A dream drive at Goodwood

| 30 Jun 2012

In 1999, future Grand Prix driver Nick Heidfeld set a record for Goodwood’s Festival of Speed hillclimb that still stands. I watched that stunning run of 41.6 secs from the entrance to the tricky left-hander at Molecombe, having got the German’s autograph earlier in the day.

That memory came back to me yesterday as I stood behind Heidfeld in the queue at Goodwood’s Drivers Club, waiting to sign in so that I too could drive up the famous hill. I kept expecting someone to tell me that there had been a mistake, that they weren’t going to let some journalist into a car alongside these great names.

It never happened, though, which is how I came to find myself in one of the most famous Jaguar XK120s of all. Thanks to the generosity of the fine folk at the company’s Heritage Trust, I would do a run in LWK 707, the fixed-head coupe that pounded round Montlhery for seven days and seven nights at an average speed of 100.32mph – a figure that included all stops.

The four drivers – Stirling Moss, Jack Fairman, Bert Hadley and Leslie Johnson – set nine new international and world records during their week at the banked circuit near Paris in August 1952, covering 16,851 miles in 168 hours.

This is the car that awaits me in Goodwood’s Cathedral Paddock early on Friday morning. I’d read the briefing on the way down from the Drivers Club. Number three on the list of notes is a warning about Molecombe, the scene of so many ‘offs’ during Festivals past. As I settle into the car, Tony O’Keefe and his team remind me – on more than one occasion – of the corner’s blind, off-camber nature…

You can’t help but be reminded of this car’s past from the driver’s seat. In front is the intercom system used during that record-breaking run; on the dashboard are two period stopwatches. Further across is some modern timing gear – the XK120 is still used on events such as the Mille Miglia.

Above is the control for the extra wiper, used to clear rain from the far right of the windscreen. When the car was at an angle on the banking at Montlhery, water would stream across this area, which the standard wipers couldn’t reach.

The first job is to get out of the paddock – easier said than done when it’s packed with spectators. I stall twice while trying to ease my way out of the Jaguar’s space, before realising that a few more revs carry the dual advantages of making people aware of your presence and preventing you looking like an idiot in front of a sea of cameras.

From the paddock, you go to the assembly area and then down to the startline. Ahead of me is Norman Dewis in a C-type; behind is Autocar’s Steve Cropley in a D-type. In the same batch are Kenny Brack in a Shelby Daytona Coupe and Marino Franchitti in a Ferrari 250GTO.

After watching the evergreen Dewis rush off the startline, it’s finally my turn. Mindful of the Jaguar’s transmission, I ease the car away before flooring the throttle and grabbing second gear. The first couple of corners are gentle right-handers before the hill opens up in front of Goodwood House.

Hard on the throttle again and up into third, with the XK engine sounding beautifully crisp and me relieved not to have missed any gears. Under the bridge, then start backing off in plenty of time for Molecombe.

Down into second, then ease the Jaguar slowly around before flooring the throttle once again and changing up into third for the run towards the flint wall. Carefully past its unforgiving edges, and then a gentle run to the top, trying to savour the moment rather than find any limits of performance.

Having crossed the finish line, I glance behind and note, with some relief, that I haven’t been caught by the D-type.

There’s a brief stop at the top of the hill, during which I pass the time of day with Dewis and swap notes with Cropley, before the run back down. Wave at the marshals and the crowds, give the car the occasional burst of throttle – I’ve seen so many other people do it over the years, and now here I am acting it out myself with a huge smile on my face.

O’Keefe welcomes me into the crowded paddock with a smile of his own: “You can come again,” he says. “You brought it back in one piece…”

Still buzzing, I head for the Drivers Club to see if I can stash my overalls and helmet there. I’m given a key for a locker and some vague directions as to where they are. While I’m wandering around looking a bit confused, Derek Bell comes up to me.

“Looking for the lockers?” he asks. “It took me a while to find them, too.” And with that, he leads me through the changing rooms and shows me where to go while we have a chat about his upcoming appearance in a Blower Bentley at Le Mans Classic. What a gentleman.  

Huge thanks must go to everyone at Jaguar for giving me a glimpse behind the scenes at this amazing event – surely a dream come true for any enthusiast.

Photography by James Mann