A walk in the park

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As Donington celebrates the ruby anniversary of  its rebirth, we meet some of those who helped  get it through good years and bad

Forty years. That is the milestone Donington Park circuit celebrates this season. Early middle-age in human terms, yet in celebrating those four decades the revived Donington Park circuit is not only fitter than ever but flexing new-found muscles. It won’t host another Formula 1 Grand Prix, but can and does host almost everything else – touring cars, superbikes, historics, trucks, not to mention music festivals – and seven hard years after a disastrous re-boot attempt
the evidence of those depredations is gone; the place is smart, toned and verdant. You can almost feel Tom Wheatcroft beaming down over the park as the paddock fills with competitors, the stands with spectators.

“This is the first time we’ve had the entire infield open since 2010,” says Christopher Tate, Donington’s MD, watching the Historic Festival get going. “There’s great viewing. Stand on the outside of Macleans and you can see a longer sequence of racetrack than anywhere else in Britain.” He’s proud of the circuit, and of the dedicated team who oil the invisible cogs that allow racing to happen and later I’ll get to talk to a few.

Like Goodwood, the track now has a longer history since revival than in original guise. Between the wars it had a bare decade from the first unsurfaced motorcycle races of 1931 to extinction by events abroad. Yet those few years as Britain’s foremost road-racing track finally drew the European racing troupe across the Channel and culminated in the two legendary Grands Prix of 1937 and ’38 when Caracciola, Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Lang and Seaman displayed the German cars’ eye-watering performance to an amazed British crowd.

The significance of those two races was crucial, not just because it demonstrated how the lack of a suitable road circuit had let the UK drop out of Grand Prix endeavour; it also planted the seed that would grow into the track we have today. For a burly young local lad called Tom Wheatcroft watched those races, and never forgot them. Not that he swore then and there to restore and restart the track: war service and his subsequent house-building business occupied this driven man, but as his activities became immensely profitable – the post-war housing shortage was acute – Tom’s intense love of Grand Prix racing meant he could reward himself with a historic racing car or two. Or more – by the late 1960s he had gathered about 30, and he needed somewhere to keep them. 

Today the Donington Grand Prix collection is world-famous, packed with Vanwalls, BRMs and the biggest spread of McLarens on public view as well as some thundering huge war machines, and in its crankshaft-plan building is one of the highlights of a visit to the track, as well as a valuable functions venue. It seems a natural home, yet
it wasn’t Wheatcroft’s plan.

Given Wheatcroft’s antler-locking tussles with planning officials over the years, it’s amusing that the seed idea of buying Donington Park was gifted him by Leicestershire’s planning chief. But in his autobiography Thunder in the Park that’s who Tom said triggered it, when he was looking for somewhere to display his growing collection. 

By now the one-time romantic parkland enclosing neo-Gothic Donington Hall had been left a wreck after the army’s wartime requisition to store thousands of vehicles, and it was an albatross round owner Gillies Shields’ neck. Various attempts to restart the moribund track had stagnated, especially after the death of Fred Craner, powerhouse of the circuit in its thriving years. Abandoned and decrepit as it was, few could see a viable future as a motor sport venue. Small businesses still occupied the army buildings while the tyre-churned remnants of a once rural landscape looked not so much a money pit as a cash crevasse. 

Looking out over today’s international racing circuit with its permanent stands, extensive run-offs, hospitality suites and all the trappings of getting thousands of people parked, fed and watered, we’re a long way from what Tom persuaded Shields to sell him for £100,000 in 1971. Tom’s first intention was merely to preserve the track to run his cars on; his racing involvement concentrated on supporting promising drivers such as Derek Bell and his particular protégé Roger Williamson, tragically killed in 1973 to Tom’s lasting distress.

The museum became a reality in 1973, but that track provoked tempting ideas. It also inspired early signs of a ‘Donington family’ loyalty that continues among the small crew that today runs the estate. Lobbying in support of Wheatcroft’s goal, the Donington Park Racing Association Club was formed in 1973 and still continues, nowadays funding rescue equipment as well as running member track days, as club mainstay Brian Bennett points out. Brian has driven the fire vehicle at just about every meeting since 1984; it’s a break from his day job – as one of the Donington maintenance crew. If it’s been painted, Brian painted it, including the grid markers, and though 77 he remains devoted. “I enjoy everything I do here. It’s my life,” he says. “I love it.” Luckily for domestic harmony, it’s his wife Yvonne who runs DPRAC, and she too attends every race. 

