After the hustle and bustle of Monaco F1, the Indy 500 and MotoAmerica Superbikes it was a nice change of pace, motorsport wise, to head to the wine country of Sonoma, California, for the inaugural Sonoma Speed Festival.
Sonoma has hosted a myriad of events since its inception in the late 60’s from Trans Am to Indy, IMSA to SCCA. The idea of over 200 classics from all of the above and more, seemed like it fitted the undulating California raceway perfectly.
It truly did. Basking in Californian sunshine, ten groups from pre-war through to a Le Mans-winning Audi R8 LMP from 2005 hooned around Sonoma in race after race as though they were still competing for their perspective championships of the day.
An added spectacle to this “Evolution of Speed” was the first ever demonstration on US soil of a modern Formula One car in the form of a 2016 Petronas AMG W07 Mercedes Hybrid driven no less than former Haas and now Mercedes simulator driver Estaban Gutierrez.
This was Mercedes most successful car in what has been and continues to be the marque’s best and most dominant era in Formula One.
In 2016 this car won 19 of the 21 races. Nine by Rosberg and ten by Hamilton, with Rosberg going on to take his only world title. Add a 1955 W196 which also had similar dominance for Mercedes in the mid-50s and a 1939 W 154, American fans were treated to a special opportunity to get up close for the first time with this living motor racing legacy.
It was an amazing gathering of classic cars with wine and good food and even white picket fences giving it a touch of Goodwood in the west.
But for me, as I tried to bring these old F1 cars alive and regal the crowd with stories of Siffert Redman and Cevert in classic sports cars from original 917’s and GT 40’s, I was given the ultimate surprise.
Out of nowhere into the booth walked New Zealand’s Howden Ganley (main picture from 1961). The real deal. A man who left New Zealand to mechanic at McLaren and made it all the way to Formula One as a driver. With 41 Grand Prix under his belt and would go wheel to wheel with those very names often teaming up with the likes of Francois Cevert for the 1972 Le Mans 24 hours.
For me, the event had suddenly come alive. The cars were all period correct and now so too would be the commentary. What a joy and what an insight.
“I bump around the world doing things like this, but this inaugural Sonoma Speed Festival event ( https://www.sonomaspeedfestival.com) has been phenomenal,” said Ganley.
“I’ve been to a lot of events here over many years and I’ve never seen one as good as this. It’s just lifted the game with the grass and the picket fences. This is Goodwood Revival comes to Sears Point and it’s brilliant”
Howden might not be going as fast as he used to, but he’s still as active as ever. A longtime member of BDRC, he was until recently a six-year president of the Grand Prix drivers club GPDC. This was a club formed by Juan Manuel Fangio.
“Yes we’ve just been to Imola last month for the Ayrton Senna’s 25-year memorial of his accident there and that was followed by a week of racing with Giancarlo Minardi Grand Prix and his old GP car collection.
“Six days of eating and drinking and looking at racing cars. In fact, I found out an interesting story. At the end of the week, Giancarlo Minardi gave us all a painting of Ayrton Senna driving a Minardi Grand Prix car.”
“The deal was Ayrton had promised Giancarlo that when he won his 5th world championship he would come and drive for Minardi for a year. Now wouldn’t that have been interesting, seeing what Ayrton could have done in a Minardi.”
Howden is still a keen follower of modern racing especially F1, Indy and of course the Kiwis.
“It’s good to see the current crop of Kiwis. We had a bit of a drought for a while when Bruce (McLaren) was gone. Denny (Hulme), Chris (Amon) and I all stopped at about the same time.
“It was great to see Brendon Hartley get a go at F1 and Scott Dixon is continuing to dominate and of course, our Le Mans impact remains impressive with Earl (Bamber) and Brendon and several others around the world.
“I go home for two months of the year these days and squeeze in six race events. I’m still a patron of World Formula Junior, so frankly I’m having a lovely time.”
So as a former McLaren pioneer back in the day working with Bruce I had to put him on the spot about the recent last few years in F1 and more relevantly the debacle last month of failing to qualify for the Indy 500.
“It’s very sad really because I was their third employee and worked on the first McLaren, the M1, on a dirt floor workshop in England. So I always have McLaren in my heart and Bruce was the most wonderful guy I ever worked for in my whole life. Just a phenomenal guy he was.
“So given at one time we were the second most winning team only to Ferrari under Ron Dennis, to see what’s happened it is really sad but you always hope that they will turn it around.
“McLaren have their dips, Williams have had theirs. I mean, look how long Mercedes took to get to their prominence and get it right. So there’s always hope.
“Once you’re not winning it’s hard to get the big sponsorship. And if you haven’t got all the money you can’t do the development so it is the chicken and egg situation really.
“If the budget cap comes in with 2021 and they are all on a level playing field then we will see good things”
And with that Howden was on his way. Back to England next week to one of two golf tournaments he organises for his late wife then its the British Grand Prix in July and the Silverstone classic after that.
What a gentleman and what a joy to spend some time with one of the originals and at an event which celebrates the cars and drivers that made it happen in the day.