Lunch with... Lord March

Simon Taylor takes luncheon with the man whose love of history and a good party have created the world’s finest historic events
Photograpgy: James Mitchell

Goodwood House, with its flinted Palladian façade and copper-topped towers, is strangely calm this morning. Just 11 days ago, the Festival of Speed filled these grounds with 150,000 paying spectators: yet already the circle in front of the pillared portico, where grand prix Renaults past and present were displayed on asphalt, has miraculously returned to fine lawn. Glorious Goodwood, pinnacle of the horse-racing year, starts in 12 days’ time at the magnificent course on top of the downs. Three weeks after that comes Britain’s finest historic motor-race meeting, the Goodwood Revival, down in the valley on the lovingly restored Motor Circuit.

Driving all this frenetic activity – not to mention the Golf Club, the new Kennels restaurant and clubhouse, the Organic Farm, the shooting, the cricket, the Flying Club, and all the upkeep of a 11,000-acre estate with a staff of 300 – is the restless enthusiasm and entrepreneurial energy of 51-year-old Charles Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara, and heir to the dukedom of Richmond & Gordon.

The butler shows me into the Large Library and proffers a drink while I wait for Lord March, who is tied up in a board meeting elsewhere in the great house. The French antique furniture and the leather-bound antiquarian books that fill the shelves to the ceiling are priceless, yet this is a pleasantly lived-in room: a Scott Joplin rag is on the music stand, there is a jigsaw in progress on a side table, a boy’s trombone is stowed under the piano.

When Charles arrives we pass through the Small Library into a circular Dining Room. Lunch is pure English – chicken stuffed with pork on a bed of roasted tomatoes, and lemon tart with raspberries and clotted cream. The ingredients come from Goodwood’s organic farm.

It is clear that Goodwood itself – what Charles calls “this place” – is both the motivation and the magic ingredient in everything he does. It was his grandfather, the ninth Duke, Brooklands racer and sportscar stylist, who made the Motor Circuit happen for 18 brief, brilliant years between 1948 and 1966. But there has always been sport at Goodwood. The first duke inaugurated the estate in 1697 as a base for hunting.

The second duke loved cricket: the Goodwood Written Rules date from 1727, and the game is still played on the same pitch. The third duke started horse racing across the top of the downs over 200 years ago. The seventh duke laid out the golf course. “These sports all started because members of the family were keen amateurs. No one was ever trying to make any money: they just had the resources, and the space, to share their enjoyment with other people.”

From a small boy, watching races in the rain with his grandfather, Charles was passionate about cars. “Getting the Motor Circuit reopened was always in my mind – it was sitting there, and I was sure we could do something with it. But if we hadn’t learned so much from the Festival of Speed, we might have plunged straight in and turned it into just another old race track.

“Of course, unlike the Circuit, the Festival has to be built up and dismantled every year. We have 2000 staff on site, and it’s like creating a major movie. What I love about it, and what I hate about it, is that in the end you have nothing. You’ve just created a moment, and that’s it. But creating the moment is a very big driver for me. It’s very nice of everyone to say it’s been such a success, but it’s almost as if
This Place has made it happen. I can remember sitting out there on the grass the first year, and we were all in a state of overdrive because we realised we’d hit on something which people really wanted to be part of. We lit the blue touch paper, and the thing took on a life of its own.

“The beauty of the Festival was that it just grew organically, and we were able to pay for it as we went along. But restoring the Motor Circuit was a big investment, many millions on the table. It’s working out OK, but we’ve got to pay it all back. We need 100,000-plus spectators there to generate the level of income we need. A third of it comes from sponsorship; a third from hospitality, catering, sale of programmes; and a third from the gate.

“We’ve tried to recreate the Circuit very accurately, but it’s more about recreating a feeling. My brief to myself and to everybody here is, anywhere I look, I don’t want to see anything that isn’t in period. When we first started to plan the Revival we said, let’s make them all come in 1960s cars. Everybody said, you’re mad. Then we said, hey, why not make them come in all the kit as well? That won’t work either, they said, everybody will hate it. But we did it, and soon you reach a critical mass and the thing establishes itself. The first year some of the purists said, this isn’t motor racing, this is just theatre. But once they’d seen the calibre of the racing, that went away.”