Tom’s battles for the reopening were legion: against Rolls-Royce who owned some of the site, the airport, the county council, locals, rival circuits and governing body the RAC MSA. But stubborn as any mule, and with the deep pockets that strengthen any argument, Wheatcroft prevailed. Finally in 1977 a gridful of motorbikes assembled to start the first race since a gloomy 1939. And the £1.2m task took far more than clearing and resurfacing, not to mention a public enquiry. The old track thought nothing of threading the needle of Starkey’s Bridge (built in 1834, no overtaking, please), squeezing between Coppice’s barn and farmhouse (ditto, if you don’t mind), and skimming Redgate Lodge after a left turn from the famous Melbourne Loop, added in 1937 to boost lap length and the scene of those Silver Arrows salmon leaps. Wheatcroft’s (inevitable, sensible) revisions eased the ‘hairpin’, skirted the abutment-shorn bridge, skipped the farmyard (now roughly the Museum car park, while the road past the Museum follows the pre-war track) and saddest of all sacrificed the plunge to the Loop – maybe the only planning battle from which Wheatie baled out. Short-circuiting that was the only brand-new section – the Wheatcroft Straight with its new pits (looking very like the terraced houses Tom’s firm built) on the way to Redgate Lodge. Due to East Midlands Airport alongside two entire infield woods had by now disappeared, but this did open up those terrific views.

Still, what a remarkable 20,000 spectators saw on May 15 1977 for that opening bike meeting was very familiar – in the opening programme our own DSJ wrote, “While it is
no longer a track through the woods, it is indisputably a park circuit and anyone who saw it when the Army moved out cannot help being filled with admiration for Tom Wheatcroft and the way he has transformed a rubbish dump into a pleasant parkland.” 

Such were the teeming queues that for speed Tom told staff to forget the posted £1.20 ticket price and just take a straight pound note. And – typical Tom, who didn’t like a fuss – there was no grand opening. Pre-war Mercedes driver Hermann Lang attended an earlier press announcement, but on the day riders simply formed up, watched the flag and set off on the first lap of a new era. Just a fortnight later the first cars arrived – and the MSA rescinded the track licence. It took Tom and a QC to quash a row about a footpath with mere hours to go, but Wheatcroft the human bulldozer was not to be denied. This time there was a ceremony, the informal sort that suited Tom: Gunnar Nilsson lapped the new track in his JPS Lotus 77, with an effervescent Wheatie perched on the sidepod, in his own version of paradise.

Watching this was volunteer marshal Diane Hardy – and she’s barely missed a meeting since. Now she is chief incident officer in race control, despatching rescue and emergency vehicles, and she also marshals the marshals and runs training – “We can have 150 people here over the weekend. My role is to keep things moving,” she says in a quick break during the Historic Festival, one of Donington’s success stories. “I release cars from the assembly area, allocate facilities and manage incidents.
A vehicle can’t be moved from a gravel trap without my instruction, and if the clerk of the course calls a red flag, I put it into action.”

On cue the man who gets those instructions arrives – Mick Avery runs the recovery crews and has pulled everyone you’ve ever heard of out of the gravel. Genial and talkative, he’s been at this since 1978. “I reckon I’ve done 60,000 laps here. I know where we can tow, where we must lift. But it can be hard. Cameras stop you lifting by the roll bar and saloons now have carbon fibre round the roll cage. And Di is always on the radio wanting things moved on – people are losing track time.”

“He says ‘I need five minutes’ and I say ‘You’ve got three’,” Di interjects. They’re obviously completely in tune, trying to balance optimistic timetables against over-optimistic driving. 

“Some people who put the timetable together don’t realise the demands,” says Di, while Tate adds another unseen side effect of errant drivers: “We’ve just put 20 tons of gravel back in the traps to replace what gets scooped up in rads and sidepods.”

But in this lunch pause Mick has time for stories. “A famous German DTM driver crashed under the Dunlop Bridge and asked me what I thought about the car. I said I didn’t have the words. He replied, ‘I give you words. It’s f***ed.’ Thankfully he had lift eyes in the roof which I’ve been on about for years, and this season the touring cars all have to have them.” 

It’s a specialised discipline: “I couldn’t send a road recovery guy here,” says Mick. And there’s the unpleasant side, holding up blankets around an injured driver. “The buggers will take pictures,” he says, feelingly. Among hero memories of dealing with Surtees, Sears and Hulme, Mick says “I love the guy with a Transit and a beat-up Mini. It’s a joy to help a real enthusiast. They’re our customers – we want to keep them. But some don’t even say thanks – one American was so aggressive that when I dropped his car back to his pit I told the mechanic he was lucky I didn’t punch him. Then four mechanics came out and I thought, ‘I’m in trouble.’ But they said ‘We’ve had a whip-round. Here’s £100 if you smack him
in the mouth!’”

With its sweeping curves, plunges and rises and grass run-off with no Armco, Donington quickly became a favourite venue, particularly for bikes. Under Robert Fearnall’s Two-Four Sports management the scope of the meetings expanded, with international F2, F3000 and motorcycle races, and once a new Melbourne Loop was laid out behind the paddock in 1987 a motorbike Grand Prix arrived, then World Superbikes. Eddie Lawson won that GP and great riders like Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi would likewise score at the Leicestershire circuit. In 1989 came the circuit’s first FIA world championship race, for sports-prototypes, in which silver (Sauber-) Mercedes returned to Donington 50 years on. The Germans were able to laugh at clinching the title under the nose of the replica Spitfire overlooking Craner Curves… According to Motor Sport, the event “was widely acclaimed, and stakes a powerful claim for the East Midlands track to hold a Formula 1 GP in the foreseeable future”. 

