Donington Re-born

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Pre-War nostalgia enveloped the pleasant parklands of Donington Park on May 6th as the gloriously throaty roar of MultiUnion II and an Alfa Romeo 2.9 Tipo B Monoposto and the deep rumble of a less-fitting 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes reverberated across the undulating Leicestershire motor racing circuit. The noises were more than just another echo of the past released from the Aladdin’s cave of the Donington Collection, as we have heard on previous occasions. They reflected the fulfilment of a dream for that ebullient Leicestershire builder, that portly, guffawing motor racing fanatic, Tom Wheatcroft, for though Mercedes-Benz UK Ltd. were hosting the day’s gathering of historic racing cars at the re-created circuit’s official Press Preview, it was really Tom’s Day, acknowledgement that what once had looked an impossibility has come to pass, thanks to his dogged persistence.

As the Hon. Patrick Lindsay, Neil Corner and Philip Mann spread the right sounds around the emerald countryside from their aforementioned famous racing machines, a more poignant ghost of Donington’s past had us captivated in those marvellous new pits. Those of us who were too young even to have been born then used our imaginations, those who had seen the real thing in 1938 their memories, as a be-goggled, white-leatherhelmeted figure squeezed himself into the tight cockpit of a sleek, three-pointed-starbearing, single-seater racing car, before reaffixing the wood-rimmed steering wheel released to facilitate his entry. Aided by an external starter, the silver fish’s straight-eight engine burst into ear-shattering life, pervading the cool air with the pungent aroma of methanol and racing oil. With a deft flick of the wheel the German driver twitched his Grand Prix Mercedes out of its echelon parking position, tail against the pit wall, and blasted down the pit road past another works team car. With a little blurring of the vision, a confounding of the senses, it could have been that day 39 years before when that same white helmet atop a silver car sallied forth to set the fastest lap in practice for the Donington Grand Prix, on the 3-mile 220 yard circuit. For the hero of our vision was Hermann Lang, that great Mercedes driver, European Champion in 1939, Le Mans winner in 1952, revisiting an old haunt. Sixty-eight years old now and retired from his job as service inspector with Mercedes in Stuttgart, a little portlier, more jowly than when he finished second to the legendary Nuvolari in that 1938 Grand Prix, Lang retains a twinkling clarity in his eyes, a way with that big wheel which shows that the magic has not faded with advancing years.

Our dream ended when Lang sped fearlessly the wrong way up the pits straight to loop back into the pits, for this was no pre-War Grand Prix Mercedes, but a 1955 W196, the misfire which had curtailed Lang’s run reflecting its current sedentary life in the National Motor Museum. Mrs. Lang, who had not expected her husband to relive his youth on this occasion, was quietly thankful for the W196’s misdemenours, although Lang did have a brief run in the Multi-Union later.

But no matter, there were other things on which to feast the eyes and ears. Pat Driscoll and Bert Hadley had borrowed the pristine, little, blue, side-valve Austin Seven singleseater from the Collection; it boiled quietly and lost its SU dashpot top while Bert rued the immobility of the two twin-cam team cars. The Collection’s Maserati 8CM was its usual glorious eyeful and there too, battered, dejected, immobile, but gratifyingly original, we had another Mercedes works team car, the W163 which Wheatcroft rescued from Czechoslovakia. Tom is preparing to fend off a request from that country for this historic car’s return.

On a more modern Mercedes theme, Tom had his personal 300SL present, Mercedes had their 450SLC rally car, its black body Johnson Rally-waxed free of the mud accumulated by Tony Fawkes and this writer in the Avon National Forest Rally a few weeks earlier, the record-breaking C111 Diesel car and three 450SEL 6.9 saloons in which to demonstrate the new 1.9573-mile circuit’s virtues to guests. Another Le Mans winner, Mercedes dealer Dickie Attwood, was a fitting chauffeur.

