How the Grand Prix of Europe was won.
Ayrton Senna won the first postwar Grand Prix at Donington Park, but the real winner, after 18 years, was circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft
‘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.’
When Clive Richardson wrote those words for Motor Sport, back in 1977, few could have envisaged just how lengthy a struggle the ebullient Leicester builder faced before his dream finally reached fruition this Easter. A pukka Grand Prix had always been his aim, even when he poured the first of several millions into the track back in 1971, but it has been an awesome fight that would long ago have deterred a lesser man.
There is a story – and unlike many in motor racing, it is not apocryphal – that summarises Wheatcroft’s character beautifully. He is not shy in its retelling, and it is frequently punctuated by the most distinctive guffaw in the sport, a cross between a tractor that won’t start and a deep-voiced laughing policeman.
“Motor magazine had a journalist, Philip Turner, man of my age, a man of respect. I knew him when he were a mechanic on the first ERA, and I was talking to him one day and he said what he’d really like to do before he was too old was to drive an 8CM Maserati. I said: ‘Philip, I’ve got one.’ And he said: ‘I know!’ So I said: ‘You tell me what track you want it on, and I’ll send two mechanics up. It’s yours for the day.’
“He said he was no driver, that Donington would do. And I said: ‘What do you know about Donington?’ Well,’ he says, ‘you’ve just bought it.’ And I had, only four days before…
“Well, there were only small areas suitable to run it, but anyway, we sorted it out. And there was this fella there wi’ a tractor, wi’ spikes on it. Well, he were swearing away. If they didn’t stop that car, he were going to ram it with this tractor, with these spikes on. And I said, ‘Well, I’m a bit ‘andy at that job… ‘
“We passed a few rude words, and we run the car. I went in the village and rang the plant manager, and said, ‘Can you get one of our ‘dozers up, an’ a digger?’ And he said, ‘Who shall we get to bring them?’ So I said, ‘How about that Irishman, he don’t like himself, half the time…’ You know…” The guffaw drowns our taped conversation.
‘We bought them up, and at five o’clock we went right from one end, right through the buildings. There were tea cans and jackets still hanging up, and we knocked the lot down, and they were begging and praying for us to stop. They got the police and everything. There were a civil case, and that helped me a lot, because this fella, he were there without planning. The company he worked for made pylons, and they were in two days later moving all the steel and everything. Then I had no trouble getting all the others out. They were saying will you give me three weeks? Will you give me five weeks? And I ‘adn’t even thought of getting all the others out! One agricultural engineer that we got on very well with, we let him stay right until the very last moment. He’s still only half a mile away, and he still makes wrought iron gates for us, and all sorts.
“So that problem didn’t last long! My solicitor always tells me the pen is stronger than the bulldozer, but I have proved to him many, many times that he’s wrong… I ‘ave always found that the bulldozer is stronger! If you’re in the right, you do it.”
Bitterness is not part of his make-up, but you make an enemy of Wheatcroft at your peril. Every failure to win a Grand Prix simply strengthened his resolve, even when legal appeals inevitably cost up to £40,000 a time. He could afford to indulge himself.
“I bought the circuit and had it homologated for a Grand Prix. Then I applied and applied and got nowhere, which was very difficult. You imagine Silverstone and Brands Hatch, they shared it and they weren’t gonna let it go. So I were getting nowhere. Then after a great long fight, in 1983, they gave me a date five years in front. And you couldn’t believe it. But we had it for 1988. Then when ’88 come the RAC changed its mind, but why you will never know. I would imagine it was the old pals’ act. And it was the time of one circuit per country.
“Five times I’ve been promised the race, and for some reason or another, it could never come. For some unknown reason the RAC Motor Sports Association didn’t want me to have one.
“In fact, I only just pulled the writ off the MSA. Since I’ve had the Grand Prix.
He is a resourceful character. In the early ’80s he went to Ireland, to assess the possibility of running an Irish Grand Prix at Donington. “They said yes they’d like to run a Grand Prix, nay trouble. Got it all fixed up. They applied for it, and Basil Tye was in charge at the RAC MSA in them days. He came up to see us and said that no way would we have two Grands Prix. He said, unofficially, ‘I want to run one Grand Prix, and one Grand Prix only. And that’s at Silverstone.’ And that was when Brands Hatch had it as well. When they shared it. He said there’d never be two Grands Prix ever run in this country. I asked him why and everything, then out of the blue the RAC give John Webb the European Grand Prix. You couldn’t believe that. That’s when I decided to start putting the pressure on. I was going the other way after that, because that were stabbing you.
