Reviews, February 2006

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Thunder in the Park: the Story of Tom Wheatcroft and Donington Park by Tom Wheatcroft with Mike Cable ISBN 0-9542860-5-7 published by Live Wire Books. £20 (£25 by post). Available only from Donington Grand Prix Collection (01332 811027 or www.doningtoncollection.com)

The miracle about this book is that Tom Wheatcroft is actually still around today to tell us his story.

Within the 263 pages of text Tom gets hit on the head by a log as a small child, makes a litany of impulsive decisions, brashly chances his arm at every opportunity, comes close to capture by the Germans in the war… and gradually accumulates what is possibly the world’s finest collection of racing cars. There appear to be two reasons for this: his passion for the sport, and his desire to drive them with absolutely no regard for his own safety!

A motorsporting book which makes you laugh out loud — several times — is a pretty rare thing, but Wheatcroft’s personality shines through and the tales of some of his wilder escapades are hilarious.

One of the best is the story of when he acquired the Lotus with which Stirling Moss won the 1961 Monaco GP. So excited was Tom that he jumped aboard and drove it towards his housing development a few miles up the road. We won’t spoil things by telling you what eventually happened…

Wheatcroft doesn’t hold back, especially when it comes to his struggle to get Donington Park reopened for motor racing. Even after that he fought a battle against rival circuit bosses and our own governing body of motorsport that will leave you amazed at his ambition.

It’s not all gung-ho crusading either. There are poignant, sad moments, particularly concerning Roger Williamson and the unfulfilled lives of his old WWII buddies when they rejoined Civvy Street.

And you are left in no doubt that motorsport was infinitely more dangerous when the young Wheatcroft’s enthusiasm was fired: injured bikers in the 1930s used to be taken to the stables at Donington Hall to wait for the ambulance. Some died while waiting, leading to a belief that the Hall is haunted. There are a couple of niggly mistakes (our eyes rolled at a caption of Gunnar Nilsson “in 1979”), but apart from that this book is a corker. We dare you not to laugh. MS

TOK 258: Morgan Winner at Le Mans by Ronnie Price, ISBN 1 904312 19 5 published by MX, £6.99

Hmm, first impressions are not too good. The cover image has been seemingly photocopied from an old race report and printed in glorious ‘blur-o-vision’. The type size means the text is probably visible from space and the subject matter is just one car: the 1962 Le Mans class-winning Morgan, TOK 258.

Thing is, this is actually quite an engaging read as maverick engineer Chris Lawrence has rarely been written about, at least in any depth (somebody please a write a book about him as we want to learn more about Deep Sanderson 301s). Fun, despite the amateur-hour feel. RH

Ala Recherche de l’Oasis Oubliee by Fenouil. ISBN 2 914920 50 4 published by Editions du Palmier. €29

Here’s an oddity: a novel, set in the ’30s, about exploring the Sahara in a modified Bugatti 46S. Aboard this massive machine Sarah and her two lovers (but not her husband, as she cheerfully points out) set off to find the lost treasure of the King of Persia, entombed by the sands 500 years before Christ.

Written by a veteran of Saharan rallies and illustrated by a one-time director of Paul Ricard circuit, it’s a mixture of fantasy and technical explanations, with drawings of how the Bugatti has been modified (twin wheels on all corners for a start). Overtaken by WWII, the expedition ends in betrayal, with the Bug still out there to be found. Oh, and the gold and diamonds too… With an unlikely plot and weak sketches, this is unlikely to prove a motoring classic. In French only. GC

Les 800 Heures Le Mans 1923-1966 by Paul Frere. ISBN 2 914920 53 9 published by Editions du Palmier, €59

A funny one, this. Written by a former Le Mans winner and illustrated entirely in watercolour by Alain Bouldouyre, it’s a decent stab at an accessible history of the round-the-clock race (in French and English). But it’s far from definitive and Frere’s insights are a bit thin. Even so, there’s some solid gems in here, and few are better qualified to write about the 24-hour classic.

That said, the illustrations are either ever-so-slightly abstract or downright irritating depending on your artistic sensibilities. If nothing else, it makes for a change from the endless black-and-white photo albums that pack our bookshelves.

Ultimately, you wonder who this book is really aimed at. It’s not going to satisfy hardcore Le Mans types, nor is it likely to appeal to the coffee-table brigade. Strange. RH

James Dean: at Speed by Lee Raskin, ISBN 1 893618 49 8 published by David Bull, £14.99, www.bullpublishing.com

Given that he only started three events, you’d think that Dean’s racing career could comfortably be encapsulated in a pamphlet. But no. One of many new books published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the big-quiffed movie idol’s passing, this is infinitely better than most. Written by a Porsche historian and film maker, the text is informative and there’s plenty of info on the young Dean’s infatuation with all things mechanical and his love of speed.

The depth of research here is commendable and the detailed study of Dean’s final, fateful drive in his Porsche 550 Spider ‘Little Bastard’ is captivating stuff.

Beautifully presented in typical David Bull style, this is excellent value and a must-have for any fan of Dean or ’50s US road racing. RH

Grand Prix Century by Christopher Hilton ISBN 1 84425 120 9 published by Haynes, £19.99

Hilton’s biographies of Formula One stars seem to hit the shelves while the ink is still drying on the subject’s contract for his rookie season. They’re usually bright-and-breezy affairs, easy to read and nearly always worthwhile.

But this book, out in plenty of time to celebrate 100 years of grand prix racing, is a thorough disappointment. The author’s skill lies in light prose, but this is a rather dry — effectively race-by-race — trot through the history of GP racing. And that cannot be done effectively in 450-odd pages of text.

If you want a GP history for a son or nephew who’s just getting into the sport, this may do. But if you’re already a big fan — and chances are you wouldn’t be reading this mag if you aren’t — you’ll find little here that you don’t already know. MS

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