Donington Derby

Only one British circuit in current use can also boast a pre-war history. Donington memories may centre round Mercedes and Auto Union, but as Bill Boddy relates, the park’s early days were also exciting

No need to tell any race follower of the Donington circuit near Derby and how well it is established in the motor racing firmament It was an ambitious venture from the very beginning, providing road-type racing in Britain from 1933, whereas the great and historic Brooklands Motor Course, if years Donington’s senior, had only the imitation of that element, over its so-called mountain course from 1930 and the similarly artificial Campbell circuit, not in situ until 1937.

From the start Donington ran rather longer races than those usually at Brooklands, although 50 and 100-mile handicaps were sometimes a feature of the Weybridge course and where from 1921 and 1929, respectively, the JCC 200-Mile and BRDC 500-Mile outer-circuit marathons were an additional attraction, with other long-distance events, for sports racing cars, especially the ambitious Le Mans-simulating Double-Twelves’ which the go-ahead JCC held there before Derby got its race course.

But once established, Donington was not long in introducing some important long contests. The original five and ten-lap races were soon supplemented, as at the third meeting of 1933 by a Special Invitation 20-lap race for cars of up to three litres. This was regarded as a move in the right direction, as by then the dusty road surface, delays between events, and a limit of 1500cc for the competing cars had been eliminated by Donington’s active organiser, Fred Craner. Moreover, all the races were now scratch events, as against the traditional, and continuing, handicap affairs which characterised Brooklands during its entire existence. This first special race was rather marred by non-starters, a telegram being read to the spectators telling them that Whitney Straight could not bring his Maserati or MG Magnette. Ron Horton’s MG was also absent, and Freddie Dixon’s Riley was reported as having a blown gasket, and two cars came to the start-line only to withdraw, Noel Cart’s Bugatti reversing back into the Paddock for some unexplained reason and Eddie Hall withdrawing his MG Magnette from the line-up when he saw that fewer than six cars would be starting, so that he could not add points to his BRDC Road-Star tally. He decided to conserve his car for the final two engagements which paid off, as he was second in the first, behind Lindsay Eccles’ 2.3 Bugatti and won the second… The race itself, therefore, was a fight between the 2.3 Bugattis, green, black and blue, of Lord Howe, Lindsay Eccles and TASO Mathieson. Howe’s 151 was fastest, beating Eccles’s car, while TASO’s retired. It had lasted less than 44 minutes, Howe winning at 60.88mph. After which Donington staged longer and ever more important races.

For example, by the end oldie second season in 1934, the lap-distance had been extended, and the Donington Park Trophy Race, for cars of unlimited capacity, was a feature. It was won by Straight’s Maserati, at 67.99mph for the 20 laps, from Penn-Hughes’ 2.9 Alfa Romeo, Lord Howe’s 2.3 Bugatti, Dick Shuttleworth’s 2.3 Bugatti, Charlie Martin’s 2.3 Bugatti and Dixon’s non-supercharged 2-litre Riley. Motor Sport said that the starting-grid “presented all the atmosphere of a Continental road-race”. The even more prestigious Nuffield Trophy Race, with Lord Nuffield’s £250 prize money, was for cars of up to 1500cc over 40 laps; it was a victory for Raymond Mays’ ERA, from Dick Seaman’s MG Magnette and Kenneth Evans’ s/c MG Midget, on a handicap basis. Donington was on its way…

Motor Sport announced in 1935 “Grand Prix Cars at Opening Meeting”; the Nuffield Trophy Race was held again, now of 160 miles (60 laps) and was won by Pat Fairfield in the 1100cc ERA he had purchased as more likely to be competitive than the 1.5-litre ERAs, at 63.67mph. Percy Maclure’s Riley Nine came second, DL Briault’s s/c MG Midget third. And that year the first Donington Grand Prix was held, a 300-mile race over Britain’s only road circuit, which brought wet weather but also Farina with the new V8 4.5-litre Maserati, Rovere with an ex-Nuvolari 1934 3.7-litre Maserati Six and Raymond Sommer with the Comminges’ 3-litre Alfa Romeo. Moreover, it was a very British occasion, Shuuleworth bringing his 2.9 Alfa Romeo home first after more than 4 hours 47 minutes driving, from Earl Howe in his 3.3 Bugatti, Martin’s similar car third, Rovere only fourth. After a furious drive he broke a half-shaft, annoyed after being called in twice for a defective bonnet-strap not needed on the Continent! Farina had the rest at his mercy until a half-shaft broke on the Maserati. ‘Bira’ drove well in a 1.5-litre ERA, refusing to give way to Shuttleworth at Starkey’s Corner, who stopped to register a protest – nothing is ever quite new!

