Petrolheads party

The Festival of Speed is an antidote to puffed-up Formula One

Old drummers don't die, they just gig at stately homes. So I discovered at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, held on 11-13 July at the Earl of March's grand pad in Sussex. The big question around the paddock was not who would finish fastest in the famous hill climb, but who would be the entertainment at the famously splendid gala dinner on Saturday night.

There was a crazy rumour that Pink Floyd had reunited for the occasion, which suggested that the smell of burning rubber had gone to a few heads. It turned out to be not so far off - the Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, an avowed petrolhead, had brought along Queen's Roger Taylor and The Who's Kenney Jones to treat us to a percussive spectacular.

The result was a truly bizarre sight. The 1,200 invited guests are generally at the "venerable" end of the spectrum - racing drivers of a certain age such as Sir Stirling Moss, aristocratic motoring enthusiasts and, of course, their elegant, silver-haired wives. It was dark, so it was difficult to gauge their reaction when Mason's dancing girls tore off their leathers to reveal a red bra-and-hot-pants combo, nor could I tell whether they appreciated the pole dancing. What with the accompanying fireworks and jets of flame, I did worry that there were some pacemakers working very hard.

Happily, K T Tunstall was also in the house to calm things down, and some decorous bopping ensued on the dance floor. She even apologised for wearing a dirty T-shirt, having travelled straight from a muddy field at T in the Park in Kinross. It struck me how inverted the correlation between sport and pop music is. Footballers may think they're the new rock gods, but steal any sportsman's iPod and you'll be listening to Elton John, Dire Straits and Girls Aloud until your eardrums burst. David Beckham married a Spice Girl. I rest my case.

The same, of course, is true of the sports-loving musicians. Mick Jagger may sing about being a street fighting man but I've never seen him at Cage Rage. Probably because he's too busy applauding politely from the hospitality boxes at the Lord's Test, where he has never yet given the MCC stewards any cause for concern. This year, the punkster Gwen Stefani let her fellow anarchists down badly, not only by turning up (and behaving impeccably) at Wimbledon, but by revealing herself to be a Roger Federer fan. Federer? The man wears cardigans, Gwen! At least find someone who throws a racquet in anger occasionally.

Anyway, Goodwood. The Festival of Speed may be hosted by a man with both a title and a large estate, but it remains a great antidote to the self-importance and exclusivity of Formula One. The drivers - from Lewis Hamilton through Damon Hill to Derek Bell - mingle freely with the public in the open-access paddock; priceless motors are left out for anyone, children included, to peer into. Even the visiting celebs muck in: I saw Jay Kay sweating over a barbecue next to his very modest camper van, his Bentley parked alongside with a handwritten "For Sale" sign in the window (asking price £89,000).

It's a reminder that motorsport is usually a hobby and a passion, not a business or career. Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire has been inspired to host its own "Pageant of Power" event this August. When sport's carbon footprint is under scrutiny, motor racing needs to generate as much goodwill as possible.

Emma John is deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism