50 years of Donington

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When on Sunday June 26th more than 30 pre-war racing cars assembled on the grid at Donington circuit in Derbyshire, they were not merely competing for a trophy. They were celebrating the 50th anniversary of racing on the first artificial road circuit in Britain.

Between the wars, and despite an enormous increase in motorsporting interest, closed circuit racing had only one home within these shores — Brooklands, steeply banked, extremely fast and very punishing on cars and drivers. There were the Tourist Trophy events on closed public roads which made the Isle of Man a sporting Mecca, and later the Ards course near Belfast, but more widespread were Speed Trials, usually held over the roads in private estates such as Branches or Syston Park. Such tracks were too narrow to allow more than one car at a time, but often were used for motorcycle racing, and it was the success of just such meetings in the grounds of Donington Hall which prompted Derby and District Motor Club to suggest in 1931 that a permanent track should be laid down for cars as well as ‘bikes.

With the approval of the owner of the estate, JG Shields, the work went ahead in the following year and by early 1933 the new circuit was ready. Its origins were only lightly disguised: intended to serve the estate, part of it led through Coppice Farm, where in deference to safety passing was not allowed between the buildings, while that section which had been the drive to the Hall ran in true picturesque fashion under an arched stone bridge.

The opening event was held on March 23rd, a minor club meeting at which a Le Mans-type start was tried. This was not very successful, and at the second meeting, on an altogether larger scale with an estimated 10,000 spectators, a grid system was used with cars drawn up in rows of three or four.

It was in 1935 that the first Donington Grand Prix was held, at which GP cars such as Richard Shuttleworth’s Monoposto Alfa Romeo and A. H. L. Eccles’ 3.3 Bugatti provided spectacular entertainment. Soon after, Donington was chosen was to hold the first TT race on the mainland. French Darracqs were first and second in the 1937 event, presaging Continental domination of the first international Donington GP in October of the same year, at which the stars were the Mercedes and Auto-Union teams. This was the Derbyshire circuit’s heyday — the greatest drivers and cars in the world battling on British soil, Auto-Union winning from Mercedes in both 1937 and 1938.

The war ended racing at Donington, and until 1956 it provided a transport base for the Army. It lay derelict until 1971 when Leicester builder Tom Wheatcroft bought it as a site for a museum for his expanding collection of historic racing cars. Although the idea of re-opening the circuit had been in Wheatcroft’s mind from the beginning of the project, there proved to be many problems apart from the actual reconstruction to present-day safety standards. The proximity of the East Midlands Airport was cited by objectors as a hazard, and a preservation order on the Stone Bridge meant planning a realignment to avoid it, which the local authority were reluctant to permit. It took a public enquiry to clear the way, but by 1977 the oldest road circuit was ready to re-open, using most of the original layout but with a detour past the Bridge and a new straight cutting out the farm buildings. Part of the scheme has always been a proposal for a loop to bring the track up to GP length, and with the recent announcement by the RAC MSA that, given the necessary certification by 1986, Donington may host the 1988 British Grand Prix, it seems ever more likely that we may once again see top-level international racing in Derbyshire.

As a reminder of those pre-war events and a foretaste of their modern equivalent, winner of the Anniversary Race Willie Green took his lap of honour in a car towing a trailer with the Mercedes W196, which it had been hoped to run, but which proved impossible. Green received his Trophy from Tom Weatcroft, and in thanking the latter for his efforts in restoring the circuit commented that it was appropriate that he should have won in a 1936 ERA, as it was just such a car that his father raced when he was involved in the instigation of the original circuit in the thirties.

With its excellent surface, good facilities, and accessible siting, the new/old Donington circuit has become a favourite with drivers and spectators alike, many of whom really did not expect the project to succeed. But if race-track success means hosting a Grand Prix, then Tom Wheatcroft is within sight of his goal. — GC.