As the clock ticks closer to our allotted start time, I can’t quite believe what’s happening. I’m on the start line of the forest rally stage at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in a Ford Mk2 Escort, one of the most iconic rally cars of the 1970s and 80s.
Rewind to the previous day and I’m wondering around the rally car paddock with my dad as we take in all the sights and sounds that the Festival has to offer. Along with several other members of Redditch and District Car Club, we form part of the large contingent of volunteer marshals running the forest rally stage. Goodwood is always a highlight of the motorsport calendar, but there is a little more excitement than usual this year among our small gathering on the packed marshals’ campsite, as one of our group is lucky enough to be taking part in the mouth-watering display of rallying exotica on show at the Festival.
The following morning, the opportunity arises to have a passenger ride around the Hannu Mikkola-designed course. Initially, my hopes are dashed. It’s Saturday, the busiest day of the Festival, and driver Russ already has several other commitments to fulfil. Then suddenly a gap opens up, and after a quick change into the obligatory racing overalls and helmet, before I know it I find myself clambering over roll cage bars and lowering myself into a body-hugging bucket seat. The engine fires into life and we head off to join the queue of cars already forming, drivers jostling for position in the intense heat of a glorious July morning.
The cacophony of noise generated by so many rally cars being started from seemingly every direction is still audible even as the helmet presses my ears tightly against my head. Through the intercom, the conversation turns to conditions out on the stage, which Russ informs me is particularly bumpy in places. Even through the open visor of his helmet, I can see the knowing look on his face. This may be just a demo run (at least in theory), but from my experience of marshalling I know the narrow track, with its high banks and chalky, low-grip surface, can catch out the unwary.
We finally reach the start line. Ahead of us lies a short straight followed by a rutted left-hander, the track framed by a wall of haybales on either side. I tighten my six-point harness one last time and we’re off.
Our start is pretty good and after dispatching the first two corners with ease, we head into the darkness of the forest. The trees seem impossibly close. There is little room for error and it leaves me astounded at how the crews in the R5 class cars (the newest machinery to take to the stage, whose drivers set consistently astonishing times) achieve such impressive speeds. The stage itself is tight, twisty and technical, which suits the nimble, rear-wheel drive Escort as it slips and slides gracefully from one corner to the next. The flare of revs tells me we catch some air over the jump. Shortly after, we emerge into bright sunlight, slightly dazed, for the final blast towards the finish line.
Less than 4 minutes after we set off (although it feels shorter), we’re back in the paddock and after thanking Russ, I head back to my tent. As the adrenaline begins to subside, I’m able to reflect on what I’ve just experienced. I am lucky enough to have attended the Festival of Speed on 4 previous occasions, but I know this is one I will certainly never forget.