It is difficult to pick a favourite for any class at the Total 24 Hours of Spa. The race is so competitive and the event so unpredictable that even the most educated guess is just that – a guess.
But, in the Am Cup category, the #188 Garage 59 McLaren crew of Chris Goodwin, Alexander West and Chris Harris have established themselves as a strong pre-race bet. Back-to-back wins at Silverstone and Circuit Paul Ricard showed that they have both performance and consistency; if they can stretch that over 24 hours, they should be in the hunt.
For Goodwin, a class victory would be something special. Spa means a great deal to the British driver and, allowing himself to dream for a moment, he admits: “It would be lovely to come away with a trophy at my favourite race.”
Like so many others, Goodwin’s passion for racing came from his father.
“My dad worked as a doctor; he’s still around but he’s retired now,” says Goodwin. “Before I was born our family lived in Singapore and he raced single-seaters in that part of the world: Macau, Singapore and Malaysia.
“When he came back to Europe he kept it up, alongside working as a doctor. He’d disappear off to Spa or the Nürburgring to do long-distance races, which was pretty cool.
“We lived near Brands Hatch and my summer holiday job was as a mechanic at the racing school. Over the years I did every job available: mechanic, gofer, instructor, press office work.
“I then went to Imperial College to study mechanical engineering. At the same time the guys at Brands Hatch started a single-seater championship called Formula First. They made it possible for me to buy the test car very cheaply, so I started racing in that.
“I ran it myself from home, crashed it loads, and had to work like a dog at Brands Hatch to pay for parts! I won the last race of the year, so I moved up to Formula Ford 1600.”
A good finish to 1989 allowed Goodwin to progress again and at this point that he decided to put his studies on hold to focus on motor racing. Or, as he puts it: “I ran away from uni and went off to join the circus!”
He continued in single-seaters with some success, but Goodwin was already moving towards the work that still occupies him today: test driving. British constructor Van Diemen enlisted him to assist the development of its new car and his racing career began to wind down.
But his occasional one-off outings would prove crucial. In 1997 he drove a privately-run McLaren F1 sports car, which brought him to the attention of the Woking firm at an opportune moment.
“In 1999 they kicked off their road car programme and it was really then that I started to focus on my proper job,” says Goodwin.
“I had 20 years working in development of all their road car projects. It combined my engineering and driving background, and very much took me away from dreaming of being a professional racing driver. Still, I was able to do some pretty cool and interesting stuff.
“That took me right up until November last year, when I finished at McLaren.”
Testing remains his primary focus: late last year Goodwin moved to Aston Martin to take up the role of chief test driver.
During his time with McLaren, he also managed to contest some of the world’s great races. Among them, he developed a particular fondness for the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
His history at the race is closely linked with McLaren’s GT racing programme, which Goodwin played a part in setting up.
“Myself, Andrew Kirkaldy and Chris Niarchos built a team very quickly and got the first 12C GT3 car up and running with a very short lead time,” he explains.
“What you see now as Garage 59 is part of that; it was the in-house team we put together to try and succeed in Europe.
The car was raced extensively at an early stage to speed up development, giving Goodwin a few shots at the 24 Hours.
“I’ve always loved Spa and I did it a couple of times in a 12C,” he recalls.
“One of the nicest races was with Bruno Senna. Among my many sidelines, I coached and managed Bruno’s career from F3 right through to Formula 1. I’ve had a brilliant working relationship with him and the Senna family for 10 or more years.
“While I went around the world with him through his GP2 and F1 years, we got to a point where we’d never done a race together. My love for Spa has dragged me back there again and again, so we did the 24 Hours in 2013. That was very satisfying, because I’ve been a big part of Bruno’s career and visa versa.”
2018 has seen Goodwin embark on the full Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup schedule aboard the #188 McLaren. He is joined by West and Harris, a relationship that was forged at last year’s Total 24 Hours of Spa.
“I have such a love for that race and I thought Alex was ready for it. He’d been a customer of Garage 59 for the previous few years and done a lot of shorter stuff, but Spa was his first proper long race. He’s a brilliant guy, completely addicted to motorsport, and also a massive car collector.
“I thought that bringing Chris Harris in would be interesting as well. I’ve known him for quite a while through his road car work and he’d done a bit in the Bentley, so I knew it would be easy to get him up to speed.”
Spa 2017 did not go especially well for the #188 crew, so they’re back for another attempt. What’s more, they’re much better prepared this time around.
“I found myself with a bit more time on my hands, so we decided to do things properly by taking in a few races before Spa. This will be the first full championship I’ve done since 1990 and it’s lovely racing with Alex and Chris in this category. We have such a lot of fun.”
That sense of fun off the track has translated into back-to-back Am Cup victories. Goodwin emphasises just what a team effort this has been.
“If you look at the difference between us and the other guys in our class, it’s our consistent performance across the three drivers and making no mistakes.
“When we did Spa 12 months ago with the same three drivers, we did atrociously because we weren’t prepared. Having taken the time to do it again with the same team of people, we’ve prepared properly. We’re not rocking up like total amateurs!”
While Goodwin is understandably keen to avoid looking amateurish at Spa, he has certainly embraced the spirit of the Am Cup category.
“What’s nice is that I don’t really think about racing until I arrive at the track; I’m not dreaming about it all day every day,” he says.
“I’ve got loads of other stuff on, Chris has a really busy career, and Alex is jetting around the world investing money.
“So the Am Cup is about a bunch of middle-aged guys with loads going on in their lives turning up and enjoying it. I’ve never laughed so much as I do when we go racing.
“There are loads of drivers who are half my age or less walking around absolutely focussed, and that’s brilliant to see.
“But endurance racing has always been about the mixture between professionals and amateurs. At the Spa test, I was thinking about when my dad was there in the mid-seventies, on the old circuit. He’d rock up, do respectably well in the race, then drive back to England and be in his surgery seeing patients on Monday morning.
“That’s a really important spirit to capture in endurance racing, and it’s why I love this category.”
Goodwin also had extra motivation to get back behind the wheel.
“I was coming up to my 50th and I decided to run a marathon, because you want to prove to the world that you’re not old!
“Unfortunately my knees were screwed and I needed double surgery. I can still run and cycle and all of that, but the surgeon told me not to do a marathon, because it would undo all of his work.”
So, rather than risk his knees on the road, Goodwin opted to put them to work in the cockpit of a racing car.
“It’s an irrational thing. When you get to my age, you can look at it with perspective and say: ‘What the hell are we doing this for?!’ But it’s really good fun. I’ve got a load of stuff that I could and should be doing with my little spare time, but I’d rather go drive racing cars around Spa!”
More than once, Goodwin returns to the same topic: just how much enjoyment he has taken from competing alongside Harris and West this season.
“When you’re trying to actually make it in racing, it’s very hard to enjoy it. Now, we laugh our way through every race weekend.
“We’ve got the Pro car on the other side of the garage with three brilliant young drivers who really deserve to be there. They take it super-seriously – quite rightly – but they look across at us and I don’t think they can get their heads around it. They see these three old boys laughing like kids!”
With the Total 24 Hours of Spa just around the corner, Goodwin will be hoping that he and his #188 crewmates can secure some silverware in the Belgian Ardennes. If they pull it off, you can be sure that they’ll be laughing all the way to the podium.