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The need for speed

The old days weren’t quite as emissions conscious as we are know. This 1912 Lorraine Dietrich could double as a mosquito fogger.

The Goodwood Festival of Speed is a great tribute to the U.K.'s motorsports heritage

High clouds in the sky and thunder on the ground – for the 25th year in a row, the Goodwood Festival of Speed pits some of the fastest wheeled machines created by human hands against a narrow, 1.86-kilometre ribbon of tarmac. Four hundred and fifty vehicles, 4,500 hay bales, 100,000 spectators a day. It is perhaps the greatest tribute to Britain's heritage of motorsport.

Founded in 1993 by aristocrat Lord March – Charles Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March and Kinrara – the Festival of Speed initially celebrated the history of the Goodwood Circuit. A place that launched a dozen legends and famously claimed the life of Bruce McLaren in a tragic testing accident, the circuit is steeped in racing lore.

Unable to obtain a permit to stage a race on the circuit itself, Lord March simply constructed a hill climb on the grounds of his nearby estate and started inviting the world to show up. An immediate success, the festival now spans from a Thursday to a Sunday, and attracts both immense crowds and some of the finest marques in the world to race against the clock, one at a time, up the twisting track.

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Spectators gather at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

To pick just one example at random, as I sit among onlookers in the stands, a howling V-12 echoes among the oak trees, coming hammering down toward the first corner. It's a Ferrari, perhaps the Ferrari: a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, considered the most valuable car in the world. Part of Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason's collection, the GTO is in this case helmed by three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who is driving it not like a museum piece, but like the thoroughbred racing machine it is.

As if that could be topped, not long afterward another Scottish great arrives driving one of Maranello's finest. In this case, it's Jackie Stewart, his plaid-ringed helmet visible behind the wheel of a Ferrari 330 P3/4, like the one that he campaigned at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Billionaire Canadian businessman Lawrence Stroll, father of rookie Formula One driver Lance Stroll, owns both the stunning P3/4 and the brutally fast Ferrari 512M that follows it.

A Ferrari 250 GTO takes on the Goodwood track.

However, if you were worried that the festival was some stuffy aristocratic affair for the toffs, be not afraid. A few rounds after the Ferraris blitz the hill, the Americana class lets loose a couple of bulls in a china shop, with the 1,500-horsepower Porsche 917/30 Can-Am car screaming past the stands, followed soon by New Zealander (Mad) Mike Whiddett's rotary-powered Mazda stadium truck. Mad Mike whips his truck over on its soft suspension, sliding into the verge and firing a shower of shredded soil and grass all over the nattily-attired audience. Everyone roars their approval.

As a squadron of supercars makes ready for their timed runs, I wander up into the paddock to get a closer look. On the way up is a concours d'elegance crammed with 1960s Ferraris and prewar Rolls-Royce Ghosts. A young couple peers into the window of a McLaren F1, while a crowd gathers around the spidery carbon-fibre of a Pagani Zonda.

Aside from the multiple layers of hay bales, there's not much here to separate the spectator from the spectacle. Stern, white-suited marshals force the milling crowd to part as a stricken 1930s racer is towed in for mechanical work. As soon as they pass, the people flow back in. A few stalls have ropes up, but for the most part, onlookers are free to rove between the classic Ferraris, modern endurance racers, and F1 and Indy racers.

A vintage Porsche races past the Goodwood crowd.

More stewards hold the line at crossing points up and down the line. Waiting over by the infamous flint wall with a small knot of attendees, we all crane our necks in anticipation as the crescendo builds – something wicked this way comes. With the shriek of tortured rubber and a hammering V-8, one of the modern drift cars locks it up, then flicks its tail to the right as it slides past the unforgiving, rocky surface.

I climb higher, hiking up through the billowing clouds of dust stirred up by the knobby tires of purpose-build all-terrain machines tearing up the off-road course. The ice cream stands are doing a brisk business, as are the mobile bars, most carry some of Goodwood's own craft-brewed organic ales.

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Entering the forest, a stillness descends. Apart from tramping feet, there's little sound and turning a corner reveals the reason. A red Ford Escort is sitting between the trees on its roof, with a pair of Land Rover Defenders working at dragging it off the course.

A Porsche 917/30 Can-Am waits at the starting line.

At the top, the rally cars are massed, waiting for their turn. Though their event is held on a separate course, the machines here are no less impressive than the hill climbers. Chief among them are the insane Group B cars: a Lancia Delta S4, an Audi Quattro S1 E2, a couple of Ford RS200 Evos and a trio of MG Metro 6R4s.

With the wreckage cleared and the Killer Bs back spitting gravel, I head back down toward the midpoint of the forest stage rally, which lines up with the finishing line of the hill climb, on the opposite side of the path. If you stand between them, you can hear the turbocharged stutter-step of the rally cars and the scream of unseen beasts approaching the finish at terrible speeds.

Cars marshal at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Back at the bottom of the hill, I'm just in time to see the gargantuan Beast of Turin hunch into view. Built in 1911, the huge, red Fiat S76 speed record car has a four-cylinder engine that makes nearly 290 hp and displaces an incredible 28.5 litres. It blats angrily, its driver and ride-along mechanic perched heroically – or nervously – at the back.

Following up is a tribute to John Surtees, the only racing driver to win the world championship on both two wheels and four. Il grande John, as he was known, was a regular at Goodwood behind the steering wheel of a racing car of the grips of a motorcycle. He exemplified the heroism of the truly great British drivers.

In the skies above these fields, brave pilots once fought the Battle of Britain. Their machines were as fierce as they were beautiful, engineered by other men with deep mechanical genius. When war was done, those same men went racing.

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The Festival of Speed still echoes with that long-ago glory – even when the machines hurtling up to the top are relatively noiseless, utterly ruthless electric vehicles. Two wheels and four. The glorious past and the startlingly fast future. Classic grace, or gnarly sideways mudslinging. It doesn't signify: The only thing that matters here is the speed.

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