Goodwood Festival of Speed

“Just look at that!” gasps Derek Bell, diverting my attention from the startline to the view on our right. Beyond the straw bales and the distant treetops, the giant Vulcan bomber floats magnificently into sight, so sedately it seems inconceivable it won’t plummet. We’re mesmerised, and for a moment I forget where I am. So too has Derek, it seems, until our attention is snapped back to why we’re sitting here by the chuckling marshal waving us forward for our run up the hill.

Such are the diversions at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year on a gloriously hot, sunny July weekend. Lord March often has a knack of ordering the right weather, and it was fitting that his Sussex estate should bask in such balmy conditions on this extra-special occasion.

Derek launches from the line in a Bentley Continental GT Speed convertible that offers less-than-subtle clues about the luxury car-maker’s competitive intentions. The new V8-powered GT3 racer had already taken its public bow at Goodwood in the hands of 2003 Le Mans winner Guy Smith, and now Derek is demonstrating how a nearly three-tonne W12-powered road car can be hustled like a flyweight track day special. Its agility, power and immense grip – even as Derek cuts the grass at Molecomb – defies all perceptions of what a Bentley is ‘supposed’ to be.

At the top of the hill, famous faces wander about as we wait for the signal to return to the paddock. More than an hour passes, much to the impatience of many. But there are worse places to be. Jenson Button is up here after a run in the new McLaren P1, and so are Alain Prost, Christian Horner, Marc Surer, a moustache-free Juha Kankkunen and bearded Nick Heidfeld, peering curiously inside various super cars after completing his reunion with the McLaren MP4-13 F1 car in which he set the hill record back in 1999.

It was good to see Prost return a year on from his Festival debut, even better to watch old rival Nelson Piquet reunited with the glorious Brabham BT52-BMW turbo in which he won his 1983 world title. Other highlights include Damon Hill in the whining Lotus 56 turbine, Button getting to grips with a Can-Am M8D to mark McLaren’s big 5-0, and the largest crop of motorcycle world champions you could ever hope to see: Giacomo Agostini, John Surtees, ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Mick Doohan, Kevin Schwantz, Steve Webster… we don’t know which way to look, such is the roll-call.

After 20 years, it’s all so familiar. But when it’s this good, there’s no need to reinvent a winning formula. Still, new features grab our attention. The Daytona Beach celebration of Land Speed Record cars on the cricket pitch is fantastic, particularly Malcolm Campbell’s monstrous Bluebird V in which he set a new mark of 276.82mph on the Florida sand in 1935. The car has crossed the Atlantic to be reunited with son Donald’s CN7 for the first time since the 1960s.

On the other side of the track, the Cartier Style et Luxe once again offers a peaceful platform for the automobile as an art form, JD Classics’ pretty 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24S Spider winning best in show. The award will no doubt add to its value, although it would need to go some way to match the price reached by the star lot in the Bonhams auction on Friday afternoon.

Anticipation for the sale of the ex-Fangio 1954 German Grand Prix-winning Mercedes-Benz W196 is at fever pitch, and for good reason. The hammer falls at £17.5m (£19.6m after fees) to an anonymous telephone bidder, setting a new world record for the highest price paid for any car at auction. At lunchtime, we’d asked Michael Bock, head of Mercedes-Benz Classic, whether he’d be bidding. “No,” he said with a shake of the head and a sad smile. “Firstly, we don’t have the budget and although this is an important car with an important history, we already own six of the 10 that still exist.”

The W196 has passed through several hands following its sale by the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in the 1980s – a sore point for Mercedes and Bock. “This car was a gift to Beaulieu in 1973,” he said, “and while we are not happy that they made the decision to sell it, we hope it goes to a good home.”