“That gives you some kind of idea of what a closed shop it was. It has been uphill all the way. Rolls-Royce fought me not to open up because it had land at Donington, East Midlands Airport fought me; half the local village fought me; the council, the county council. I had to go to appeals and I won. But even since I’d won, everything I put in for planning permission, the answer’s no!”
No featured pretty strongly in many quarters as he struggled to get Donington Park up and running back in 1977. “Like everything, when we started, Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Thruxton got together to stop me, to stop me having Bank Holiday races. They said there weren’t enough marshals in the country. So I said well I’ll train some!” The guffaw again. “And away it goes on. Absolutely ridiculous. I’d had enough. All this sort of thing led to the writ with the MSA. But then, as you know, FOCA took over. I think there’s one or two little bits probably hadn’t ought to be printed…” Suffice to say that in the early 1980s he signalled his solidarity with FOCA, and was promised a Grand Prix then by Bernie if the chance ever arose.
“The biggest difficulty I found that FOCA’s had, is to give you a Grand Prix when 22 countries have applied and you’d have two in one country. If you hadn’t seen their problem, you’d be annoyed. But I could see their problem many times. And I got promised when any one give up, I would have it.”
He came close to a non-championship F1 race which became the ill-fated F3000 Gold Cup in 1990. “That fell apart. Everyone was coming, but then it became dead awkward. If you remember, the monocoques was changing that year, there wasn’t much time and the teams needed all they could get. Ken ‘phoned me and said: ‘I can only bring one car.’ I said: ‘Ken!’ And he said: ‘All right, I’ll bring two!’ And then to be truthful I fixed up a figure for this, but when they drew the money for it they got no more sponsorship so it were like running a race and probably giving them £20,000 apiece. They were losing on it. Jackie Oliver rang up and said he’d come and everything, and I think if we’d have stuck it out they would have all come. But everybody were saying we want more testing, we want to do this, it were looking bad. Bernie rang me and said there’s only six guaranteed. I were up at Jackie Stewart’s shoot at the time, at Gleneagles, and I rang back and then there was eight. Then Bernie said it would look bad on FOCA and it would look bad on me, so we withdrew it. It was a mutual decision. We decided then. I don’t want to do motor racing any harm, and I could see it doing Donington harm and Formula One harm. Say we had have got eight cars, it would have been bad wouldn’t it? It would have been bad financially, it would have been bad generally. So we didn’t get it.
“Then all of a sudden I ‘ad a ‘phone call. We owe you. Could you put one on quickly? That was for April 3/4. I. looked at the calendar and said: ‘How about the next weekend Bernie, it’s Easter?’ So we manoeuvred things round and that’s how it came Easter. He told me all the rules and regulations and what have you, and I said fine. He gave it me, and we haven’t spoken since. We’d made an agreement and that was all that was necessary. I ‘ad the contract through, every mortal thing, with a note saying good luck, anything you want, ring me. And his team come up to see what we gorra do for this one race, and I got on with them like a house afire. And I have with Bernie and I have with RSA, no trouble at all. There’s not been one hiccough. In fact, it’s like you haven’t got the Grand Prix!” Another long guffaw. “No trouble whatsoever. After all that way.”
Like a prophet without honour in his own country, Wheatcroft has found that whilst on an international level Donington has been favoured, the majority of his problems have come on a national level, with planners, councils et al. Our conversation momentarily veers off on an historical tangent.
“Oh, I’ve had my fair share of trouble there!” he chortles, clearly warming to a very familiar theme. “Oh God, they tried to stop it! In the first place I wanted to build the museum on a site about eight miles down the road there. It were on a hill, that’s how the museum were built like a crankshaft, so I could lower the link corridors.I went to see a man on the county council and he said: ‘Tom I can’t see why you’re bothering, why don’t you go to Donington?’ He said it were for sale. I knew it were in trust, but there’d been three deaths. ‘Take it from me,’ he said, ‘it can be bought.’
