“Howell, do you wanna drive up the hill at Goodwood on Sunday?"
"No boss, I don't."
"Tough, you're doing it anyway, and stop whinging."
"Okay boss, thank you."
I’ve always tried to avoid the hill climb at Goodwood for one very sound reason: it’s not a circle. Racing circuits are great; you can go round and round, gradually upping the pace until you’ve learnt every twist and turn. On the hill you get one shot, and if you screw up you look like a proper wally in front of 100,000 people.
And what’s to gain? The best I could hope for is not crashing and simply being forgotten. Or crashing, and being immortalised as a loser on YouTube.
Still, I believed I’d be driving the fabulous new Fiat 124 Abarth Rally. “Okay” I thought, “a modern car with powerful brakes and a well-sorted chassis. It’ll be fine.”
As you can see from the pictures, I’d got this slightly wrong. The car I was driving turned out to be an original 1975 Fiat 124 Abarth Rally, with 40-year-old brakes and suspension. It was unique and extremely special, too, being the car that won the 1975 European Rally Championship in the hands of Maurizio Verini; so even more pressure not to crash it then.
Apprehensively I squeezed my 6ft 3in frame into the snug bucket seat, and with my head cocked due to the lack of head room and my knees around my ears, asked: “How do I move the seat back?” “You can’t.” Ah, okay.
Then a lovely man called Francesco, Fiat’s mechanic, explained the controls to me. Despite his loveliness Francesco spoke no English, so I just smiled sweetly as he told me in his dancing Italian mother tongue about the dozen or so toggle switches and the gear pattern. I gave him the thumbs up as he walked off, but still I had no clue what anything did.
If you should ever find yourself in a 1975 Fiat 124 Abarth Rally, subsequent investigations revealed that it’s a dog-leg, five-speed box, and reverse is push down, left and up. But other than the ignition and starter switches, I still can’t fill you in on what any of the buttons do.
At this point I was bewildered and having a very British panic attack – quietly, and without making a fuss. I was sweating like a pregnant nun in my racing overalls, too.