Track test - Goodwood

Racing returns to Goodwood this month. Andrew Frankel, in the last of this series of track tests, visits the legendary West Sussex circuit and looks back to the future
Photography by Andrew Yeadon

I’d been looking forward more than a little to Goodwood, the last in this series of reports on the great circuits of European history. First there was the personal tie. As a circuit, Goodwood claims three critical firsts for me; it was the first track on which I drove, the first upon which I spun a car and the first, one dark day many years ago, to bear witness to me burying a car deep into its attractive but pitiless scenery.

Goodwood. Unlike Spa, Rouen, Zandvoort and Reims, no Grands Prix were ever held here; it formed part of the motorsport calendar for just 18 years or little longer than the time the likes of Jerez, the Hungaroring or the new Spa have been in existence. No-one has raced here for over thirty years and yet time, far from serving to dim the history of this track, has nourished its memory to the point that, on the eve of its return to competitive motor racing, it is one of the most revered motorsports locations in the world.

There is only one way to find out why and here Goodwood affords us a privilege provided by none other in this series nor any of the other great tracks in the world: As you drive around its perimeter, your progress is no more impeded by traffic than your view is polluted by changes to track. Spa and Rouen have had motorways built on critical parts of the old track, a lap of Reims is necessarily punctuated by road junctions and if you ever tried to put in a time around Zandvoort you would find yourself stuffed into the barrier which denotes where circuit stops and housing estate starts. None of these problems exist at Goodwood. The only part of the track that has changed since the chicane was added in after the end of the ’51 season is the material used to surface it. So when you buckle up for a lap, you know that, to the inch, you follow in the wheeltracks of the greatest drivers on earth.

It’s an opportunity not to be missed. In its heyday, Goodwood was known among its rivals as a medium to fast circuit, a truth that seems nevertheless scarcely credible today. But it’s not that Goodwood has speeded up, it is simply that it has remained alone and unchanged while all other circuits around the world have either closed or slowed beyond meaningful comparison.

For a road car, the XJR proves as capable as any designed to carry four people and their luggage across continents. For all its size, those two priceless commodities required to lap effectively, horsepower and stability, it has bought in bulk. Past the pits you have to brake hard around the outside edge of the first corner, Madgwick, if you are to make the first of its two apexes. It’s a quick corner with a bump in the middle and such a nature that even a small mistake on the way in can lead to heart palpitations at the exit.

The nature of Fordwater, the right-handed kink that follows has changed over the years. In the past only the very brave in an unusually well sorted car would tackle its apex and off-camber exit without lifting. Modem tyre technology and its effect on the grip to horsepower ratios means that, if it is dry, you need an improbably swift road car before contemplating lifting off before the entry. Get it right in the XJR and you can go barrelling through at over 120mph with space to spare at the exit.

The approach to St Mary’s, is nightmarish and comfortably the most difficult section of the track. The corner itself is a glorious, off-camber bend, somewhat slower than Madgwick and with much opportunity for power-sliding at the exit but before all this is an evil right kink you always take too slowly because the alternative is unthinkable. In many modern road cars and racers it should not require even a dab of the brakes though, in reality, most reach for the middle pedal. I count myself among their number.

The difficult part is now over. There is a rise at the exit of St Mary’s and Goodwood’s only truly slow corner thereafter. Called Lavant, the only real skill required is to kill the understeer that seems to affect almost all cars here; even the normally well balanced Jaguar needs either huge smoothness or undignified wrestling to keep it on line. One approach is fast, the other merely looks it.

You’re now on the fastest, most boring part of the track. The ‘straight’ leading to Woodcote is anything but, yet it’s only when you pass a small kerb on the left that you need to think about braking. You miss the first apex altogether, run around the outside of the curve, turning in later than late, trying to hang on over the bumps and keep the car off the grass at the exit before the short run up to the famous but, in the flesh, rather uninspiring chicane and the start of another lap.