“I used to drive round once a year, you know, and I went up with the wife – we always had a drive round on a Sunday afternoon, take the family out. There were just a few companies there in breeze block sheds, making electric pylons, a blacksmith’s shop, agricultural tooling. All without planning. And a lady stopped us and said: ‘What are you doing here?’ I said: ‘Oh, I hope you don’t mind, we’re just having a drive round, I used to come here as a lad,’ all that. And she said: ‘Well you get off. You’re not allowed round here unless you’ve come to buy it. And if you’ve come to buy it you have to have a letter from my husband or John German estate agents.’ So I rang the estate agents on Monday and they said: ‘Yes it’s for sale, but how did you know? We didn’t know until Friday.’ I said I knew Thursday, from the planning fella!
“Anyway, there were lots of haggling. The initial price were three times too much. So we didn’t get on too well. I said to forget it. He rang me next day, he’d got fresh powers. We had lunch and he knocked a third off the price, threw a wood in which the owner’s grandfather had planted, so we were getting a bit nearer but I said it was still too dear. He rang me the following Thursday morning and knocked another third off and we were nearly there! We were only £25,000 between us, that’s how near it was. He called me a mule, because I ‘adn’t moved and he ‘ad! And I said: ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll toss you for the £25,000.’ He said: ‘No, I can’t toss for my client’s money,’ and all the rest of it. So we fixed a day to go and see the owner and we were there about five minutes and it were mine. And then the trouble started.
“When you’ve got what we call planning, existing use, you’ve got ’em. But they slapped an order on the bridge. Starkey’s Bridge. A historic order. You couldn’t go through the bridge in any case cause it were only 14 foot two inches wide, so you’ve got to alter the track and you put a plan in to alter it and they turned it down! In the meantime I’d spent a million digging roots out of the trees that the local airport had cut down. So it had to go to appeal, but it were the longest appeal I’d ever gone in for. And I’ve gone in for a lot. It were approximately two years. Then it was another 30 days in the council offices, fighting the appeal. That was in the early ’70s, and it was costing me £10,000 a day then. I had to have pilots who had flown 707s in and out, pilots who had flown small aircraft, landed the port and starboard side.I had to have all the specialists there was, the airport foreman, Rolls-Royce foreman, half the local village for me. I had a lot of help there. There was a club got together Donington Racing Club and they fought and one half of the village fought the other. And we won hands down with a referendum and everything. Every time there’s been anything like that going on, there’s been mainly six objectors. I think one died and there’s another one come in. I think there’s still six!
“Then after the appeal, it were just nearly stalemated but nearly forgotten and 14 months after it come through I’d won. In fact we won on every ground. People had lied. We won all the way through. And I made a great mistake.
“I weighed it up and thought ‘The year’s young. I’ll have a night shift on and a day shift and we’ll wipe it out and race in a month. And I did wrong. By rushing it through I didn’t get the right publicity. I don’t understand publicity that great, so I got none for the race. Then I hit a big problem. They tried to stop me, the village did, because a footpath went right through the village. Nobody had walked it, even right through the war years, because where the footpath went you couldn’t. And I’d put an embankment where you came to the end of the bridge and it dropped down. So I had to get to London to see the QC and they said it could take a year to divert the footpath.
“So it were midnight on the Saturday night, still in London, vehicles had come to run for the first race in 1977, and I remembered something when a local bridge was washed away. They said I couldn’t stop people using the footpath, but I said there was a bridge there not safe. They said: ‘Can you prove that it’s not safe?” The rumble again. “Well I could soon prove it when I got back! We were allowed to block it up.
“Next thing I know is that some do-gooders from the village were going to walk it when the race was on. Well, I’ve been in the building trade all my life and I knew one labourer who if he didn’t go out on a Friday night and have a fight, he wasn’t happy. So I put him on guard there. I got him to promise me nobody would get over that 10 foot fence!” Another hearty guffaw.
Even so, the problems were just beginning. “The clubs got together charging me a fantastic sum of money for every race. So at the end of that year I decided l wouldn’t do it again. I’d run imported races without a licence, without the RAC MSA. I’d bring in French ones, any race. Then the RAC had a word with the clubs and all of a sudden we got a sensible figure. The war then was over, but it was over about small races and then they brought that law out that I couldn’t run Bank Holiday races because there weren’t enough marshals. Naturally they guarded the best races for themselves. So it were quite a battle really. And then we moved on and fought for the Grand Prix. Silverstone and Brands had it then, but I’d always go for it.
