Veteran to classic: Donington Historic GP Race

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Glory for all

“The Race of the Year” — that was the bold title the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association chose for its 100-mile two-legged event at Donington, and events proved it right. No fewer than 29 Grand Prix cars (plus reserves) lined up for the first of two 50-mile heats on the 50th anniversary of Nuvolari’s great victory in his Auto-Union at the Derbyshire track.

Neil Corner brought his W154 Mercedes to commemorate the German invasion, though sadly only as a static exhibit, and “Wilkie” Wilkinson was there, too, he and Billy Cotton finished the 1938 race in seventh place in ERA R1B, driven now by Duncan Ricketts.

The Association exists to promote racing both here and abroad for the Grand Prix cars its members own, but this is the first time it has promoted its own British event. It was Dan Margulies who suggested the idea of an endurance event to break away from the usual 10-lap sprint format, but the only slot in Donington’s calendar was in a busy weekend of club racing. Hence the split into two heats in amongst saloons and Formula Fords.

One of the essential factors the Association insisted on was the banning of the super-sticky 484 tyres which have so radically cut the lap times of pre-war cars; thus the cars which came were fitted with tyres which actually looked right for the pre-1959 grid.

The event’s unique nature brought a wider field than normal: three Maserati 250Fs from Germany, including Manfred Rimboek with a 1954 example once driven by Prince Bira, and Hartmut Ibing’s ex Fangio 1957 car, rounded out the impressive Maserati entry of eight 250Fs plus Peter Hannen’s 4CLT and Sean Danaher’s 4CM.

HGPCA Chairman Richard Pilkington (who with his wife Trisha put so much effort into putting the event on) brought his Talbot Lago, and the post-war entries embraced Cooper Bristol, Connaught and the sole rear-engined car, Alan Miles’ ex-Salvadori 1957 Cooper-Climax. Martin Stretton brought a rare beast, an F2 Pierce powered by a blown 1250cc MG XPAG engine.

Pre-war, five ERAs lined up against Tipo B and Monza Alfa Romeos, leavened by the Gillies’/Dixon Riley, the Summers’ KN MG and an intended brace of T35B Bugattis. Sadly both the Molsheim cars failed to start: Terry Cardy blew his engine up before getting to Donington, while Julian Maizub had a block crack in practice, letting in water which then punched a hole in the side. Problems also struck Keith Duly, vvho last middle gear from his Tipo B Alfa Romeo with Dubonnet ifs, and missed the first heat.

Although the field was packed with rapid cars and drivers, it was Neil Corner and Willie Green who were expected to make the headlines, but a practice spin for Neil’s son Nigel almost upset the script. The 250F thumped the barrier, crumpling the nose and damaging the radiator mounts. However, all had been tidied for the race.

Unlike the average VSCC meeting, many of the crowd had never seen old cars racing, so the aggressive battle which erupted from the very start of the first 26-lappet bowled them over. Corner and Green leapt from the pack and rocketed into Redgate, Green just ahead, with Ludovic Lindsay (ERA R5B) and John Charles’ Connaught on their heels. For several laps the two pairs battled, Green and Corner swopping the lead and Charles passing Lindsay, until suddenly the Connaught disappeared. Debris in the oil pump had broken it, sending oil pouring out of the catch-tank and causing Charles to spin on his own lubricant.

This put Lindsay back up to third, chased by Duncan Ricketts in Sally Marsh’s ERA, with Alan Miles making up ground in the neat Clirnax-engined Cooper. But one of the Cooper-Bristols had lost its drain plug, leaving a steam of oil on the racing line right down the Cruiser Curves and through the Old Hairpin, which caused a lot of alarm. Ibing spun and stalled his 250F on the kerb, while Mason spun his twice on successive laps, fetching up against the concrete and bending a radius arm.

At the front, though, the battle continued, the two scarlet cars lapping more and more of the field until only Lindsay was on the same lap. First Green, then Corner would appear in front by a yard, and as the 50th mile unrolled they sprinted across the line in a glorious photo-finish, Corner grabbing it by 0.01 seconds.

Lindsay and Ricketts kept ERA honour high, and Miles showed the promise of his recently-rebuilt Cooper with fifth. Not far behind was Stephen Griswold, showing the speed of the V12 Maserati, while Pilkington and David Ham had their own race for seventh in Talbot and HWM respectively.

Remarkably, only seven cars failed to finish the first heat, but there was plenty of activity before and after Saturday’s dinner-dance. Mason’s team straightened the radius arm, Martin Morris replaced the broken rocker screw which had caused a bad misfire, and John Charles fitted a borrowed oil pump. Duly decided he would race with his two-gear Alfa, but Paul Grist was unlucky enough to break a half-shaft in practice on Sunday, a Monza weakness even when new. With no spare, he was out.

Nigel Corner had pole position for Sunday’s heat, cut to 20 laps due to the poor light, and just beat Green through the first bend. Griswold managed to get the V12 past Lindsay’s ERA, but could not touch that of Ricketts in third. Very quickly, though, more oil appeared all round the track, completely upsetting the order. Corner spun in a big way at the chicane, dropping nearly a lap and handing Green a lead which was to survive everything Ludovic Lindsay, who had got past Griswold and then Ricketts, could do.

Further back, the best dice was between the Cooper-Bristols of Robinson and Lavers, seemingly well matched, while Miles looked good delicately pushing the Cooper through the oil which afflicted every corner. 250Fs were everywhere, Lodge spinning when fourth gear popped out, followed by Rimboek and Ibing, then Barry Gillies in the Dixon Riley and Peter Mann, who had a push-start for the ERA on the Melbourne Loop. Stretton retired the Pierce when the bonnet blew off after a pit-stop. Though Miles was still trying hard in fourth, with Griswold a cautious fifth, there was no catching Green, who came home with 25 seconds over Lindsay, then Ricketts. John Charles was sixth in the revived Connaught, and Mason followed, looking rather unsettled in the slippery conditions, later described by Richard Summers, who retired the MG RN after 14 laps, as “like driving on ice”.

Combined times made Willie Green the overall winner, ahead of Ludovic Lindsay who is making R5B go quicker and quicker. The Corners took third, ahead of Duncan Ricketts, Alan Miles and Stephen Griswold. But one of the unusual features was the wealth of class wins, plus prizes for three-car teams arbitrarily assembled by Peter Hannen. Oliver Robinson, Jeffrey Pattinson and the Morrises took away handicap awards, while Tony Stephens collected a set of Michelin tyres for sharing his drive with a car-less John Venables-Llewellyn. Awards for driver-prepared cars went to the Summers, the Gillias and Manfred Rimboek, Stephen Griswold got a bronze sculpture for coping with a tricky car in hard conditions, and everyone else had a silver key-ring. It was an occasion when every entrant felt he had a chance of glory, and there was a great atmosphere; all good signs for this becoming an annual fixture. GC

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