Donington Park, 1938: Frozen in time

A newly discovered cache of photographs paint a vivid picture of Donington Park on the eve of war and offer a glimpse of a world that would soon disappear forever. John Bailie tells their story

Donington 8

The late October sun casts its shadows across the pitlane as the Auto Union and Mercedes teams assemble for practice before the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, one of an amazing gallery of recently discovered images.

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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.

Donington 14

This is the V12 4.5-litre Delahaye that was driven to victory by Rene Dreyfus in the Pau Grand Prix in April 1938, defeating the Mercedes W154 shared by Rudi Caracciola and Hermann Lang in the process. It is pictured on the downhill dash to the Melbourne Hairpin, part of the pre-war circuit that survives to this day. At this time the Ecurie Bleue team were riding on notable Delahaye successes having won the Prix du Million Franc prize at Montlhéry the previous year, and two weeks after Pau the Cork Grand Prix also fell to Dreyfus, all in this car. Expectations were high at Donington but this optimism gave way to disappointment, the car
retiring early in the grand prix with oil pressure problems.

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.


 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.


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