Charles disliked school, left as early as he could, worked for iconic movie director Stanley Kubrick, and then became a successful commercial photographer in London. But when he was 40 the current Duke handed over the house and the estate, as his own father had done to him when he was 40. So what was it like growing up in the knowledge that this immense estate would become his responsibility?

“I never doubted that what was expected of me was to be here, but I wanted to do it very much in a modern and appropriate way. My parents are very unusual, and my father doesn’t impose himself on people. There was never a discussion about whether I did or didn’t want to do it. If I’d said I hate all this, I’m going to go and live in Australia, he’d have said, that’s fine, we’ll find another way of doing it. So there was never any pressure or expectation, which is a very good thing, because it means you develop it in yourself even more strongly. I wanted to find my own thing to do at Goodwood that would have a real impact, and also we needed something that would generate fairly serious income. The last thing you want to be is the guy who doesn’t deliver.

“And when I open my bathroom window at 6am on the Friday of the Festival and see tens of thousands of people walking in, it’s a big buzz that people are really appreciating what you do. First thing, I psych myself up to look at the weather – I just hate it when it rains. It brings out the worst in me. The Revival’s maybe a bit easier, but the Festival is about seeing cars gleaming in sunlight.”

Charles thinks the ‘original versus replica’ argument is “a big balancing act. At the Revival we’re trying to put great cars together with the right drivers to produce exciting racing. We want to see real 250Fs and real GTOs, and we would only consider replicas if a real runner doesn’t exist, like the Lancia D50. That’s a beautiful thing in its own right, and people want to see it. But it’s complex: you’ve got FIA regulations, you’ve got originality, you’ve got scrutineering, you’ve got safety, and you want to put on a good race.”

Charles’ concerns about safety are well-known. The point of the Motor Circuit is that it is a truly historic track, without the emasculation of Armco and huge run-off areas that are the norm today, so drivers need to approach it differently. “We’re doing everything we can all the time to make the circuit as safe as possible. The MSA are very understanding, they think it’s good for motor racing and they want it to continue. But if we ended up having to destroy the track, physically, or we were forced to spend a mass of money changing it, that would be the end.

“The good guys have shown time and again that you can have great racing at Goodwood without it getting dangerous. But there are a few people whose desire to win, regardless, ratchets up over the weekend, and that’s not good. It’s one or two of the semi-professionals who seem to think they’ve got something to prove. We now have a strict process – if a driver misbehaves he gets a warning, and if he doesn’t heed the warning he is banned. We just hope they get the point.”

Charles is known to be a perfectionist, and a hard task-master. “One of my big issues is that the Festival and the Revival aren’t happening every day. This isn’t like a restaurant where you can say: we didn’t have a very good day today, let’s get it right tomorrow. We write a huge debrief which involves everybody, and each item is someone’s responsibility. If anything doesn’t work, we rethink it.”

Could there be a third event? “Yes, there could. At the Circuit we’ve got five days when we are allowed to make as much noise as we like. But it’s got to be at a certain level. We know what people’s expectations are. We need to find something perhaps a bit different.”

The watchword for Charles’ events has always been quality. “If you go to a great horse race, even if you don’t know anything about it, there’s a feeling of expectation in the air, an excitement. It’s like getting the real cars. If we’ve got the only Alfa P2 from the Biscaretti, there’s a kind of energy around it which gets to people. And then, if you put the right driver with it, you have an incredible emotional experience. Cars are like music. The cars you saw racing in your childhood are rather like the music that you remember. It’s something to see an ex-Patrese car, and then it’s something else if Ricardo is there in his overalls, with his helmet sitting on the rear wheel…”

Therein lies the key to Lord March’s magic touch. Added to boundless energy, optimistic vision and a genius for creating an event is a genuine feel for motor-sporting history. And for two glorious weekends a year, he wants us to share it with him.