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English Heritage meets Italian Trident

Contributing Editor

The Maserati 3200GT is a sports tourer with attitude. Ferrari the "new" owners have tried to blend the best bits of the racing heritage like the legendary 250F and Tipo with modern manner and near supercar performance. Where better to test it then The Goodwood Festival of Speed.

The ingredients were ready. Armed with a sprinkling of high powered and brand new sports bikes. My fellow TACH correspondent Alexis and a couple of friends and I would blast down, out of London and over the North Downs, through the Sussex countryside and along the glorious A283 and A286 - the roads that split the county in half and provide the keen rider/driver with a tight and twisty route to motoring heaven. 600cc super sports bikes, on sunny roads, are serious fun. The Kawasaki and Honda simply sliced through the traffic jams with an ease that really should be unlawful and come to think of it probably was. Upon arriving and after a few choice words, the marshals welcomed us and our shinny wears to the display area, where we parked within yards of the assembled millions of pounds worth of supercars.

Goodwood, for the motoring philistines amongst you, is basically the most incredibly fabulous automotive event held anywhere in the world. From Cours de Elegance, to vintage cars, motorcycles and even "Ben Hur" chariots to Formula One and Indycars, Goodwood has them all. At what other event can you literally bump into the likes of Sterling Moss, Emerson Fittipaldi, Phil Hill, Derek Bell, David Coulthard and Andy Green (the world fastest man), all happy to accommodate autograph demands and talk shop with the motoring masses? All set amongst the most lavish grounds of the Sussex rolling countryside.

My task was a simple but rather appealing one. Take charge of the silver Maserati for the weekend and blast it up the hill as part of the supercar "demonstration" run. In real terms give the car a good thrashing and the crowd (some 40,000 on Sunday) something to cheer about. A dream? Or so you would think - unless that is who've ever driven up the Goodwood Hill at speed. For Goodwood is not for the faint hearted. It was "designed" for cars of an earlier period. Much earlier. 350bhp road cars and 1000+bhp racing cars were not around in the 30's. But as technology has changed the hill has not. "Tight and twisty" was how Derek Bell described it to me when I first did the hill back in 1995. He wasn't wrong, for after I had sped up the course in my Gallio Fly yellow Westfield Seight 330bhp (basically a Caterham Super Seven with a power to weight ratio better than an F40!). Andy Wallace, former Jaguar Le Mans winner and general racing ace, went straight on at the first left corner, collected a load of straw bails, narrowly missed a marshal and ended up nose first into a telegraph pole. This turned Tom Walkinshaws personal Jag XJ220 into a special short wheel base version! Fortunately for Andy, Tom has always liked "special" versions of his Jaguars.

Back to 1999 and in case you still thought that Goodwood was a walk over, former Grand Prix driver/commentator Jonathan Palmer has just spun and crashed the only original McLaren-Honda MP4, of the late Ayrton Senna. The supercar paddock is getting decidedly twitchy. Inside the leather lined cabin of the Maserati all is serene. The engine is rumbling idly up front, it's growl clearly audible as I attempt to warm up the car and get the oil up to "racing" temperature. The interior feels special. Despite being filled with various bits from the FIAT parts bin, great attention has been paid to the look and feel and all the instruments and buttons, of which I am pleased to say there aren't too many. The seats are well contoured and padded. Having driven the Jag XKR to the Monaco and back I can confirm that the Brits cabin is rather cramped and that the seats lack long distance comfort. The Jag is also only really a two-seater, rears only fit for a sports bag, small dog or even smaller child. The 3200GT offers genuine comfort for four adults, even the rear headroom is sufficient for six footers.

Suddenly noise erupts all round me. McLaren F1, Ferrari 360, Diablo, Diablo SV, TVR Cerbera, V12 Vantage, 911GT3 all ignite in a cacophony of internal combustion. The crowds thin out as the exhausts begin to trumpet. This is great! The marshals signal and over $5m worth of machinery take up position ready to roll down to start line.

We line up one behind another, like an exotic snake, with engines running, heat vapours rising from exhausts and engine covers, reminiscent of those long lens shots you get of the rear of the grid just before the light goes to green at a Grand Prix. Slowly the snake gets shorter, in the distance you can here the screeching of tyres and roaring of engines as cars catapult out of the start down the 400 yard straight. I'm in a Ferrari sandwich. Behind a new 360 driven by Ferrari UK's expert demonstration driver. Ahead of me, an F50 being driven by its owner. Leisurely it accelerates up to the start line. Red goes to green and half a million dollars disappears into the distance like a bullet train on a tight schedule. Now it's my turn. Holding the brakes I turn on the power, the rears begin to spin wildly and off we go. The man from Maserati advised me to leave it in D on this automatic box, the settings for the box and suspension both switched wisely to sport mode.

The Car accelerates very quickly, particularly as this is an automatic, up to 3rd the speedo reads 85mph and the tree-lined track is becoming a green and brown blur. We're already at the two right handers, I dive on the brakes in anger for the first time. The retardation is instant and impressive, feel through the pedal good, grip excellent, I turn in and power out the 235/40 ZR18 fronts and 265/35 rear Michelin pilot sports squealing gently as the Silver Bullet gently power slides into the next corner. Cutting the grass - where the rally cars have already shown the line and aiming for Goodwood House on the exit I floor the throttle, kickdown and off we go - 370 horse sprinting down the main straight past the grandstand and onto the trickiest corner of them all (remember Andy Wallace I keep saying to myself). The straight away runs out far to quickly especially at nearly 100mph - 200 meters, 100meters, hard on the brakes, the car goes a little light at the rear as the front bites and I pour into and out of the sharp left turn. Up hill now we go, past "The Wall" made of solid jagged granite and the most intimidating sight on a race track this side of Bernie Ecclestones minders. With negative offset camber, it would be all too easy to kiss the exit with the tail of the car, but this time we prevail and dive into next sequence of turns all straw bail lined, narrow and inviting to the innocent. The 3200 GT is flying now, sure footed it gives even the most mediocre driver a confidence to explore and enjoy, the power demands respect but the chassis is stiff yet forgiving. My smile is broad and bright as we cross the finish line nudging 120mph and hit the anchors hard - we've caught up the F50 in no time.

The time? Well officially it's a demonstration run. But my "navigator" stops his Casio at 60 seconds. A decent time I'm told. Nick Heidfeld set a new course record of 44 secs in the '99 McLaren. 800bhp, 550Kg, F3000 Champion V 370bhp, 1600Kg Bobsled racer/Journo. No contest - he should try it on ice.

The Maserati performs just as faultlessly the second time around, the time is a second quicker, you cannot beat track knowledge. Handing back the keys to the Ferrari guys at the end I hesitate. The car looks glorious parked amongst it's peers in the paddock. Quiet, svelte, classy in that understated Italian beige suit, brown ankle boots kind of way. Is it better than the Jag or the AMG Merc CLK55? The Jag yes I think so. It's certainly more exclusive, faster, more sporty and for my £60,000 more appealing. The AMG is an autobahn stormer, a black baron of the tarmac ready to consume all in its path. It may have a three-pointed star but it's no trident, and Mercedes never made a 250F. Yup, despite all the years in the doldrums with mediocre cars and poor reliability Maserati is back.

Thank you Mr. Montezemolo.


Price           £59,995 - Available through Ferrari dealer network.
Engine          V8 3.2 litre
BHP             370 at 6250 Rpm
0-60            5.0 sec
Top speed       164 mph
Weight          1590Kg
Mpg             21/24.9/16.3