority sport to a family day out. Truly revolutionary.

With revolution being the theme, mention therefore has to be made of the Mazda 787B. Undoubtedly one of the most iconic Le Mans cars to ever grace the French tarmac, and idolised by the Gran Turismo generation, the 787B was the only Le Mans 24 Hour winner to run with a rotary engine. That win came almost exactly 20 years ago, and the race winning car has been painstakingly restored for its Goodwood run. The 700bhp, carbon fibre bodied, fire spitting racer took to the hill amid cheers from the crowd.

That’s the beauty of Goodwood. As revolutionary as any car may or may not be, everybody, every fan, every driver, has their own favourites, their own allegiances. But at the Festival of Speed the bitter rivalry drifts away on the Sussex sea breeze, the stately grounds soak up the arguments, and 150,000 people come together to simply enjoy the sights and sounds of the very best vehicles in the world being driven up a hill. Hard.

Words: Phil Huff