The annual Festival of Speed in West Sussex, England centers around a storied Hillclimb, which winds 1.16 miles through event founder Lord March’s private estate and rises 300 feet. It’s a significant event among a weekend of zealous racing enthusiasm not for its length — drivers complete the course in under a minute — but because it requires a high level of technical driving, lightning-fast reflexes and some seriously steely nerves; any type of car, new or old, from sports cars to supercars to deft Formula 1 racers to Nascar stock car growlers, can compete, turning the competition into a wild fracas that feels just the right amount of unruly.
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It’s not enough to be quick on the gas and the brakes. To master the Hillclimb, you’ve got to be agile, smooth and confident. Okay, so it also helps to have a killer quick car with corresponding handling that’ll make your organs change positions. Here are the best of the best (and their drivers, too).
1999: Nick Heidfeld, McLaren MP4/13, 0:41.60
2008: Justin Law, Jaguar XJR8/9, 0:44.19
2009: Justin Law, Jaguar XJR8/9, 0:44.40
2010: Roger Wills, Williams FW05, 0:47.15
2011: Dan Collins, Lotus 88B, 0:48.52
2012: Anthony Reid, Chevron GT3, 0:46.46
2013: Justin Law, Jaguar XJR8/9, 0:45.95
2014: Sébastien Loeb, Peugeot 208 T16, 0:44.60
Indeed, while the festival weekend has its share of classic car nostalgia and dressed-up relaxation, the Hillclimb takes on another mood entirely: two people have died and one has been seriously injured during the event in its 21-year history. It’s for good reason that not just anyone can plunk down money and have a go at it on the course. This is especially true for drivers hoping to come anywhere close to the magic 41.6-second record set by Nick Heidfeld in the McLaren MP4-13 back in 1999.
The course is narrow, many sections trimmed by hay bales that shed flurries of dead stalks with the blow-by of screaming cars. Drivers mash the pedal at the start of a tree-lined straight that’s covered in shade, upshifting through second and third gear before getting on the brakes for the first turn at the southern corner of the Goodwood Estate. Out of that corner, it’s back up to third gear for an open right hander and then into fourth down the Park Straight, past the grandstand and under a bridge into daylight. The Molcomb corner comes up quickly, requiring some tricky downshifting to second before slamming down the gas once again and roaring through third and fourth.
Then it’s a climb up the super-skinny estate road, flanked on one side by a dark flint wall and dark, old-growth trees on the other, around a long curve, lifting lightly off the throttle before the right-hand curve and then the final left bend. The finish line comes just after the crest of the hill, right alongside Goodwood’s equine racecourse atop the South Downs. It’s all over in, hopefully, less than fifty seconds, and the crowd seems to take a collective gasp for air.