On Saturday night, the star names gather for the traditional Goodwood Ball. The firework display, complete with water fountains, dancers, extreme MotoX stunt riders and Oliver Turvey doing a burn-out on stage in a McLaren F1 car (yes, really), is ridiculously, insanely and gloriously over the top. Back in the pavilion behind the house, the surprise musician for the evening is introduced: Don Felder, ace ‘axeman’ from The Eagles. On he comes with twin-neck Gibson, picking the intro to Hotel California. “Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends,” he sings. A lyrical clue to the buyer of the W196? No, that’s too far-fetched – even in the surreal wonderland that is Goodwood. Damien Smith

They fought the law, and the law won
A 25-year-old Jaguar Group C beat Peugeot’s Pikes Peak special 208 T16 to be crowned king of the hill in Sussex

Perennial Festival of Speed charger Justin Law hit his marks to win the traditional Top 20 Shootout on the Sunday afternoon at Goodwood.

His Jaguar XJR8/9 (above) cut the timing beam at the top of the 1.16-mile hill in 45.95sec, nearly 1.5sec quicker than Jonny Cocker managed in Lord Drayson’s electric-powered Lola B12 69/EV prototype (below). A new, smoother track surface promised faster times and he was more than half a second up on Anthony Reid’s 2012 best.

Now there was just Grégory Guilvert to go in the stunning Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak special, which was making a star appearance following its conquering of the Colorado mountain just a couple of weeks earlier. Sadly, Sébastien Loeb wasn’t available to join it.

Guilvert had managed 45.86sec earlier that morning, so hopes were high, but this time the Frenchman could only manage 47.32sec, well short of Law but just clear of Cocker.

Nick Heidfeld’s appearance in the McLaren MP4-13 F1 car had raised hopes of a crack at his 14-year-old hill record. But even with the new surface, the days of such banzai runs appear to be long gone. His twitchy, almost violent, run of 41.6sec is preserved for posterity on You Tube. If you haven’t seen it, look it up.

Porsches on parade
The 911’s 50th birthday was one of several core themes celebrated during the Festival of Speed

Anniversaries. Whether you’re an event organiser or, ahem, a magazine editor, you’ve got to love ’em. They’re a great excuse to revisit history, revel in the greatest moments of drivers, cars and constructors – and appeal, hopefully, to the masses.

In 2013, we’re overdosing on them: 90 years of the Le Mans 24 Hours, 50 years of McLaren and Lamborghini, a half-century since Jim Clark’s first world title, 100 years of Aston Martin, 20 years of the Festival of Speed… But the most significant is arguably the one we celebrated in our June issue: 50 years of the Porsche 911, the most immediately familiar automobile we’ve ever known.

At Goodwood, Porsche went to town. Tribute parades of famous 911s spanning its seven generations and many forms kept the theme in eye-view all weekend. The most extreme 911 of them all, the 935 they called ‘Moby Dick’, took to the hill driven by our own Andrew Frankel on one run he’ll never forget, while the collection in a corner of the Cartier Style et Luxe included an original 901 from 1963, pre-dating Peugeot’s legal strop over the use of a middle zero in the numerical ID that forced a fated single digit change. Goodwood also offered Porsche an obvious stage for the public debut of the much-anticipated 991 GT3, to bring the story full circle.

Then there was the traditional ‘central feature’ on the lawn in front of Goodwood House, featuring a trio of 911s including the bright yellow 2.7 RS featured in our June issue photo shoot. At the Thursday night Goodwood Road Racing Club Ball, artist Gerry Judah watched his latest creation become the focus of another magnificent fireworks display.

He’s not what you might expect, Gerry. Of Baghdadi and Indian descent, he was born in Calcutta and lived in West Bengal until his family moved to London when he was 10. And it’s the earthy London roots that you notice in conversation, in his plain accent, natural modesty and complete lack of pretension.

He used to build sets for talented still life photographer Charles Settrington – the Earl of March to you and me. Friendships clearly count for a lot to Goodwood’s patron.

Judah’s creation for Porsche was universally judged to be among his best work at Goodwood, its narrow pillars and offset angle giving the structure an unnerving optical illusion of instability. How was it staying upright?

So does he think mathematically as well as artistically when he’s creating? “Nah,” Judah shrugged. “When I first sketched it, I just knew it would work.” Natural ability, simply applied. Ferry Porsche would understand.