Your senses sharpen, your hearing intensifies, and your eyesight and powers of observation move into overdrive. For a few awful fractions of a second, you can see exactly what will happen - and you know it’s really not going to be very nice.
It’s even worse when you have absolutely no control because you’re riding shotgun - as I was on Saturday, with Wing Commander Andy Green, 52.
The fastest man on the planet, Andy went supersonic on the ground in 1997, when he set the world land speed record of 1220km/h driving the Thrust SSC car in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Next year, he wants to exceed 1600km/h at Hakskeenpan, a vast natural depression in north-western South Africa.
In his RAF career, he has flown Phantom and Tornado fighter jets. ‘WingCo’ Andy may now be flying a desk, but he still exemplifies that old-school British virtue of ramrod-straight, modest hero, in the mould of Boy’s Own, Dan Dare and the Eagle comic: stiff upper lip, never complain, don’t make a fuss, just get on with it.
He’s an honourable man and a straight sort of guy, with a charming wife along for support on Saturday.
So, driving at a leisurely 160km/h up the hill-climb at the Goodwood Festival of Speed should have been the equivalent of a walk in the park for such an experienced high-speed driver.
I certainly wasn’t expecting any hiccups as I settled into the passenger seat of the specially-built, £300 000 (R5.8 million) Jaguar XJR Bloodhound SSC rapid response vehicle.
T he car was designed by sponsors Jaguar to help them break the 1600km/h record in South Africa next year: it has to be super-fast to keep up with the pace if the main supersonic car has a problem.
Proudly bearing a stylised Union Flag logo and the blue and orange Bloodhound Project colours, the one-off Jaguar (based on the same flagship limousine model used by David Cameron) has a top speed of 280km/h. It can do 0-100 in around 4½ seconds, powered by a supercharged five-litre engine, developing 405kW - more than five Ford Fiestas combined.
It all started so well. We reported into the Drivers’ Club and signed all the relevant papers.
Even as we sat in the queue of supercars, waiting for our turn up the hill, fans young and old were asking for Andy’s autograph, taking photographs and chatting, in awe of the quickest man on the planet. Ever the gentleman, he obliged with every request.
As we crawled towards the start line, alongside ranks of Ferraris and Aston Martins, he rehearsed the safety features of the car. Goodwood’s stewards and marshals, meanwhile, made sure long sleeves and helmets were worn, and shorts were not.
“The fastest man in the world with one of the slowest,” I joked before we set off. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I’ll be taking it easy.”
Famous last words.
With a screech of tyres and a roar of the engine, Andy was off, the sheer force of the acceleration pressing me back into my seat. The first corner was taken firmly and then the car accelerated even harder past Goodwood House.
“We’re hitting a hundred,” Andy said, as the crowd became a blur.
Then, seconds later, the infamous Molecomb corner came into view. A tricky left-hander preceded by a notoriously challenging braking area, this is where Olympic cycling champion Sir Chris Hoy came a dramatic cropper in 2014, denting his Nissan GT-R - and his pride - right in front of grandstands packed with thousands of spectators.
Two other confident and otherwise competent drivers fell foul of her charms on Saturday. “She’s a cruel mistress,” drivers say of Molecomb.
ONE HELL OF A THUMP
As we approached the corner, Andy hit the brakes. A second or two too late, he reckoned afterwards. He tried to hold the car’s line but gravity and physics took over.
Everything slowed dramatically. I saw the track, then the straw bales used as crash barriers.
We were going to crash - and there was no way out of it. I counted, in my head at least, slowly from one to five. At four - as that Berlin Wall of hay bales careered into view - I did my best to brace myself. I could only hope the seat belt would do the rest.
The car hit the bales with one hell of a thump. Straw everywhere, shredded and scattered across the windscreen There was a deep rumbling noise, as first one bale, then another, absorbed the impact of the high-speed shunt.
The seatbelt pre-tensioners pulled me back, but the impact was still significant. I certainly felt it.
I didn’t strike the dashboard or the windscreen; the safety equipment did its job. But the force of the impact did register with my upper chest. It was like being punched hard, to the point of being winded. Only when the adrenaline rush subsided did the discomfort became apparent. I won’t be playing tennis for a week or two.
But a visit to the on-site doctor for a check-up suggested no lasting damage.
“It might hurt a bit,” he said. Still, any accident you walk away from is a good one.
Within seconds, the track marshals and medics had been on the scene, pulling us out. And we did both walk away from the crash.
You couldn’t fault the organisation. The Goodwood Festival of Speed has, since 1993, grown to be the premier British motor show. Thousands of families flock to the garden party setting created by the charismatic Earl of March in the grounds of his West Sussex stately home.
They are sticklers for safety - and rightly so. Green and I were wearing seat belts and crash helmets, and the car was fitted with a roll bar.
‘100 PERCENT MY FAULT’
Afterwards, Andy was calm, collected - and mortified.
Did the high octane atmosphere dull his customary caution? Was he overcome by the excitement of the occasion, and overconfident?
Candidly, Andy admitted: “It was 100 percent my fault. It was a total cock-up on my part.
“I saw the corner coming up. It’s caught many people out and I can see why. I was going too fast. We hit 160km/h and I braked too late.
“It’s a heavier car but it behaved impeccably. The track was dustier and therefore more slippery than I’d expected. I gave the car a problem it was not going to solve and the wheels locked.
“Jaguar are not going to be very happy. I felt very disappointed with myself. I should have done better than that.”
How I felt for poor Andy. Despite his high speed record-breaking exploits, this was the first crash he had had since his 20s, when a tyre blew out on an old car.
Safe to say, this crash will be a little more expensive. Andy later wrote on the Bloodhound website: “As soon as I realised we weren’t going to make it, I tried to scrub off as much speed as possible and looked for somewhere soft to land.
“The car looked after us brilliantly but will need a pretty comprehensive polish before we go out to South Africa next year.”
Ahem. I took a look myself at the front of the Jaguar and it’s pretty badly mangled. It’s a unique, very sophisticated, expensive and highly technical piece of kit, and I would not be surprised if repairs will actually cost up to £150,000 (R2.9 million - that is, if the car isn’t a complete write-off.
As for the Bloodhound team, they have wasted no time in teasing their driver. One tweeted a picture of the Jaguar’s brake pedal and accelerator, helpfully marked with Post-It notes: ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ and Andy himself joked: “I’m better at going in straight lines than around corners. Luckily for the Bloodhound Project, there aren’t many corners in Land Speed Racing.”
He’s an honourable and dedicated man. He had a bad day. Let’s hope the next ones are better.
There’s that 1600km/h record to break. Andy, I wish you well with it, although you’ll perhaps forgive me if I don’t ride shotgun for that one.
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Original source: Fastest man on earth crashes at 160