We Drive the Fastest, Most Challenging Driveway: Goodwood’s Hill-Climb! ""
Posted on: July 5, 2017

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Subaru WRX STi at Goodwood hillclimb

The next time someone claims that driving a track in Gran Turismo—or any video-game simulator, for that matter—prepared them for the real thing, ask them to pass the salt. Given the opportunity to drive Goodwood’s famous hill-climb course at the 2017 Festival of Speed, we of course had a few goes of it digitally in preparation before we caught a plane to London. Just 1.16 miles long and with seven corners, the track seems straightforward enough in Gran Turismo or otherwise. It isn’t.

For evidence, look to how many cars crash at Goodwood during the three-day Festival of Speed. These are, in many cases, priceless vintage machines. The drivers are neither inexperienced nor careless, and yet still they occasionally veer off into one of the hay bales lining the track. Stir in the occasional sprinkle of rain (this is the U.K., after all), patches of post-burnout rubber deposits from showboaters, and gobs of oil sprayed all over the track by the eclectic parade of classics puttering up its length during the weekend, and the hill-climb is downright wicked.

Subaru WRX STi at Goodwood hillclimb

The hill-climb course wasn’t conceived as a racetrack. It’s just a long, narrow, and winding driveway on the estate of Lord March. Its surface is bumpy and the pavement was draped down the side of the hill with no concessions to proper camber. There is no curbing—the pavement simply ends, and grass or hay bales begin—and one of the trickier sections is framed on one side by a solid flint wall.

So how on earth did this not-racetrack come to host a timed hill-climb event? Lord March opens his spectacular property twice a year, once for the Festival of Speed and another time for the Goodwood Revival, a series of vintage-car races with a cosplay, period-dress element. The hill-climb element is tied to the Festival of Speed and forces the cars on display, spanning every automotive era, to take a drive up it for the crowd. The idea is to see the cars in action, not static as at most car shows.

A few years ago, Goodwood began timing the runs, inviting an element of competition. Provided they’re driving a car with some competition pedigree, pilots can chase a fast time in the hopes of qualifying for the final day’s timed shootout event. This hunt is what often leads to crashes on the hill, although some parade laps go south, too.

Subaru WRX STi at Goodwood hillclimb

We arrived at the track at midday Thursday, the day before the first timed hill-climb runs were set to begin. Our overnight flight from Detroit had landed at Heathrow that morning, and we had pretty much been driven straight from the airport to Goodwood. Our ride up the hill was put together by Subaru, which was bankrolling an effort to snatch the weekend’s quickest lap time in its Prodrive-modified 600-hp WRX STI that had set the lap record at the Isle of Man TT. We didn’t drive that car.

Instead, we were ushered into a bone-stock (and rather tired) U.S.-spec HyperBlue WRX STI. Pulled from Subaru’s press fleet in the States and at some point shipped to the U.K., the STI was still wearing its green Illinois manufacturer license plates. As if to allay any confusion among the track workers as to why the driver was in the wrong front seat, the car had big stickers reading “USA” and “left-hand drive” slapped on its trunklid. We would have one shot at the hill, and Subaru specifically reminded us that we wouldn’t be wearing a helmet and thus to pick our speeds accordingly.

The Subaru was parked in a staging area for Goodwood’s Moving Motor Show, a parade of late-model and noteworthy cars that aren’t chasing ultimate lap times and stream up the track between the display vehicles’ run groups. After we strapped in, a track marshal waved us into a line of Ferraris, Porsches, and Aston Martins, and we slowly noodled our way down tight footpaths toward the start line. It began to rain.

Subaru WRX STi at Goodwood hillclimb

By the time we reached the start line, it was raining with some gusto. A track worker gave us the go-ahead, and we launched the STI with some spirit, immediately getting wheelspin and a flash of the traction-control light. Entering the first turn, a sweeping right-hander, the track felt greasy, and we backed off before getting back on it for the main straight. As we rounded the gentle kink at the end of the straight, the windshield filled with a hay bale laying prone in the center of the track. That wasn’t in Gran Turismo, nor had anyone mentioned it’d be there. We’d later find out it was installed by track marshals hoping to slow our parade runs down after some drivers before us had done poor impressions of Fangio. So we slammed the brakes and tiptoed around the improvised chicane, and more or less drove moderately the rest of the way as the rain continued to fall.

It wasn’t the Gran Turismo–style run at the hill we wanted to take. For the track’s best corners—the hard left Molecomb Corner, nicknamed Malcolm,  just past the errant hay bale, as well as the Flint Wall slalom beyond—we left the Subaru in third gear, never getting above 60 mph between them. Even so, it was clear there’s more to the hill-climb than meets the eye. However few their number, the corners are all weirder than they appear, and the track’s narrowness makes it hard to find an ideal line. It worsens as you near the finish line, where the hay bales draw ever closer to your door mirrors until it seems the whole “track” is just wider than your car. Everywhere else, disaster waits for a wheel placed in the grass, mere inches off the ideal line, or in an overcooked corner with those omnipresent hay bales looming.

Subaru WRX STi at Goodwood hillclimb

 

Heck, just before we took our crack at the hill, the driver of a Ford RS200 rally car stuffed it at Malcolm. Two days later, a 1935 Frazer Nash monoposto race car spun there, too, the driver redeeming himself slightly by steering the car into the bales rear first. Both cars escaped with relatively minor cosmetic damage, something we figured Subaru wouldn’t like to see grace its STI. Don’t worry, we’ll be back, although most likely in a video game.

Give it a try. There might not be oil deposited from a ’30s Bugatti or rain to throw you off, but you might be surprised by the challenge posed by this glorified driveway when you’re chasing a quick time sans hay-bale contact.

For a look at a clean run—even with the speed-mitigating chicane in place—watch the video below, in which Subaru’s event manager, Ian Dobson (who rallies a classic Ford Escort in his spare time), threads the STI up the hill:

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