Today Goodwood is a building site as the struggle continues to return the facility to its former glories by the September 18 deadline. The old corrugated pits are gone and new buildings appear almost daily in their place. The paddock is now populated by wooden posts which, when roofed, will house the greatest assembly of Goodwood racing cars ever to appear at the circuit. The famed Shell building down at Woodcote corner is missing its faded livery as it and other beacons of this circuit’s former glories are restored and returned to their original state. Down on the straight, they have just finished digging out the pedestrian tunnel, which had lain unused and overgrown for decades.

Back on September 18,1948, when Parnell won the Goodwood Trophy driving a supercharged Maserati 4CLT, the scene would have been rather different. There were neither pits back then, nor liveried buildings. All there was to see was 2.4-miles of bare airfield with a fenced off paddock. Even so, the appetite for motor racing in war-weary England at the time was considerable. Sponsorship to the tune of £500 was provided by the Daily Graphic, the BBC agreed to relay the commentary and entries flooded in. The limit for that first meeting, organised by the junior Car Club (before it became the British Automobile Racing Club) was set at 96 cars to be spread over eight races, all of which were oversubscribed. Despite the restrictions imposed by on-going fuel rationing, the crowds descended on Goodwood.

There had been scarcely any motor racing in the UK since peace broke out, and even the first British Grand Prix was still a matter of weeks away and the enthusiasts could not wait. The estimate is that somewhere between 15-20,000 people descended on Westhampnett aerodrome that day to watch, among others, an unknown driver call Stirling Moss take part in the fifth race of the day. It was his first proper motor race and his 500sc Cooper-Norton ran away from the field.

And that’s how the track remained, save the installation of the aforementioned chicane in an attempt both to reduce overall lap times and stop the diehards from driving straight across the grass, thereby omitting the gentle left-hand curve that formed part of the original airfield perimeter road. Thus equipped Goodwood seemed set for a glorious future as one of the premier motor racing venues in the world, one which was loved by the drivers for the challenge of its daunting curves and spectators for the unique atmosphere it possessed.

In this latter respect it was the true successor to Brooklands and from the point of view of the spectacle of motor racing, there was simply no comparison to be made. It became the venue for night racing with the first Goodwood 9-hours race kicking off in 1952 and, later, would host Britain’s oldest motor race, the Tourist Trophy, for seven years. Those memories of the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori sliding through Madgwick in their Aston, Ferrari and Jaguar coupes are, to me the abiding memory of this place, more even than sportscars and single-seaters which so often staged such thrilling races here.

It is incredible to see what Lord March and his team have done to this circuit. Remember that the brief was to create a facility that complies with 1998 safety standards from a place that could not even manage to meet the primitive levels of safety called for in 1966; and which had to be done while neither damaging the flavour of the track nor altering its course by a single degree.

It would seem, however, that the trackside atmosphere will, if anything, be better still. Stand, for instance, high on the new bank behind the gravel trap at Madgwick (from where the opening photograph of this feature was taken, and you’d be forgiven for thinking its purpose was to allow spectators a better vantage point for watching cars come drifting through this phenomenal corner; the truth is that the bank was required to soak up the noise of such cars. Yet it created a track that’s safer to drive and better to watch.

The final testament to what has been achieved here comes from the late Freddy March himself; founder of the circuit, Duke of Richmond and Gordon and grandfather to Lord March. In a letter to Tommy Wisdom he wrote:

“This is a sad thing but Goodwood has been sacrificed on the marble slab of spectator safety. Do you realise that if horses had got 2mph quicker each year since it started, we would now have Piggott coming past the post at 325mph. If only we had another couple of hundred yards on the outside edge all round, we could have a proper safety or recovery area, and gone to town for another 18 years. But we hadn’t and that’s the bones of it.”

Thirty-two years on what was once thought impossible has now been finally achieved. Far from the history of Westhampnett Aerodrome as a motor racing track coming to an end on that dark day in 1966, it is entirely possible that now, in 1998, the story of Goodwood is still only just beginning.

Our sincere thanks to the staff of Mithril Racing (01243 528815) for providing the helicopter camera ship used in this feature.