Jari-Matti Latvala is sitting with his foot resting casually on top of the clutch pedal of his Volkswagen Polo R WRC. I’ve just asked him how hard he is planning to attack the Goodwood Festival of Speed hill climb course and I’m expecting the question to be grinningly batted away. ‘It’s just a bit of fun’, he might say, or ‘I’m just here to please the crowds’ – you know, your typical ‘media-trained’ racing driver response designed to shelter them in case they mess everything up. Instead, the Finn chews on the question thoughtfully. “Probably 90, 95 percent,” he says. “That is the target.”
Latvala is at Goodwood taking a break from his World Rally Championship season to compete on the 1.16-mile hill climb track that is essentially the Earl of March’s driveway. It’s his first visit to the Festival of Speed, the West Sussex-based motorsports summer party which began in 1993 and now attracts some 200,000 punters every year. Latvala, a walking rally encyclopaedia and racing aficionado, is loving seeing the machinery that’s on display here; there are 1960s Le Mans racers, F1 cars from every decade of the sport and – closest to Latvala’s heart – the wild 600bhp rally cars from the WRC’s 1980s Group B era. Not that he’s here to be a car-spotter; he’s here to compete.
“I haven’t been driving so much today,” he says, with as much gravity as if he were talking about famous WRC stages like Ouninpohja in Finland or Sweet Lamb in Wales. “When you drive more, then you can push closer to the limit, but when it’s been so little driving, you can’t get into the feeling so much. And because it’s only 1.16 miles, it goes quite quickly.”
I’ll discover that for myself soon enough. I’ve managed to blag my way into the passenger seat for a run up the hill alongside Latvala. It’s a privilege usually reserved for actors, musicians, VW board members and the like. But I’ve been given the nod of approval, handed my Volkswagen overalls and helmet and strapped into the car by a man called Bjorn. And now I have the chance to see, at close quarters, a driver who many reckon is one of the fastest to ever grace the sport of rallying.
Latvala and I are dozily sitting in the Polo in the holding area when, suddenly, the atmosphere tenses up. Whistles are blown, throttles are blipped and we’re directed onto the track and up towards the start of the hill climb. With astounding confidence on cold tyres, Jari-Matti nails the throttle on the Polo and the car lurches straight towards the white overalled marshals directing the traffic. 10 metres from bowling into the marshals’ kneecaps, Jari-Matti yanks smartly on the handbrake and the car pivots sharply, then he’s away, up through the gears and weaving side to side, building heat into the tyres. Then he’s hard on the brakes, locking the wheels and throwing my helmeted-head forward as the car slides to a stop. I feel like I’ve just been sucker-punched – and we haven’t even started yet…
“That was to try and get the grip feeling,” he says sheepishly as I try and get my breath back. In place on the starting line at the top of the hill – having again warmed up his tyres with some crowd-pleasing, but apparently functional, donuts – our conversation ceases as a grim, focused look descends over Jari-Matti. He claps his hands sharply together and thumps his thighs, his way of telling himself that it’s time for action.
The signal is given by the marshal and we launch ourselves away from the line down the first part of the course. It’s greasy under the trees and Jari-Matti snatches at the gear lever, trying to reduce wheelspin. We arrive at the first corner, a right-hander. He dabs the brakes with his left foot and then pushes hard on the throttle with the right, inviting the car’s back end into a small, sweet drift that pulls us through the corner. We skirt the grass on the edge of the turn – sorry about your lawn, Lord March – then it’s another dab of brakes and a big cut through the next right-hander.
Now Jari-Matti builds up the speed on the straight that runs through the natural amphitheatre outside Goodwood House. I’m torn between looking at the Finn’s feet and hands in action, looking out of the front window at the track coming towards us, or looking out of the side window at the crowds watching us blast down the course. I go for half feet and hands, half front window.
Flinging the car through the left-hand kink, I glance over at my chauffeur, expecting him to be holding onto the steering wheel with a death grip as he dices with the Polo. Instead, he’s fiddling nonchalantly with an air vent.
Then we’re into the devilishly tricky left at Molecombe Corner. This is the place where, two years ago, British Olympic cyclist turned racing driver Sir Chris Hoy stuffed a Nissan GT-R through four layers of hay bales, to much public mirth. There’s no such drama for JML. He brakes hard, throwing the weight of the car over the front wheels, comes back off the brakes and then back on again, feeling for the grip in the corner by modulating the pedal up and down.
Once the Polo’s settled, at about a third of the way through the turn, he boots the throttle to bring the back end swinging round and we’re away, climbing up the hill. And now I see the real magic, where all those hours of pushing cars to their limits on snow, ice, gravel and tarmac concentrate themselves into one moment. We’re approaching Goodwood’s infamous flint wall bend, where the track goes sharply right before arcing left around the obstacle.
As we approach it, my heart drops. He hasn’t seen it, or he’s forgotten it’s there, I think to myself. It’s true that, beneath the shadowy trees as we are, the wall looks fuzzy in the distance, like a puff of sandy smoke. The track is still greasy from the day’s earlier showers, and by my reckoning, there’s no way he can get the car braked and through that corner without smearing us onto the wall. Then at the last minute, Jari-Matti touches the brakes far more lightly than I would have expected, yanks the car right, pulls a gear and skirts beautifully around the curvature of the wall. I actually mouth the words “Oh my God”. It is majestic.
Then we’re through the final few corners and over the finish line. Jari-Matti obliges the crowd in the top holding area with some donuts, before bringing the car to a stop and killing the engine.
“Shit,” I exclaim, intelligently, pulling off my helmet, “I thought you hadn’t seen the flint wall!”
Jari-Matti laughs. “That’s where you see when the differences are coming in rally – with commitment,” he says. “At a place like that, you should not be crazy. You might be going through sections like that one which are narrow, where you have trees and it looks tricky. But if you pick up the right line and you are confident with the car, you make a difference with the time. But if you’re not confident, you start braking earlier and you hesitate with the throttle.”
And if that was Jari-Matti Latvala at 95 percent, I think to myself, I wouldn’t want to ride with him when he’s at 100…