Matters of Moment, February 2012

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There’s nothing slick about Donington Park. Jonathan Palmer would blanch at the potholes and the peeling paintwork, and it’s difficult to imagine Silverstone having to employ extra security to keep a bunch of opportunistic travellers at bay. But the rough edges do not matter a jot when we shudder at what might have been at one of Britain’s best-loved race circuits. All that matters is that Donington is open for business – and that it’s in good hands.

An early-morning trundle up the M1 and I find spirits are high at the parkland circuit, nestled in rolling countryside just south of Derby. New managing director (and old friend) Christopher Tate is relishing the considerable challenge of reviving the track’s fortunes in the wake of the infamously disastrous bid to become the home of the British Grand Prix. Local council politics, neighbours bristling over noisy racing cars… it’s familiar territory for Tate, who played a pivotal role in the creation of the Rockingham Motor Speedway down in Corby a decade ago (see October 2011 issue). Subsequent spells working for Don Panoz at Elan Technologies, Martin Birrane at Lola and juggling the expectations of demanding historic racers at the Masters Series qualifies Christopher as a captain of diplomacy. He’ll need all his patience in this job, and he knows it.

Kevin Wheatcroft, the man who has given Christopher the keys to Donington, joins us for a stroll around his late father Tom’s jaw-dropping Grand Prix Collection, the finest Formula 1 museum in the world (there are roughly four other people taking it in – which is part of Tate’s challenge…). Unassuming doesn’t come near it when describing Kevin, but still he’s a hero around these parts. Stricken by grief over the loss of his beloved dad, it was only two years ago that he was handed back a ravaged 650-acre site. As he admits, Wheatcroft wasn’t short of offers from a line of potential leaseholders – as long as he funded the damage repairs first. “I came to realise if all these people wanted it, why shouldn’t I run it myself?” he says with a wry smile.

The track was patched up in 2010, motor sport returned in 2011 and now a calendar for the season ahead includes 60 racing days, the return of the BTCC, and World and British Superbikes. A suitable statement of intent.

As for the Collection, cars have indeed gone – but they have come, too. A notable recent addition is the Williams FW08C in which Ayrton Senna made his F1 test debut at Donington in 1983. There are a few more military vehicles than the last time I was here (Kevin claims he owns the largest WWII vehicle collection in the world, the majority of it German), but he promises the F1 cars aren’t about to be overrun by weird contraptions that cross motorcycles with tanks…

Marketeers these days talk about venues becoming ‘destinations’, pulling in visitors throughout the year. At Donington, there is much to do to knock the place into shape, while Kevin and Christopher must take a pragmatist’s approach to their business (they have a running joke that even the most modest of repairs costs a standard “quarter of a million”). But there is a quiet determination here that should not be underestimated. Kevin could have sold up and walked away, but his love for Tom and the legacy his father built wouldn’t let him. We’re grateful for his resolve.

*

It was heartening to see Kevin’s efforts receive official recognition in November. The International Historic Motoring Awards opened the dinner-jacket-and-dickie-bow season in style at the splendid St Pancras Renaissance, the toast of London’s hotels. Kevin was honoured for Personal Achievement of the Year, and I was pleased to see Grahame White pick up the Club of the Year gong after another hard-working season for the Historic Sports Car Club, too.

In early December it was on to the ubiquitous Grosvenor House Hotel for the Autosport Awards where World Champion Sebastian Vettel quite rightly stole the limelight, and even joined in the feisty BBC vs Sky banter, a recurrent theme of the evening. As speakers go, we should be thankful that he’s more Graham Hill than Kimi Räikkönen, whom he mimicked with a wickedly accurate impression. No wonder he’s said to be Bernie Ecclestone’s favourite driver – and judging by the reaction of the crowd at the Race of Champions back in Düsseldorf, from where he’d just flown in, Vettel has finally won over his home nation, too. The Germans still go crazy for Michael Schumacher, but this time it was Vettel who got the wilder cheers. About time.

The following lunchtime, it was lounge suits and conventional ties for the British Racing Drivers’ Club awards. New president Derek Warwick stepped up to honour his predecessor Damon Hill with the club’s highest honour, the Gold Medal. It wasn’t Damon who personally negotiated Silverstone’s grail-like British Grand Prix deal with Bernie (circuit chairman Neil England was the real man taking the flak – and firing back, from what we heard), but his contribution as a unifying force within a club riven by squabbles for too long deserved such recognition. As he acknowledged a standing ovation, it was the closest we’d seen Damon to tears since Adelaide ’94 and Suzuka ’96.

Next up, it’s our own awards night: the Motor Sport Hall of Fame, which will take place at the stylish Roundhouse in London on February 16. We’re busy gearing up for what has become the season curtain-raiser for motor racing’s movers and shakers, and there’s still a chance for you to join us on our big night. Go to the Hall of Fame section of our website (www.motorsportmagazine.com) to win one of five pairs of tickets. And you won’t even have to wear a tie…

*

Whatever you do, don’t wish Patrick Head a happy retirement. He doesn’t like it. The ebullient co-founder of Williams Grand Prix Engineering might have stepped down from a frontline role at his F1 team, but he is not about to go gently into the night. That’s not really his style.

Instead, Patrick will attempt to quench his thirst for innovation in a new role at Williams Hybrid Power, working on new technologies that will feed back into the sport he loves.

For the past year, we’ve been honoured to include Patrick as a columnist in these pages. As he signs off in this issue, we thank him for his valued insight and wish him well for the future. But you’ll be glad to hear we haven’t heard the last of him. In fact, he’s back next month when we’ll be offering a suitable sign-off to an incredible career as a Grand Prix engineer.

He was determined not to make a big deal out of his change in employment, but we just couldn’t agree with that. Why? Because his contribution to the sport of F1 over the past 30 years has been simply immense – and it won’t be the same without him.

*

No one can claim our man Ed Foster is afraid to stand up and be counted (although at 6ft 7in, he looks like he’s standing even when he’s sitting at his desk). Having lost his bet with art editor Damon Cogman that Michael Schumacher would win a race in 2011 (optimistic!), our associate editor didn’t delay in paying up. He even went to the bank to draw the money specially. All of £10 – in small change. There’s nothing like a good loser. Well, not around this office anyway.

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