As a schoolboy, and later as a teenager, my family lived at Strettington which, locals will know, is a mile from the Goodwood Motor Circuit. This, for a lad obsessed with motor racing, was like a football fan living down the road from Old Trafford.
But surely the circuit closed in 1966? Indeed it did, but only for racing. The track remained in good condition and, with its fast sweeping corners and tight chicane, was a meaningful test of a racing car. It was also very handy for teams like McLaren in Colnbrook, Tyrrell in Ockham and Brabham in Chessington. Just as importantly, it was away from the prying lenses of the London-based media and test days could be held ‘behind closed doors’ on privately owned land.
Remember too, this was long before wind tunnels, simulators, computers and telemetry that could send data across continents in real time. This was the time when you put the car on a trailer, towed it to the track, and pounded round all day until the stopwatch showed it had all been worthwhile. If a local lad sneaked in on his bicycle, stood quietly in the pit lane… Hey, they could live with that.
Jacky Ickx testing the Wolf-Williams FW05 at Goodwood, 1976.
From my bedroom window I could hear the engines, the rumble of a Chevrolet V8, the bark of a Cosworth or the high-pitched wail of a Honda. Whatever it was, I was on my bike and pedalling towards the noise. Soon I became known to the track manager Robin Mackay and it was he who tipped me off when Dan Gurney brought the Eagle-Weslake over from Rye, Dan doing laps, jumping out to work on the car, sliding back in for more laps.
Jack Brabham developed his BT18 Honda-powered F2 cars at the circuit while dominating the championship in 1966. There were always lots of Japanese mechanics, seemingly one for every valve of the potent four-cylinder DOHC engine which screamed up to 11,000rpm. Then there was the day John Surtees brought his Honda RA300 F1 car down from Slough, the unmistakable banshee wail of the V12 alerting the entire locality to his presence. Goodwood, back then, was the place to go testing and it was a privilege to be there.
Bruce McLaren tearing past the Super Shell Building at Goodwood in a McLaren M8A.
The days I most enjoyed were spent with the McLaren team, regular visitors with their sensational Can-Am cars, and a great bunch of people whom I came to know well over several seasons. The cars were interesting for many reasons. The immense power of the Chevy V8, the startling straight-line speed, the ever-developing aerodynamics and the sheer dominance of the ‘Bruce and Denny Show’ from 1967 to 1970. They were a tight-knit crew led by Tyler Alexander, with designer Robin Herd, and Bruce himself very much the calm and unflustered motivator.
One day, watching in the pitlane as Herd attached yet more threads of blue cotton, and drops of blue ink, to the bodywork to better understand the airflow, I somehow summoned up the courage to ask him if I could have a ride in the car. I expected short shrift but Robin said ‘sure, you can do a couple of laps with Denny (Hulme)’. Seriously? Yes, seriously.
1967 F1 world champion Denny Hulme.
Denny ‘The Bear’ Hulme was a gruff, tough New Zealander with a heart of gold, a lovely man I would visit at his home in NZ many years later.
On this day at Goodwood he offered no opinion on finding me next to him. No seat, or seat belts… So I perched my bum on the fire extinguisher and braced my feet on the bulkhead. Down the Lavant straight at 170mph I did wonder why I had asked to do this. Denny glanced across at me, I tried to nod my head enthusiastically as I clung on to the rollbar. An unforgettable experience that simply wouldn’t be allowed these days.
One more memorable day stands out. Nelson Piquet in the Brabham-BMW.
This was supposed to be a ‘secret’ test day, Brabham having booked the track exclusively. What a truly extraordinary car, a single seater with what appeared to be a rocket in the back. Out of the chicane, and down to Madgwick, it was like a bullet shot from a gun. He had lapped Goodwood in under a minute according to Herbie Blash. A mechanic suggested he must have missed out a corner. Years later Nelson told me he had to wait until the car was dead straight before applying full BMW power or the car would instantly spin.
For those lucky enough to live close by these were special days. The same is true today but now we have racing back at this wonderful circuit.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images. Main image, Alain Prost testing the McLaren M30 at Goodwood, August, 1980.