It took until 1993 for that dream to come true. Five times since 1983 the Grand Prix establishment had promised Wheatcroft a race, then backed out, but when finance collapsed for the proposed Autopolis event in Japan, as ‘first reserve’ on the F1 calendar Donington was unexpectedly granted the European GP.

Reams have been written about that April day: the deluge, the spray, Ayrton Senna’s opening lap, sensational whether or not assisted by electronics, his victory over Damon Hill and pole-sitter Alain Prost. Di Hardy officiated, “But we were so busy I remember little. Except Tom sticking a car in the gravel.” Eager to celebrate, Wheatie took out a Mercedes-Benz W154 – and Mick Avery had to recover his boss.

That day remains one of the great GP tales, but it remains unique. By the 1990s Donington’s facilities were already borderline for ever-more demanding F1, and while the circus was happy to go there once to vindicate TW’s mission, no one campaigned for a return. 

Until 2007. We know now it wouldn’t happen, but when Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd took over the lease with grand plans to bring back F1 with a Hermann Tilke redesign involving a new pits complex and an infield loop, a new era seemed imminent. FOM awarded DVLL the British GP rights, bulldozers attacked the track, the Dunlop Bridge came down – and then world finances slumped. Everything stalled.

Estates development manager Bob Commons is another long-term Donington figure. “Everyone believed it was going to happen. The track needed improving, and they would run the whole site” – the Wheatcrofts ran the estate but not the racing – “but I still winced when they dug into the track.”

But unable to raise the money DVLL folded, laying off all staff and leaving ruin behind. Bob is tight-lipped about the people concerned. “The track was ripped up in 13 or 14 places – they said it was for the archeology. Then there was the infamous tunnel – very badly thought out.” Built on the cheap, the tunnel failed to comply with racing requirements.

Tom died in the depths of all this and it was left to his son Kevin to step up. Lawsuits and legalities brought the estate back into Wheatcroft control in 2010, wrecked and bleak, but Kevin called up a handful of loyalists who’d been made redundant including Di Hardy, Bob Commons and museum manager Garry Rankin and appointed Alison Nicholls as chief operating officer. “We restarted with £500 in petty cash,” Nicholls recalls. “The track was destroyed; it took major changes to get the licences back – rebuilding the tunnel, demolishing the Redgate pub for more run-off, [the frontage is in store just in case], piling 700,000 tons of material into the infield.” Now Nicholls oversees race organisation from renewing licences to complying with the operating manuals for major visiting series.

Some £11m later and World Superbikes, BTCC and the Historic Festival prove that Donington is again not just open for business, but packed out. From this year under Jonathan Palmer’s thriving MSV umbrella, the 650-acre site is busy almost every day with racing, testing, launches, even weddings; the Tarmac Lake, once home to the massive Donington market, echoes to Ferraris and Caterhams, the Heritage Loop to manufacturer promotions. But theirs is not a retail operation. “We have a venue hire team who subcontract areas for things like driver experience, skid training and functions,” explains Nicholls. “We even had a new toothpaste launched in the Senna suite.” There’s now a serious off-road course, and of course the music festivals – first Monsters of Rock and now Download. “Don’t forget Little Mix,” says the urbane Tate, though it sounds from his tone as if he just might not be in that crowd. Erecting temporary stages and vast campsites, festival organisers take the site for a month, says a resigned Bob Commons. “We make it pretty, 70,000 people wreck it, we start again. It’s a bit disheartening, but…” 

Donington pushes the access angle hard – it’s by the M1, there’s a new rail station nearby and it’s the only UK track effectively with its own international airport. “I know people who fly in from Spain to test their cars,” Tate says, “and we’re close to ‘motor sport valley’.” In 2014 Donington became an international nexus with the building of the £5.7m Formula E development workshops and HQ, which Tate calls “a huge PR boost for us”. But this has ended one dream, as Commons who supervised the construction reflects: “There was a plan to reconnect the Melbourne loop for 2019, but now the Formula E complex is in the way.”

Most of us visit Donington Park for a particular event, whether a race, a skid training session or to stand in the dark as the amps get cranked up to 11; few of us are aware of the extent, the multiplicity, the mechanics of what goes on here. With its small team – only 25 full-timers – the Park has weathered devastating storms between balmy climes but now the sun seems to be out once more. And if you can hear a distant thunder even after the last race of the weekend finishes, it’s probably Tom Wheatcroft, surrounded by his racing heroes, looking down and laughing his booming laugh.

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