“I couldn’t get the ‘Bike GP either. The ACU weren’t even sending my application to the FIM. I found that out secretly because a man left and told me they just threw my application in the waste paper basket. So I decided to sue the ACU for not sending the application in!” The guffaw again. “That gave them cold feet! Eventually, we took it over from Silverstone, which had run it for six years but was losing money as gates declined.”
Donington has since been in the top three voting for the world’s GP circuits for all six of its ‘bike GPs, and in 1991 was the only circuit to win all five trophies with 100 per cent of the poll.
Quite clearly, Wheatcroft has rarely seen eye-to-eye with planners. More like eyeball-to-eyeball. They are, he claims, the bane of his life. Like Tom and Jerry, Wily Coyote and the Roadrunner, Popeye and Bluto, the two factions have always been natural enemies.
When he finally won the Motorcycle GP deal, Donington originally wasn’t allowed to run on three consecutive days, so he planned to run practice on the Thursday, then races on the Saturday and Sunday. In the event he won a change in planning policy. It all smacked of the private guy versus the establishment, albeit one which took a dim view of the short cuts he frequently attempted. But where do things go from here?
“I do think being the only private owner of a Prix has its difficulties,” he concedes. “I mean, when you stop to think at this moment, the Australian GP’s government owned, yet loses a packet. France is government owned. Belgium is government owned. Monte Carlo. Spain. Mexico. You go through them all, the government has put all these millions of pounds into all these circuits. And here we are doing it with private money, and all the time we have to fight. To put private roads into the circuit, to get the public in and out quicker, that sort of thing. By the time you’ve won your appeal, there isn’t time to get the roads done. And then they want to know why the roads aren’t there, after fighting you. Mind you, I was told by the planning officer that there wouldn’t be a Grand Prix at Donington in the foreseeable future. We couldn’t tell ‘im it were coming!” Yet another lengthy laugh.
Doesn’t he ever get sick and tired of the continuous battle against petty officialdom? “Yes. Ooh yes. Absolutely. The council, the word, turns my stomach over. You can understand why there’s unemployment. No matter what you want to do, there’s a problem. I mean, one time I applied for a building, 5000 sq ft. To house all the cars and tractors, because we’d had the burglars up there one night and they’d taken all the wheels off the Vauxhall racing cars, the tractors, everything. And they turned the plan down. And not only said that, but then said you could see it from some angle in the countryside, when it’s in the wood! When the inspector come I’d put steelwork up and painted it red; not only that, but when we were driving in the wood I couldn’t find it meself! Never mind seeing it from the road half a mile away.”
Enough, you sense, is enough, even for a man who likes nothing better than a good scrap. “Now I’m going to try and do something about it. Get some big guns on it. What you can’t believe in this country is all the cars that people want to test; and all that money going out of the country when they go abroad to do it. Costing all the teams more money. McLaren, making a new road car; they wanted a week at Donington. We couldn’t find them one, because it’s so busy. So there’s all that hard currency going out the country. Instead of teams coming here, filling the local hotels. They’re not commercially minded, planning officers. When we were looking at that access road, he just put a line straight across the track and said why couldn’t it go there? I mean, what respect can you have for a man like that?”
The inference is that he has some good friends in high places, and plans to use them. You don’t need to be a genius to figure who they could be. Just look at some of the people who’ve test driven – and crashed – racing cars round Donington…
Was the Grand Prix of Europe a one-off race? “It was given to me solely as a one-off to replace Autopolis, which had gone bankrupt. Bernie said one year, so it was up to us to put a good show on. There’s only one trouble I can see of it. To run your first Grand Prix, now it’s got so professional, every other circuit such as Silverstone has had experience since 1948 running it. We have to compete with them with no experience, apart from ‘bikes and trucks.”
Nobody who was there will ever forget the nightmare traffic queues for the original Truck GP; they stretched two miles back down the M1. Wheatcroft shoulders the full blame for that. “You’ve got to remember I was told I would get around about 80,000 to 100,000 people, and I pooh-poohed the idea. I thought, well, 14 or 15,000. Nobody else believed it either, at Donington. And 100,000 odd come! But, we ‘adn’t allowed the staff or anything for parking. We hadn’t got geared up at all. We just didn’t believe it could happen.
