Hubert Burda Media

Wheels to the Ground

With vintage, classic, exotic and futuristic cars galore, UK's annual Goodwood Festival of Speed is nirvana for car enthusiasts

Wheels to the Ground

As he sits in his library, Lord March has the look of a satisfied man, having seen his Goodwood Festival of Speed car extravaganza attract record numbers this year. The self-confessed petrolhead has seen his dreams finally become a reality by staging two of the world's biggest and best car festivals at his Goodwood House estate.

Taking place each summer, the four-day Goodwood Festival of Speed now attracts a crowd of more than 200,000 car enthusiasts while the Goodwood Revival in September encourages its 120,000 visitors to dress up in period costumes to watch vintage car racing. Both unique festivals take place on Lord March's sprawling 4,860-hectare estate on the south coast of England. The estate is also home to Rolls-Royce's state-of-the-art manufacturing plant.

To make the most of my trip to West Sussex, I manage to catch up with Lord March — or Charles Henry Gordon Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara and heir to the 10th Duke of Richmond, to give him his full title — on the sidelines of the Festival of Speed. The big attraction of the festival is the rich variety of cars taking part from classic models and super cars through to Formula 1 and rally cars.

“What's really appealing is that the cars are very accessible. There are no ropes around any of them. Everyone gets close to the cars, close to the drivers plus the atmosphere and the location obviously play a big part. There must be more great cars here than any other place in the world,'' Lord March says.

There's also a tremendous amount of car heritage at Goodwood. Motor-racing first came in 1936 when Lord March's grandfather, the then-Earl of March, held a private race in the park. In 1948, he opened the Goodwood motor-racing circuit which until 1966 ranked alongside Silverstone as Britain's leading race venue. The track was closed that year, much to the current Lord March's regret, who was by then already a car-racing fanatic.

So in 1993, he launched the Goodwood Festival of Speed and reopened the Goodwood Motor Circuit in September 1998, the only circuit in the world dedicated to historic motor racing. His love of cars was inherited from his grandfather, who was a successful designer and driver in the 1930s.

He also loves meeting the stars of the track and over the years has rubbed shoulders with all the big names in the sport. During this year's Goodwood Festival of Speed, he welcomed drivers past and present from Sir Stirling Moss to Lewis Hamilton. This year, Nascar legend Richard Petty (nicknamed “The King”) also visited Goodwood. “They don't get any better than that,'' jokes Lord March.

On a day-to-day basis, he has his hands full looking after the estate and the many events it hosts. The estate has its own horse-racing track, the motor-racing circuit, a 1,200-hectare organic farm, two golf courses, a 94-room hotel, a fleet of vintage aircraft and its own cricket pitch.

From the moment he took over the running of the estate from his father, Lord March has worked on making it more profitable, ploughing revenue back into the venue. “We have a unique mix of activities. Nowhere else in the world can claim to have all these sports. But we need to do things which are authentic and put the brand out there in the world, and the Festival of Speed does that. It's important it's seen as a global event that is attractive to the rest of the world.”

But running the family estate was not always his chosen career path. Lord March left the prestigious British public school Eton College — whose former students include Princes William and Harry — at 17 to work as a photographer in the advertising industry. He eventually took over the management of the Goodwood estate from his father in 1994. In the last 20 years, he has seen its profile go from strength to strength as a world-class venue for motor sports lovers.

But Lord March still remembers the nervousness around organising the very first Festival of Speed back in 1993. “We were told we might get 2,000 people if we were lucky in the first year and we didn't know what to expect. About 25,000 people came, which was a big surprise. We struggled but it was a great feeling to know that we had come across something that people felt enthusiastic about. For us, it was a bit of a trial to see if there was an enthusiasm for Goodwood and cars.''

Two decades on and the Festival of Speed now has a global presence, attracting the world's best drivers and cars. “People come here hoping to see the best cars in the world. If we want to ship a certain car from around the world or want a specific car, we'll do that.'' This year saw a rare Koenigsegg Agera One:1, a Porsche 918 Spyder and a Noble M600.

Although we meet during the festival weekend, Lord March is actually involved in organising car events throughout the year. This includes the Goodwood Revival in September, which is the biggest historic motoring event in the world and a new event called the Members' Meeting that takes place in March exclusively for Goodwood Racing Club members.

Whatever he seems to organise, car enthusiasts will come in their thousands. The latest idea is called The Breakfast Club, which celebrates the love of cars. “The festival is all about the best cars, whereas the Breakfast Club is different. If you love your car, bring it down. We have different themes such as soft-top Sunday, Supercar Sunday and Sushi Sunday. If you love your car, we love it too. Everyone is looking for a drive on a Sunday morning so they come down, have a coffee, a bit of breakfast and then go home. It's free and we get about 5,000 cars turning up. It's really about us making Goodwood available. Trying to attract people into the Goodwood family.''

The Festival of Speed also gives Lord March the chance to drive some of the cars taking part. This year's annual Hillclimb, for example, he got behind the wheel of a vintage W196 Mercedes racing car that he describes as “spectacular''. Over the years he has also met an impressive array of motor sport legends, from yesteryear to the modern era, yet there are still a few he hasn't had the chance to meet. “[The late Ayrton] Senna never did come here and is one of the very few world champions we haven't had. American driver AJ Foyt would be another one I'd like to see as he's the most winning-est American driver. But we got Kimi Räikkönen for the first time this year and we haven't had him before. Felipe Massa came here years ago when he was a baby test-driver at Ferrari and he's back.''

With the Festival of Speed growing bigger and better each year, it's hard to predict what else can be done to build on its success. Lord March has one idea up his sleeve: “We are very interested in the audience that aren't able to come, so we want to start creating content for those who would love to come but can't. We'll live-stream everything from the Goodwood Festival of Speed weekend on the website. We are hoping for a big audience.'' Few would doubt his prediction.