If you didn’t already know, the highlight of the Goodwood Festival of Speed is to watch professional drivers drive as quickly as they can from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill. Behind the wheel—the right-hand wheel, mind you—of a Subaru WRX STI, I did this myself and managed to not kill myself or anybody else. Success!
(Full disclosure: I attended the 2017 Goodwood Festival of Speed as a guest of Subaru, who paid for my flight, put me up in a very nice hotel and fed me continuously. And also helicoptered me to and from the Festival.)
The hill itself isn’t hard to drive. It’s 1.16 miles long with nine turns, but no murderous hairpins or decreasing radius sections. There’s one very fast S-bend along the wall, but all in all, it’s pretty much a power circuit.
Most of the cars exhibited at Goodwood do a run up the hill at least once. Sometimes it’s for fun and for others it’s timed. So far, the record for the fastest hillclimb is 41.6 seconds, which was set by Nick Heidfeld in 1999, who was driving a McLaren Formula One car.
As Subaru’s guest, I was also invited to drive a WRX STI “up the hill at a brisk (but not racing!) speed” during the Moving Motor Show, a Thursday event that allowed for potential buyers and filthy casuals like us to test road cars, according to the event email.
Brisk. But not racing.
I’d already made up my mind that since I would be in the UK, I was going to do it in a right-hand-drive car, dammit. And as luck would have it, they only had one and I was quick to claim it. You snooze you lose, suckers.
The car itself was an innocent enough deep blue. Its inside had the sweet scent of new car, but I wasn’t fooled: its odometer, reading 21,000 hard and rough auto journalist miles, betrayed how old it really was. This was a tired, tired car. This car had seen some abuse. Well, it was about to see some more.
I soon remembered, after I had strapped in and was waiting in line to proceed, that I had actually never driven a right-hand car before. This would be my first time. On a track I had never driven. At speed. In the rain. After about three hours of sleep. With hundreds of spectators watching.
It’s not too late to back out, the part of me that has kept me uninjured (and, frankly, quite boring) thus far whispered. But that part was wrong, it was indeed too late.
The Ferrari 488 GTB in before me proceeded to show off by screaming through the start line with his launch control as soon as he was given the go. It felt very unnecessarily aggressive and also wildly in character.
And then it was my turn.
The marshall locked eyes with me and gave a wave. My heart took up a new residence at the top of my esophagus. Did he sense imminent doom? Can’t think about that now.
I rolled off the clutch and onto the gas—the car started to move. Yes! More gas more gas more gas—time to shift. Shifter straight down into second with left hand, clutch out, gas on. Perfect! Picked up more speed now.
Clutch in, left hand pulled the shifter up and to the right for third. Clutch out again and back on the gas—no power. What? Fifth!? Fuck!
But then the first right hander was coming up and I braked, tossing the car back into second, gassed it mid-corner and slingshotted out to burble down a straight, spirits soaring, inner monologue crowing you’re doing it, you’re doing it!—until, up ahead, I spotted what appeared to be a tipped-over hay bale lying across the right portion of the track. What the—
I slowed way down, unsure if that meant I had to exit or just go around. Confusion on a track is both a horrible and humiliating thing. Impassively, the marshals lining the sides of the track watched, their faces yielding no hint or sympathy to my distress.
A lightbulb suddenly went off in my head Oh, it’s a chicane thing. To slow us noobs down. Edged the car past it, still unused to sitting on the wrong side, and carried on. The Subaru, I discovered to my chagrin, had been beaten on so furiously that it felt like the clutch had two engagement points. That, or the one just kept moving around. I was right about the abuse. I hate being right.
A marshal flagged for me to stop after I completed our lap. “Right,” he said, leaning in the window, “Just to let you know, we’ve had reports of the brakes smelling very hot. Just so you know.”
Brakes? Oh, buddy, those weren’t hot brakes that you smelled, that was the acrid aroma of burned clutch. Couldn’t be helped. And then it was over! So quickly was it over. Too quickly.
In retrospect, my lines were probably awful and I think it took me close to two minutes to complete the hillclimb (the elite drivers in race cars usually do it in the 40-second range). However, I also wasn’t stupid enough to try and prove how quickly I could do it and risk injuring someone. Or publicly wrecking. One of those is far worse than the other.
Oddly, though, the weirdest part about the whole thing wasn’t the hillclimb, it was how quickly my body acclimated to a RHD car once I stopped thinking about it. Figuring out where the car ended while I was seated on the right took a little more practice after that.
But still... us Americans drive on the correct side. Sorry.