This writer was able to explore the circuit gently from behind the wheel, thanks to the loan by Mercedes’ Erik Johnson of his own, delightfully-handing 280E. The first impression was of the sheer smoothness and consistency of the surface, which makes Brands and Silverstone feel comparatively like ploughed fields. This special, friction top black surface is a product of Redland Aggregates Ltd., whose paving machine set a new lap record in laying it: six days! Qualities claimed for the surface material are resistance to aquaplaning and tyre-spray: the top surface is pervious, the underlayer impervious; water drains through the top layer, to the edges of the circuit on the underlayer, down the naturally crowned contour of the surface.

Beyond the pits the Wheatcroft Straight culminates in the deceptively-tight Red Gate Corner, where the circuit chops in front of the refurbished Red Gate Lodge. From there it swoops on and steeply down into the magnificent Craner Curves, hurtling right and left at high speed into the braking area for the tight, but misnamed, Old Hairpin, from where the decaying elegance of the “For Sale” Donington Hall is visible on the left. The complete sequence offers the most superb spectator attraction of any British circuit. Out of the Old Hairpin the new tarmac skirts the chopped-off famous bridge, eschewing the frighteningly-narrow archway of old, before bending endlessly and gradually uphill over a brow into McLean’s Corner, a difficult entry which will sort out the truly skilful. A short straight leads to Coppice Corner, an awkward, triple-apex bend near the Collection buildings. Then comes the fast Starkey Straight, passing within literally a few yards of a Rolls-Royce depot, where 1,700 feet of Armco will be required for protection. Starkey Straight ends in heavy braking for an interesting little chicane-like twitch through Park Corners into the Wheatcroft Straight in front of the town-house-like pits and hospitality units, dominated by a high control tower publicising Leyland marques.

The circuit is fascinating for its gradients, multiplicity of corners and for its uncontemporary lack of Armco, except by the R-R depot. Wheatcroft has relied for safety on broad run-off areas and concrete walls, protected by wide, deep ditches full of sand. The questioned performance of the sand barrier has already been vindicated by Derek Bell, who put off the Robert Horne Ferrari 512M at McLean’s at a three-figure speed the previous week—to be stopped instantly, and totally without damage, by the sand. Its ability was shown again on this Press day when Fowkes spun the heavy 450SLC.

Wheatcroft hopes to have the full Grand Prix circuit completed by the year’s end, which will add an extra loop behind the pits, through Starkeys, along Shields Straight, to a new Melbourne Hairpin and Melbourne Rise, to rejoin the short circuit at Park Corners. Donington Circuit’s history started in 1931, when Donington Park’s owner, J. Gullies Shields, agreed to Derby and District Motor Club’s request to turn existing drives and farm roads into a motorcycle circuit. On March 25th, 1933, cars raced on it for the first time, to make Donington the first roadracing circuit on the British mainland. Alterations and complete resurfacing to accommodate cars cost £12,000, an illuminating pittance alongside the £1.8 million Wheatcroft has spent so far ! Indeed, Wheatcroft estimates another £2.2 million will be required to finish the project completely. The circuit was modified to a 3-mile 220 yard length in 1937, in order that the Tourist Trophy could he moved there from Ards.

Donington Park hosted some of the finest motor races seen in Britain in those days immediately before the War, particularly those incredible Grands Prix of 1937 and 1938 when the German Mercedes and Auto-Union teams were all-dominating and all-spectacular. But it was the Germans too whose shadow caused the circuit’s almost forty-year closure after the last meeting, organised by the VSCC on August 19th, 1939.

By the time this article is read, two inaugural race meetings will have been held at Donington : a Derby Pathfinders national motorcycle meeting on May 15th and a Nottingham Sports Car Club car meeting on the 28th. This month the circuit will host the BARC’s Jubilee Championship Car Races on the 7th and another Derby Pathfinders motorcycle meeting on the 26th. The year’s highlights will be the BRDC’s British Empire Trophy meeting on August 6th/7th, a European Formula Three Championship meeting on August 26th/27th and a European Formula Two Championship meeting on October 29th/30th. Roll-on Donington’s inclusion in the Grand Prix rota!

The re-opening of Donington Park should be a breath of fresh air for British motor racing. Our congratulations to Tom Wheatcroft.—CR.

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