Unless you pause for thought and think back 28 years, to the first Festival of Speed, it is hard to appreciate just how far the magnificent, high-octane garden party has come. Children who may have been dragged along in those first years by enthusiastic parents may now be parents themselves, visiting with the next generation and indoctrinating them in the way of the combustion engine.
Like all of us, I’d imagine families with a visit planned this year will be thrilled that the Festival of Speed is happening. With so much uncertainty in the world over the past 18 months, it is encouraging to see how, slowly but surely, we are returning to some sense of normality. It will be the first major motorsport event of its kind to happen across the UK and in any sort of old-normal way since 2019, and following the postponement of last year’s Festival of Speed.
And like music festivals, Wimbledon tennis, a Grand Prix or even a village fete, the Festival of Speed is made by the people. At the heart of this hillclimb up the driveway of The Duke of Richmond are the drivers, riders, fans, organisers and media, all gathered to celebrate in our shared admiration of the car and bike.
Believe it or not, 28 years ago, when the then Lord March was planning for the first Festival of Speed, he and the team around him thought that no more than 2000 people would turn up. That, after all, is what had been predicted by the British Automobile Racing Club, based on other events.
However, as the gates opened, it quickly became apparent that word had got out. Sales of tickets were at the gate only, rather than in advance, and soon so many people were streaming through the entrance that there were no more printed tickets left to sell. As legend goes, raffle-type cloakroom tickets were issued, and cash was scooped up in sports bags, handbags, shopping bags and whatever else staff could lay their hands on.
Today, I don’t know about you but I sense that same feeling of relief and gratitude. Then, people were just excited that there was something fresh and exciting to experience. Now, I rather suspect we’re feeling a collective relief and gratitude that we can be together, outdoors, and take our minds off all that has been going on those past 18 months.
It will be different, of course. I’ve driven at many of the Festival of Speed events, and this time the main difference will be the impact of global travel and local quarantine restrictions. Fewer of the international collections will be able to attend. But fear not; the same numbers of cars and bikes are likely to launch away from the start line and charge under the bridge before braking for Molecomb. There will be adjustments but once the flag drops the action will be just as impressive.
It means fans will get to speak to people face to face, ask questions about the machinery, find out what it takes to hustle an early Grand Prix car up the hill, marvel as engines explode into life and smell the cars and bikes doing what they were designed to do. Some of us are lucky enough to be driving them.
The binding agent in the success of the hillclimb is passion. It brings together people from all countries, ages and backgrounds to celebrate motorsport and automotive achievement. There are no egos (well, not too many) and no championships to be won so everyone can relax and take in what we are all part of.
As a driver, I enjoy catching up with friends and sharing such a diversity of experiences with people. The marshals and officials are very much part of this, as are spectators. It really is a motorsport family – and really is an incredibly special feeling.
Over the years, I’ve threaded some remarkable cars up the hill. And this year will be no different, with a 1932 Alfa Romeo P3 Tipo B and 1950 Ferrari 375 Formula One and Indycar. But every time I reach the collecting area before a run up the hill, or park up at the top of the hill after a charge, I never fail to be surprised by who emerges from behind the wheel of other cars, and they’re not necessarily who you would expect. Magic moments include pulling up next to a Rothmans Porsche 956 to find that the driver climbing out was Valentino Rossi. For the next twenty minutes, we enjoyed a warm and passionate chat about cars just as any of us would, his passion for machinery glowing as he asked about the Grand Prix Alfa Romeo I was driving, asking me to open the bonnet, show the controls and discuss technical development of motorsport.
Another was Giacomo Agostini – ‘Ago’ – pulling up next to me driving an ex-Fangio Mercedes 300SLR. Whether two, three or four wheels, everyone is connected by passion.
On the other hand it can go the other way, like when I filled in at the last-minute to drive a Grand Prix Ferrari. Jeff Bloxham, one of the oldest and friendliest faces among motorsport photographers, rushed over to get a shot of the driver wedged in the cockpit. “Oh, it’s you,” he exclaimed. He had expected to find Riccardo Patrese.
I hope not to disappoint Jeff or any one else for that matter this year. Whatever you do, come and say hello. We’re all glad to be back, to be part of the show, and to continue celebrating motorsport and automotive culture in all its wild and wonderful forms. I suspect that, after the bumpy ride of the last 18 months, you’ll feel the same way.