Letter to readers, August 1991

A Little History

Dear Reader,

In 1989 Maurice Hamilton wrote a readable and straightforward history of the British Grand Prix, going back to the first race to carry that title. It was a race held on an artificial road-type circuit laid out on the Brooklands Motor Course and organised by our Royal Automobile Club in 1926. The following year the RAC again organised a British Grand Prix at Brooklands, but after that the race lapsed for various reasons, not the least that Grand Prix racing itself went through some difficult times in Europe. By 1933 Grand Prix racing was back on course, but the RAC never felt themselves to be in a position to organise another British Grand Prix.

By 1937 Grand Prix racing had reached a new high level in Europe, so high in fact that it seemed to be beyond the reaches of the RAC and the British enthusiasts, but fortunately not all of them. In the Midlands a road-type racing circuit had opened in Donington Park in 1933, through the hard work and acumen of Fred Craner and the Derby & District Motor Club. Racing was mostly of a Club nature over short distances, but in 1934 the club put on a 100 mile race for Grand Prix-type cars, the entry coming from private owners with lesser types of Grand Prix cars. In 1935 Donington Park was the scene of a race for Grand Prix-type cars over the full distance that Grand Prix rules called for and the event, run under an RAC permit, was given the title of the Donington Park Grand Prix. The winner was Richard Shuttleworth with his privately owned Tipo B Alfa Monoposto, a car that was already obsolete as far as European Grand Prix racing was concerned, but the best available to an amateur English driver.

In 1936 the Donington Park Grand Prix was won by Richard Seaman and Hans Ruesch, a Swiss driver, in the latter’s ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo 8C/35, a car that was barely a year old and seen in England for the first time. For 1937 Fred Craner and the Derby & District Motor Club announced really exciting plans to lengthen the circuit and put on a full-blown Grand Prix event with entries from the cream of the current Grand Prix teams, namely Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. It was as audacious as if today a small English club said they were going to apply for a World Championship event. The RAC provided the International Permit as in previous years, but when it was suggested that the event might take the title of the British Grand Prix, to stand in line with the French Grand Prix, the German Grand Prix and all the other European events, this was vetoed. The Royal Automobile Club owned the right to the title of the British Grand Prix, even though they had not organised one since 1927. Undeterred, Fred Craner and his colleagues went ahead with their plans and retained the title of the Donington Park Grand Prix, often abbreviated to the Donington Grand Prix.

The 1937 event was a huge success and could be considered to be Britain’s contribution to the Grand Prix season, and the British Grand Prix in all but name. The Donington Park Grand Prix was now well established and was held again in 1938, the 1939 event being cancelled due to the outbreak of war. So the history books record that the Royal Automobile Club organised a British Grand Prix in 1926 and 1927, and Fred Craner and the Derby & District Motor Club organised Grand Prix races at Donington in 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1938, the last two being to full Grand Prix requirements of the time, and accepted Internationally as part of the Grand Prix season.

In 1948 the Silverstone airfield was turned into a motor racing circuit, while Donington Park was still requisitioned by the Army as an Ordnance Dump. Silverstone was better than nothing and a successful race was organised in October of that year and given the title of the Grand Prix of the Royal Automobile Club. The following year it was held again, earlier in the year and given the title of The British Grand Prix, the first time a race on British soil had carried that title since 1927.

In 1950 the International governing body of motor sport drew up the rules for their World Driver’s Championship, and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone was the opening round in this new Championship series and was given the honorary title of the Grand Prix of Europe. Since 1950 there has been a British Grand Prix every year, right through to the present day, the RAC and its motor sporting arm organising it each year and varying the venue, using the Aintree circuit, then the Brands Hatch circuit, but always returning to Silverstone where it looks like staying until the end of the century.

Why all this history? For the simple reason that there are a lot of people who think the first British Grand Prix was held in 1950, and in fact some of them even think Grand Prix racing started in 1950! But worse than that, in the programme for the 1991 British Grand Prix was the bald statement that the first British Grand Prix was held in 1935. The point was made because one of the historic cars in a parade was the actual Alfa Romeo Tipo B that Richard Shuttleworth had driven to win the 1935 Donington Park Grand Prix, at a time when the RAC were very lukewarm about a Grand Prix at Donington Park, and anyway they had already organised two events with the title British Grand Prix. Now in their own programme they are claiming the 1935 race not only to be a British Grand Prix, but to be the first. Poor old Fred Craner must be turning in his grave.

I know a lot of people will be saying it is not important, but I think it is important that we keep the facts straight, for not only does history pay silent tribute to the people involved all those years ago, but if they had not had the enthusiasm for motor racing that they did we might not be enjoying it like we do today. Unlike the history of some well known racing cars, in which there are “grey areas” and periods of “nobody really knows what happened” so beloved by the builders of fake Grand Prix cars, the history of the British Grand Prix is well documented, and an interesting and long history it is, only surpassed by the French Grand Prix, or to be more exact, the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France, the Italian Grand Prix and the Belgian Grand Prix. It was the Grand Prix de l’A.C.F. that started it all in 1906. I never forget that and I hope you will not, because I owe my Grand Prix obsession for 57 years to the roots that were planted by the French 85 years ago. Yours, — DSJ