Peter Perfect and a bellowing 300kW VK Commodore gatecrash British motorsport's world-famous garden party - the 2km-hillclimb show they call the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
First published in the September 2005 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
THREE Poms are leaning on a fence looking at a strange, day-glo orange and white racecar. They recognise its driver. "'Ere, Mis-tah Brock, can you sign 'is please?" Number One Pom asks, proffering an event program. "It's no' Mis-tah Brock; it's Pee-ah Purr-feck," corrects Number Two Porn. "Nah, it's King o' da Mountain, ipeternnit?" argues Number Three, and they all nod in agreement. "Don't believe everything you hear," Brock smiles, signing his six-trillionth autograph as cheerfully as he did his first, almost 40 years ago.
Mr Peter Perfect, King of The Mountain is 'sat' -to use a common, grammatically incorrect English expression - in his most famous racecar, the unbeaten 1984 Group C VK Commodore. The fabled Last of The Big Bangers, it's the loudest, lairiest Holden of its day, and British buffs, who have only seen it and Brock on the telly, are in raptures.
Brock is waiting to compete at his first Goodwood Festival of Speed, a high-tone motoring carnival often referred to as 'The Garden Party of the Gods', which is set on the lush 5260-hectare estate of the Earl of March, a car-loving aristocrat. His Lordship is fond of a fang, and his personal Ponderosa also includes a full-on racing circuit at which he hosts the even more posh (period costume only) Goodwood Revival.
This weekend's activities, however, revolve around the hillclimb that takes place on what is normally the driveway to stately Goodwood House, the humble family pile. With such a glamorous setting and privileged patronage, the GFOS attracts the creme de la creme of historic and current racing cars and bikes, and more world champions and A-list celebrities than you can shake a chrome-handled walking cane at- all by gilt-edged invitation only, you understand. It's a big deal; tickets are limited and it pre-sells out, attracting 150,000 people over three days.
This year's theme is national racing colours, like British Racing Green, French Blue and, er, Australian fag packet two-tone. In the program, Brock's VK is lumped into the 'Oversize and Over Here' class, a heavy-metal menagerie that also includes a '55 NASCAR Chevy, an IROC Camaro Z28, and an IMSA Mustang GTO. Brock has also been asked to demo a wild Vauxhall Firenza sports sedan, known as 'Baby Bertha', in remembrance of the late Gerry Marshall, a larger-than-life Porn who raced it (sideways, mostly) and drove for Bill Patterson Racing at Bathurst in 1977, and against whom Brock raced in the '80s in the UK.
For Brock, our very own racing aristocrat, and his mate, car owner Peter Champion, a quiet, salt-of-the-earth Queensland mining contractor, the GFOS invitation is a rare honour - one to be savoured. But Brock is not here to quaff Veuve Clicquot and slurp oysters, or to rub shoulders with Sir This and Lady That. Nor is he here to ponce about, like the majority of entrants who elect only to 'demo' their cars, rather than go for a serious time on the narrow 1.9km ascent. Nah, Brocky is here to do what he does best: go hard.
Actually, "ponce" may be a little harsh, because not all millionaires or their appointed aces meander meekly up the hill, despite driving vehicles that are priceless museum pieces and one-offs. Some of these well-heeled 'pilots' punt beautiful, irreplaceable cars with more gusto than a Western Suburbs car thief; well, I guess they can afford the repair bills.
The VK is a museum piece, too, or soon will be, and Champion has spent more than $250,000 restoring it to better-than-new condition. The three sets of rare Momo racing wheels he managed to track down cost him almost as much as the original purchase price of the car, which had been raced by British touring car legend John Cleland, and briefly owned by another Aussie collector, before Champion bought it. It's a gorgeous car, and stands out like dogs knackers in a carpark of Ferraris, Jags, Astons, Porsches, et al. But while it might be iconic and exxy, Brock has Champion's cautious blessing to cane it. As if he would do anything less.
The climb itself begins innocuously enough, turning through two open bends onto a long uphill straight past Goodwood House, grandstands with quaint names such as Pheasantry, and the Moss and Surtees pavilions- tents to you and me. That's the easy part.
At the end of this straight is a brow (approached at 200km/h in the VK) immediately followed by a sucker punch: a tight, off-camber, left-hander. Get through this corner safely, and the road straightens again and steepens dramatically before the most dangerous section- a claustrophobic, right-left flick through ancient stone walls, followed by a short straight to the finish. It may be a plum-in-the-mouth event, but the GFOS has its malevolent side, too; Australian historic racer John Dawson-Darner was killed here in 2000 when he crashed a rare AWD Lotus 63 F1 car into trees, also killing a marshal.
Adding to the '50s charm and bucolic ambience is the fact that the track is lined with large hay bales, three deep in some areas, forming, literally, an agricultural safety barrier. You know hay; it's the dried grassy stuff you feed to horses, or romp in with your girlfriend, looking for a needle ... or something. Well, add rain, and these bundles of clippings become rock hard, and can stop an errant car as efficiently as concrete; just ask the red-faced Brit who totalled an S-Type Jag in front of us. I couldn't help myself and yelled out that he should have left the traction control on. How uncouth.
It's hot and humid when Brock has his first tilt at the hill, in Baby Bertha, which has similar performance to the VK, but more grip. Mechanically, it's familiar too, with a 373kW 5.0-litre Chev and four-speed Muncie 'Rock Crusher' gearbox, just like the VK. Despite the car not running cleanly at high speed, and the driver not knowing the road, Brock does rather more than demo the Vauxhall, thrilling its owner, Joe Ward, and its many fans. "It's a great honour to have Peter drive the car," Ward smiles. "If Gerry couldn't drive it, then who better than Peter Brock."
