From the first loose-surfaced tracks of 1931 to staging four grands prix, Donington Park’s expansion in just a few years was astonishing.
The unlikely but formidable partnership of John Gillies Shields, 74-years old when the circuit opened, by now an alderman and the owner of the entire Donington Park estate, and Fred Craner, half his age, garage owner and energetic secretary of the Derby and District Motor Club, had taken the circuit to world-class standards, although some of its rudimentary facilities remained out of step with the development of the track itself.
That’s what makes this collection of images extra special. Shot on 35mm Agfa colour film, they were recently discovered by Edinburgh-based Donington devotee Philip Hall. Never published before, and taken by an unknown photographer, they vividly capture, despite their much-faded hues, the relaxed ambience of a virtually deserted circuit on a practice day before the 1938 Donington Grand Prix.
Along with several wonderfully atmospheric shots showing the German team cars in the pitlane and images of Mercedes, Auto Union, ERA and Delahaye making practice runs on a track devoid of spectators, they show, for the first time and in incredible detail, the environment around the farm buildings that formed the base for the crack Mercedes and Auto Union squads.
Since 1937, the track had been improved. The gradients of the Melbourne Rise that enabled the Silver Arrows to become airborne had been eased slightly and the McLeans – Coppice stretch widened, but the squeeze through the farmyard remained.
It was a major achievement that the German teams were even present at Donington in 1938. Due to the Munich Crisis, and the gathering war clouds, they had arrived at Donington only to be instructed to return. Twice this had happened, their return journeys via Harwich docks curtailed by last-minute instructions from the German authorities, messages relayed to the teams at roadside AA boxes and, of course, the persistent persuasion of the indefatigable Craner. The teams were to arrive back at Donington for a third and final time, the race taking place on Saturday, October 22; it was certainly worth waiting for! Those days are long gone, but images such as these preserve the memory forever.
The 1938 Donington Park practice session
From Motor Sport Magazine, November 1938
Though the Auto-Unions no longer flex and dither as they did last year, and though the German cars no longer leap from the rise after Melbourne Corner, where the bump has been eased off, nevertheless, in speed, sound and acceleration the 3-litre Formula cars make other racing look just stupid. As I write, some of the drivers play impromptu football, others clock-golf, on the sun-lit lawn outside Donington Hall, where, as last year, they have all lunched together — all, that is, save Seaman. Seaman appeared to arrive late and to exchange a few words with Neubauer.
Early this Thursday morning Uhlenhaut took out the Mercedes training car, labelled with a big “P” and committed much lappery. This car had an extra air-temperature thermometer clamped to the scuttle side. Uhlenhaut wears full kit and will apparently be the team’s spare driver. Soon the other drivers get down to it, including Nuvolari, who sets up the fastest lap. After lunch there is less activity, Seaman doing very little and Nuvolari nothing at all. But Lang does one immense lap. Hasse, in black overalls, is very cheery, but Kautz suffers from a cold.
To walk all round the circuit is a truly wonderful experience. Through the wood beyond Red Gate the cars sound terrific, and their speed down to the hairpin is prodigious, but perhaps the most spectacular point is from Maclean’s Corner, along the straight bit to Coppice Corner. Here one is able to appreciate very thoroughly the work done by the drivers, all of whom perspire freely after only a short spell in the ” seat of government” Hasse keeps his hands comparatively steady on the wheel on the straights and Seaman slides beautifully into Red Gate. Frequently the cars visit the grass verge at Melbourne and they come out of the woods like bombs, sliding sideways through the gate.
At the pits we see again the amazingly thorough organisation ; every lap timed, copious notes made of every piece of work undertaken, and cars continually given flag signals by their respective chiefs. At the depots one’s breath is again taken away by the astoundingly complete equipment. The tyre-store, in charge of Continentals’ imposing representative, is a wonderful sight, and Mercedes alone brought more than eleven hundred gallons of special fuel.
They shall not pass
This shows how the track squeezed through the former farmyard, between the barns and the gable end of circuit creator Fred Craner’s home, Coppice Farmhouse, a ‘no passing’ zone. The barns are long since demolished but the farmhouse – until recently the circuit’s administration offices – stands deserted, the sole remaining physical monument to that epic period. The main paddock, comprising 30 covered bays each holding two cars, together with offices and parking space for transporters, was located further on, nearer to the current paddock entrance. Competing cars would travel around the Melbourne Hairpin to reach the start/finish straight on the return leg of the loop, where the current circuit offices and other businesses are now located at the west end of the current race paddock.