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Goodwood FoS 2016

Gallery: driving the Porsche 911 GT1

TG got an invite to drive a Le Mans-spec racer up Goodwood hill. Here's how it went

  • What’s it like to drive a car up the Goodwood Hillclimb? Well it’s a bit like being the royal bog cleaner – it’s a huge honour, a massive privilege, a genuine experience, but the reality falls short of the exulted position you occupy.

    But if you ever get the opportunity to drive, or even to ride, up the hill, don’t miss it. And despite what I say above, every year I still find myself signing up to do drives that I know will require a whole morning of hanging around for one single minute of ‘thrills’. But then that’s what theme parks are like isn’t it? And at least this one is dedicated to cars.

    I use the word thrills advisedly for one reason, and one reason only. Yes, it’s exciting to drive a car up the hill in front of thousands of people, but no matter how good you are, you must always remember that you are not Jenson Button. You don’t have the talent or the fame. Everyone cares more about the car than they do you.

    So you’ll never look a hero because you’re not going fast enough, and if you do attempt to imitate Jenson or Kenny Brack or whoever, you’ll crash at Molecomb.

    And then you’re a zero, and the focus of 100,000 people’s anger for crashing something beautiful and setting everything back by half an hour so the crowd has nothing to watch and Stirling Moss is on the start line muttering that ‘whoever was driving the Porsche is a damn fool’. You don’t want that.

    So the technique is as follows: gently round the corners, bury it on the straights. The crowd gets the noise, you get to keep it out of the bales.

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  • So Porsche asked me to drive their 1998 911 GT1 car up the hill. It’s a car that finished third at Silverstone that year, but hasn’t been seen much since, and has just come out of a full mechanical rebuild. This is literally it’s first outing. 

    I know nothing about the car. This is the way of things. Most cars at the Festival of Speed are driven up the hill by their owners or pro drivers employed for the task, but many others are driven by people largely unfamiliar with them – car company execs, celebs, and yes, journalists.

    So I’m familiar enough with the GT1 to know that this was an all-new design for 1998 and uses a turbocharged 3.2-litre flat six, but that’s about it.

    I arrive at the paddock, the mechanic shows me how to operate it, reminds me there’s no reverse so ideally it’ll need a spin turn to turn it round at the start, helps me put the belts on and that’s about it. At this point my mouth is very dry.

  • While I’m in there I ask a couple of questions – is it best to let it idle to get some temperature through it? Not necessary.

    When does the turbo kick in? About 4,000rpm.

    Forward for first, back for the rest, neutral between one and two? Yes, just like a motorbike.

    Remind me where the headlight switch is? On the centre console.

    What about the wipers? On the dash behind the steering wheel.

    And then, it’s time to trundle down to the start in an extremely valuable, recently restored, historic racing car I’ve never driven before.

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  • Only it isn’t, because what actually happens is my batch is called, and then left in a holding area for about 30 minutes while the previous batch heads up the hill. 

    Some drivers sit in their cars, but I don’t. Two reasons: one, I want to have a look around what I’m driving. During this, I notice the door handles are taken from a first gen 996.

    Two, the GT1 is horrendously cramped inside. I’m five foot nine and my lid brushes the top of the cabin.

  • Eventually we’re told to move out and head down to the start. The chief thing I learn from this is that the 911 has a weighty, but progressive clutch and the turning circle is as bad as I’d feared. I only just sneak it past the bales on the inside and the marshal’s Land Rover on the outside.

    I try to get a feel for the brakes and throttle on the way down. It’s quite fighty, clambering over the crown of the road – a reminder that a car designed for the Mulsanne straight isn’t terribly at home on Lord March’s driveway.

    The two cars ahead of me attempt spin turns in the start-line turn-around area. The first, by the new Le Mans Ford GT, is perfect, the second, a Bentley Conti GT3, less so, but still achieved with no input needed by the marshals.

    My turn. Trundle forwards at maybe 10mph, dial up 4000rpm, hard to the left and up smartly on the clutch. Bingo. More by luck than judgement the GT1 turns itself smartly about and I come out of the holding area with a dab of oppo. 

  • Here’s the car on the hill. I wasn’t driving it when this picture was taken. I know this, because…

  • …this is what conditions were like when I was driving. A friend of mine called Guy sent me this afterwards. Thanks mate.

    When I pulled up to the start line I had the wipers on full and was whispering panicky expletives into my helmet. I’d just witnessed the Bentley leave the line with colossal wheelspin and a heavy slew to the right and had decided I didn’t want any of that in this car. Because I’m not Jenson Button and crashing into the bales at the start would be even worse than making it to Molecomb.

    The GT1, prepped for Le Mans, has very long gearing. I slip the clutch and let the power come in progressively. Porsche don’t want me to take it beyond 7,500rpm, but as the turbo starts to spool and the wipers are flapping back and forth I head straight for the comparative safety of second gear.

    Round the double apex right hander and on to the main straight. Now I let it run a bit more freely in second and third. It pulls left and right over the crown, but doesn’t feel too spiky.

    Still don’t trust the traction and don’t know the brakes, so I’m on them before Molecomb is in view (you have to be – if you leave braking until you can see it you’re waaay too late).

    Safely through there, a flick-flack past the flint wall, then the more open corners up top. The Porsche is happier at higher speeds alright, and changes direction effortlessly, but as I cross the finishing line, all I feel is relief.

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  • I park up in the top car park and take this shot. I’m surprised it’s sharp because my hands were shaking.

    You then get to watch other cars arrive. Behind me the McLaren 650S GT3 lines up, then Brendon Hartley arrives in Porsche’s 919 Hybrid, the car in which he won the WEC championship last year.

    He gets out and saunters forwards to the rest of us, “we all made it to the top in one piece then?” he says. I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear him say this. We all chatter about the conditions and what each others cars were like on the way up.

    This is what makes Goodwood special. I’m standing in the top paddock shooting the breeze with legends – David Brabham was in the Bentley, Jochen Mass in the silver Merc C9 at the front of the line and we’re all grinning with relief at having made a mile up the road in truculent racing cars on cold tyres in sheeting rain.

    That’s the memory I’ll take away from this experience.

  • That, and one last one. I took my Dad up the hill in the 911R. He’d always wanted a ride up the hill and he got to do so alongside his son.

    That made him proud, and I was proud to be driving my old man, the man who got me into cars in the first place. That was genuinely a very special moment.

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