“Donington lacks the infrastructure. If you have a contract for five Grands Prix, you can spend the money. Really, we’re at a disadvantage. We haven’t got the staff. Silverstone has got 70, 80 staff. We’ve got about 12 full-time plus myself, wandering round to get the work done that needs doing on the track from time to time. Robert Feamall at Two Four Sports, how he gets the work done I’ll never know. He won’t have it, but I have 101 per cent faith in him. On anything. He’s the only man I’ve ever met I can leave everything to and know it’ll get done. And if you’d asked me 20 years ago which of 15 magazines was any good, I think I’d end up a 20 per center. Now, with what he’s taught me, I think I’d be a 90 per center. We see eye-to-eye on everything.”
When the dream to see Roger Williamson as World Champion died with the young Briton at Zandvoort 1973, winning the Grand Prix for Donington became Wheatcroft’s consuming passion. Now, that dream realised, there is another. The Great Warwickshire Oval.
“I’ve got another circuit drawn up,” he says readily, shoving architects’ plans across a desk on which our teacups have been rattling on and off for the last hour, every time his hands slam down with enthusiasm. “It’s a 1.8-mile oval. In Warwickshire, if I get approval. Not only the track, but another element, five big museums. And conference areas.”
The plan is to create a new home for the Donington Collection. “Some of it, at any rate. My son Kevin has got army tanks, half-tracks, that sort of thing. I think we’re using 22, 26 barns for all the army stuff we’ve got. It’s difficult! There’s nowhere to put ’em!
“I’ve got the finest site earmarked, I think, that you could ever have. I’ve got M6, M1, then you’ve got this new road that opens this year, A1/M1 link, for November. I have the A5 here, right through the middle of the country. You look, the site is an island, with the finest access for traffic you could ever buy. What I’ll do, after the Grand Prix, I’ll go up and see them and I’ll give them the first choice. Do you want it in your area?
I own 79 per cent of the site, but I want to do it properly. I want to own the lot, the access roads. Then I’ve got nothing round me, if I want to extend. In the middle it’s going to have motocross, autocross and rallycross. I don’t want to have all the races in the world. I only want to go after the big stuff. The championship stuff. Being greedy, I don’t want all the rubbish we had when we opened Donington. I’d like the big stockers, yes, and the IndyCars.”
Mention drawbacks such as likely weather problems, and for the first time Wheatcroft sounds less convincing when discussing the new scheme. “The weather? We ‘ave weather problems in England, yes. But what ain’t run on a Saturday’s run on a Sunday, i’n’t it?” Unless it rains both days, a not uncommon occurrence. “Ye-es. I ‘ad gone into the idea, but it’s no good for tarmac, of having one under cover. But you need air, you need rain on a track. Yes, certainly it’s a big risk, but you see, I can’t tell you how I’ve sussed it out, but people say the cost of it is so high you couldn’t even earn the interest on the money you’d need. But if you run the thing right, it don’t cost you a sod. I’ve got a system that won’t cost me anything.”
Rumour has linked the site with some kind of supermarket, a giant shopping mall. “No I don’t think it will have a supermarket, but it’s got ideas that will be paid for even in this bad time. Then the people that put some money in have to get something out of it, so right, I’ve got an idea there where they can gain like anything. I can prove where it’ll be a six-year purchase for them. They get their money back in six years. So people are not going to worry about putting money in. It’s a business venture. It’s a good business venture.
“I’ve been to Disneyland to see how it’s done. Now I’m not a Disneyland fan, but I reckon that’s what it wants, with a monorail, that sort of thing. It wants designing where these monorails can come out through the walls of the museum and round the track on race days. There won’t be a lot of race days, but I think the museum needs an anchorpin, like a shopping centre needs a superstore. It needs the anchorpin there to make it pay and bring other people in. Everybody makes a living for it. And I reckon with the anchorpin of an indoor Disneyland in this country, there’ll be that many go through it that you design the hallway as a horseshoe. So when you go by that wall you have a telescope there, but without a magnified glass. The kids can see so many racing cars through it, but not enough. So it’ll whet their whistle.
“There’ll be the money to keep the thing going in perpetuity no matter what happens. That’s the art of it.”
“You buy land with excellent access, set up a race facility surrounded by a superstore complex and a British Disneyland. They are owned by other operators and rent is payable on them. People come to them naturally, and thus you have the bones of something profitable. That’s the way Tom Wheatcroft appears to be thinking. This is the new dream. To him it’s no less obtainable than that dream he had all those years ago, to bring a GP to Donington Park. D J T