Visiting the Goodwood Festival of Speed, McLaren Style

The Goodwood Festival of Speed has been on my bucket list for some time now. When I was a teenager, I used to replay footage of Nick Heidfeld dancing his McLaren MP4 Formula 1 car up the famous hill climb, and I’ve been itching to make the pilgrimage ever since. Set on the 4,900-hectare grounds of Goodwood House in West Sussex, the Duke of Richmond opens up his estate up to the finest, curated collection of motoring marvels and lets them race up his driveway (aka the hill climb).

But with thousands of cars on display spanning over 100 years of motoring, the FOS is much more than a rapid ascent.

Whether it’s a car launch, driver tribute, motoring anniversary or the Cartier Style et Luxe (like Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance), there is usually something to tickle your fancy over the four days of English sunshine. Demand has outstripped supply these days, so attendance is now capped to 150,000, proving that the Goodwood Festival of Speed is one of the most popular motoring events in the world.

I’m not sure if it was my love of the McLaren 720S, or just some sly access to my YouTube search history, but when McLaren extended an invitation to the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed, it seemed as though the stars (and cars) had aligned. The theme this year was “Speed Kings “, and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate host to the gentleman racing renaissance than British Speed royalty, McLaren.

From the moment I walked through the pearly gates, I was in a permanent state of ‘stupid grin’. Straw hats were partnered with supercars, brake dust next to bubbly. It felt like Motorclassica had a baby with Royal Ascot and it was far cooler than both its parents. There was representation from every motoring brand that mattered, spanning over 100 years of various production, racing and prototype vehicles.

1980s Formula 1 cars would sit alongside Peter Brock VL Commodores, Niki Lauda’s 1984 F1 World Championship-winning McLaren MP4/2 would be getting tuned next to a 1930s Bugatti, it was one of those genuine cases where you didn’t know where to look. Every mechanic was up for a chat, sharing a genuine passion for the vehicle he or she was working on (and in some cases, had been working on for over 50 years).

Goodwood House was as impressive as the name suggests, sitting proudly as only a 1600s manor can, and the Gerry Judah Aston Martin sculpture out the front was worth the entry alone. The collection of bespoke VW Kombi vans bought out some stories and smiles from onlookers, and the 1970s De Tomaso design icons sparkled against those over-manicured lawns. The ‘hands-on’ accessibility the general public has to machinery, drivers and mechanics is outstanding, and it created an atmosphere that I had never experienced at a motoring event.

It wasn’t long before I headed to the McLaren marquee hoping for a little respite, but if anything, there was more action up there than the paddock. The stunning McLaren Speedtail had just won “Best of Show” at the Arts & Elegance Richard Mille in Paris, and it drew in crowds from all over Goodwood. The Hyper-GT is one of the most fluid shapes I’ve seen on a road car (if you can call it that) and was breathtakingly beautiful in the flesh.

If that wasn’t enough to pull out your camera, Bruno Senna was happy to talk to onlookers while showing off the surprisingly impressive McLaren LEGO Senna. The full-scale replica was built by 30 people taking over 2,700 hours to construct, and with dads pushing children out of the way to take a closer look at the 468,000 brick beauty, it was clear to see the McLaren/LEGO partnership is genuinely ageless.

But if McLaren truly were Speed Royalty, then they needed a jewel in their showcase crown. Enter the McLaren GT.

The first Grand Tourer from McLaren was unveiled to a very particular crowd at Goodwood, and based on their faces, it passed the aesthetic test with flying colours. The sculpted body sits slightly higher than it’s more focused siblings but still looks quintessentially ‘McLaren’ from every angle. The superlight body tips the scales under most of its track-focused competitors, yet still manages to accommodate up to 570 litres of luggage.

Many will be quick to point out its golf bag transportation abilities, but the thought of a road trip extravaganza seems to grip me (and probably the car) a little better. Inside the cabin, you get various bespoke trim options from Alcantara to Nappa, and just in case you were worried about scuffing that luxurious leather luggage bay, McLaren has used a very special ‘SuperFabric’ that has military levels of abrasion resistance yet still looks very refined.

While the crowds were busy going over the GT with a fine-tooth comb, I was pulled aside by a nice British chap in a race suit who firmly instructed, “Follow me”. The chap turned out to be Le Mans-winning driver, Jonny Kane, and while I don’t usually follow strangers at festivals, his seriousness (and spare helmet) quelled any concern. We negotiated a five-minute walk through crowds and cars, and before I could say “emergency contact” we were at the base of the hill climb, sliding into the McLaren GT.

I was still coming to terms with the fact that I was about to ride shot-gun in a car that was making its global dynamic debut, driven by a Le Mans-winning driver, up a hill climb I’d spent an embarrassing amount of time watching over the years, but when I said “Ready to go”, Jonny certainly wasn’t hanging around for a moment of reflection.

The 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 thrust to 100km/h in 3.2 seconds, and straight into turn one. As we increased our tempo, the faces in the crowd started to blur and the hay bales just became a strawy vortex. The ride was noticeably more pliant than the sports series, yet was still tearing up the hill with effortless speed.

Flint wall was rounded at a rate I wasn’t quite comfortable with, but Jonny’s inputs to that steering rack seemed as simultaneous as it gets. The McLaren GT boosted its way over the top of the crest in under a minute, and before I knew it, I was hanging out in a parking bay with a 720S Spider, P1, 600LT and Senna GTR.

Although my entire Goodwood experience was as blurry as my blast up the Hill, it was the most fun I’d had at a motoring event in a very long time. The line-up of cars was dizzying, the people were refreshingly warm, the weather was stunning, and doing it with McLaren was the icing on a quite perfect cake. Unlike most of the entries, the McLaren GT is the sort of car you could take a road trip through the countryside to Goodwood, then scare a loved one up the hill climb.

Obviously, I haven’t yet put in time behind the wheel of McLaren’s latest creation, but from what I can tell, it’s going to give the Grand Tourer segment a devastating shakeup. It’s quite rare these days when reality exceeds expectations, but in the case of McLaren and the Goodwood Festival of Speed at least, the grass really is greener on the other side.

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