At least now Brock has an inkling of where to brake and turn, and when it's time to drop the clutch on the VK, his legendary confidence manifests in a she'll-be-'right grin. He has conquered a real 'hill' nine times (10, if you count his win in the Bathurst 24 Hours) so two kays of English incline is never going to intimidate him, but, in deference to Champion's anxiety ("I'm very nervous after seeing that rock wall- if he bends it, he has to buy it!"), he sort of takes it easy on his first timed run.
Seeing that pretty, but purposeful, Commodore come roaring up to the nasty left-hander, dart around under brakes, and then bellow up the hill is like manna to an Aussie a long way from home. The VK may be 21 years old, but it looks quite modern in the Goodwood carpark, and the unmuffled roar of its Holden V8 in the English countryside is like AC/DC rattling the rafters at the Royal Albert Hall. Rock on, Brocky!
And how was his first run in the VK? "They kept on telling me that left-hander is a difficult corner," Brock says, rubbing his chin, "and I'm going, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah', but when you actually arrive over there at warp factor you can't see the corner, and you think, 'Whoops, it is tight, slippery and off-camber!' It can be pretty hairy, but the track epitomises what the event is all about: bring beautiful cars, with some history, and have fun. I treated it a bit like Targa; get into it and, if you’re not too sure, back off.”
Brock’s 58.68sec first run is the fourth quickest of the day, only bettered by a Nissan Primera British touring car (57.80), a 1972 Tyrrell-Cosworth 006 Formula One car (56.88), and a 1990, 7.0-litre Jaguar XJR12 Le Mans prototype (54.04). He is seconds quicker than a 9.2-litre, 645kW 1970 March-Chevrolet CanAm sportscar, a 1986 Lancia Delta S4 rally car and a 1984 Lola-Mazda T616 sports prototype!
This surprises many, but it’s not like getting pole at Bathurst, and the small crowd of devotees that lingers around the carport garaging the VK is respectful, knowledgeable and polite. They bring models and mementos from trips down-under to be signed and stand open-mouthed as Brock recounts his two minutes on the hill.
It’s a welcome culture change for Brock, who is used to being swamped by fans. At Goodwood, that dubious honour is left to the F1 stars of the day who have to push through a crushing human gauntlet every time they leave the safety of the drivers’ paddock club. Brock can walk around in relative anonymity, randomly stopped for an autograph, happy snap or a gushing “I saw you race at Bathurst in 1979” conversation. Yet he was recently rated by English mag Autosport as one of the top 20 most exciting touring-car drivers of all time, and by Motorsport as the second-best touring-car driver ever. Behind a Brit, Steve Soper, naturally.
The next day, Saturday, is overcast but still hot. Entrants are recommended to run ‘wet’ tyres at Goodwood because they heat up quickly for better grip on the short hillclimb, but the VK is on slicks, is too stiffly sprung, its diff is too tall, and it hasn’t really been dialled in for competition. That doesn’t stop Brock slashing his time to 56.9sec after another two runs and staying in the top five, which is still led by the rapid Jag, 2004’s quickest car. Champion is chuffed. Not one for the limelight, he stands back proudly as punters snap images of the man and his beast.
Today, the dramas continued, though, and a million-dollar Pagani Zonda is looped on the main straight and squared off by the hay-bale cordon. Need we say that its driver had a baleful expression? A motorcyclist also fails to stop at the top and goes straight through a wooden gate. Nasty. After each class runs, the course director’s car, a Rolls-Royce, no less, glides past signalling the all-clear for cars to come back down the hill.
For the few bored with the constant cavalcade of motoring masterpieces, there are other distractions, like duelling WWII Spitfires and Mustangs, and an acrobatic Boeing 747 (true!) overhead, and the best racetrack food you'll ever eat: oysters and champers, followed by strawberries and cream.
It's unseasonably hot again on Sunday, and Brock, who has been to the official ball (Roxy Music played) and had a private dinner with the Earl and other luminaries, has fully relaxed into the Goodwood groove. A committed car fan, he wanders the various themed paddocks, drinking in a century's racing history as thirstily as any man in the street. In the morning run, he wrings more speed out of the Commodore and lops 2.7sec off his best Saturday time as he attacks the track, three-wheeling through the infamous 'Jaguar' corner, his mouth set in his familiar 'ooh' of concentration.
His final run is at 6pm, but Champion is having kittens because Brock has gone AWOL and the marshals are calling for the car to go out. With only minutes left, I set off to find him and bump into him strolling through the crowd as nonchalant as usual, omnipresent mug of herbal tea in hand.
The ultimate just-in-time racer calmly changes into his new, replica '84 racing suit- especially made by Aussie outfitters Revolution Racegear - turns the key in the VK's ignition, bags 'em up on the start line, but is 0.4sec slower than his morning time on his last blast up the hill. Still, he's fifth fastest, Champion's baby is one piece, and Goodwood has had a taste of Bathurst.
Before the weekend is over, Champion and Brock have been invited to return for the Revival meeting with the replica of Brock's first racecar, the rorty, Holden-sixpowered Austin A30, built by Brock's son James. Champion's keen, Goodwood's keen and Brock is always keen; the Poms ain't seen nothin' yet.
First published in the September 2011 issue ofmagazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
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