By 1936 Donington was one of our premier circuits, some would say the premier course in this country. That season not only was the British Empire Trophy Race transferred from Brooklands, where it had been held by the BRDC in the 1933, ’34 and ’35 seasons, but the JCC moved their long-established 200-Mile Race to the Derby course. The former event provided a great battle between Charlie Martin and Chris Staniland in monoposto Alfa Romeos, until both retired.

The class handicap allowed Kenneth Evans’ MG Midget with special twin-cam head to lead for the initial half-hour of their 100-lap race over the 2.55-mile circuit, before the big cars took over. A huge concourse of spectators watched the large field sort itself out, with several exciting incidents, as when ‘Bira’ lost his ERA and slid into the Coppice corner sandbags, in front of Austin Dobson’s Riley, Harry Rose’s Alfa Romeo and Dr Benjafield’s ERA, causing the bunch some ‘loaded moments’, while Lindsay Eccles in his 3.3 Bugatti skilfully avoided them. There were many wild skids at the other corners and Wal Handley’s Riley crashed when in front of the flying Staniland and turned over twice, putting Wal into hospital. Through it all the great Dick Seaman in his linered-down 2.6-litre Maserati drove a polished race, to win from Pat Fairfield’s ERA and WG Everett’s Alfa Romeo.

Continuing the Donington long-distance theme, Charlie Martin’s 1.5-litre ERA won the ‘Big One’ at the Nuffield Trophy Meeting, the 150-mile 1500cc race, at 68.50mph, from the ERAs of Arthur Dobson and the exciting Whitehead/Walker ERA combination. Seaman used his Ramponi-rejuvenated straight-eight GP Delage to oust all the later opposition in the ‘200’, a wonderful win at 69.28mph, from the grand old man of motor racing, Earl Howe, in his ERA, ahead of the Briault/Evans ERA. The 1936 Donington Grand Prix was won by Seaman in partnership with Hans Ruesch in the big Alfa Romeo, before a record number of spectators. Though this comfortable drive ended in top gear, Charlie Martin’s Alfa Romeo and the tail-sliding ERA of the Whitehead/Walker pair could do nothing about it. It was a fine race, watched in bright autumnal sunshine by the onlookers, with a nip in the air in spite of the still weather conditions. The ERAs of Dobson’s team took the Team Award, only seven out of 23 starters retired, the first five home averaging higher speeds than Shuttleworth’s winning speed the year before, yet the lap-record held by Fairfield’s ERA, of 72.45mph, wasn’t broken, so little did the 3.8-litre Alfa Romeo need to be fully extended.

Come the 1937 season and Donington was in full stride. The previous important fixtures were repeated, two long-distance sportscar events were held there, one of 12 hours duration and the other the prestigious RAC Tourist Trophy.

The 12-hour endurance venture, of much interest to contemporary spectators, as dominated by the 3.5litre Delahaye shared by Prince ‘Bira’ and Hector Dobbs the Riley man, the TT being a victory for Comotti’s Darracq, at 68.7mph, from Le Begue’s Darracq and ‘Bira’ driving a 328 FN-BMW.

All this, however, was completely overshadowed by the arrival at Donington at the end of the 1937 season of the German GP teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, for another Donington GP. So much has been written, then and since, about this astonishing race, won by Rosemeyer’s Auto Union, including my personal recollections in the Motor Sport Book of Donington (Grenville Publishing), that no more is required here. This, and the 1938 Donington GP, won by the immortal Tazio Nuvolari again for Auto Union, formed, with the regular long-distance fixtures, the greatest of the track’s pre-war seasons.