I am writing this on the eve of the European Grand Prix, to be held at Donington Park on Easter Sunday. By the time you read it, the race will be over and the next Grand Prix will be in full swing. Nothing stops the pace and pressure of motor racing, as many people have found out to their cost. Due to circumstances beyond my control, the Grand Prix at Donington Park may well be my last as a paid-insider, but be that as it may.
The last time there was a Grand Prix at Donington was on October 22 1938, and it just so happens that it was the first Grand Prix that I attended, as a paying spectator in those days. I had been following Grand Prix racing closely as a reader of Motor Sport, The Light Car and The Autocar, but had never had the opportunity or the money to get to a Grand Prix, the real home of Grand Prix racing being the European continent. Names like Monza, Reims, Pescara, Spa-Francorchamps, Berne and the Nürburgring were foremost in my vocabulary, closely followed by Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Bugatti, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. Needless to say, pictures of the heroes who drove Grand Prix cars filled the pages of my autograph album.
In 1937 the Donington Grand Prix, organised by the Derby & District Motor Club, had pulled off a spectacular coup by attracting a full Grand Prix to the Donington Park circuit. There had been races known as The Donington Park Grand Prix in 1935 and 1936. They were run to the existing Grand Prix rules, with a minimal European entry, the bulk of the field being made up by British amateur drivers in obsolete Grand Prix cars. A glimmer of what might be coming was seen in 1936 when the Swiss driver Hans Reusch won the event with the latest Alfa Romeo that a private-owner could buy.
Even so, that was one of the 1935 ex-Scuderia Ferrari cars, already obsolete by the Grand Prix standards of 1936. He took Richard Seaman as his co-driver and they had no trouble in winning, one report claiming that they had toured round in top gear towards the end of the race.
In 1937 Fred Craner (whose name adorns the sweeping, downhill curves after the first corner at the present-day circuit), who ran Donington Park for the Derby & District Motor Club, pulled off his finest hour. The circuit had been lengthened by a loop which ran over the brow of the hill on which the Leicestershire county boundary lies, down into Derbyshire, almost to the village of Melbourne, and back up the slope into Leicestershire. This time the Donington Park Grand Prix was the real thing. Full teams from Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union arrived for the race, with a mixed supporting entry. By 1937 the two German teams had a stranglehold on GP racing, much as Williams and McLaren have today, so British enthusiasts were about to see Grand Prix racing in all its continental glory.
Sadly, as a first-year engineering student, living in London and having no active motoring friends, going to Donington Park for the Grand Prix was no more feasible than my going to Monte Carlo or the Nürburgring. Hitch-hiking had not appeared at that time, as far as I was concerned, and a bicycle was my sole means of covering any distance. ‘Auntie’ BBC gave it good coverage, and fortunately my father was a wireless enthusiast (it’s also known as radio, for those who don’t understand what I’m talking about). The daily newspapers gave the event plenty of column space, and a trip to the local library allowed me to read everything that was written, and to devour the pictures, as I waited for the full reports in the motoring magazines.
After that event, won by Bernd Rosemeyer in the six-litre Auto Union, I met a man who had been at Donington Park on that memorable day, who insisted: “Next year, you must be there, even if you have to cycle all the way. Set off now, if you have to.”
By October 1938 my personal circumstances had improved, though I was still an engineering student, and my elder brother had a friend with a car and they both decided they would like to see the Donington Park Grand Prix and made room for me. By this time Maserati had made a bit of a comeback to GP racing, with the three-litre supercharged straight-eight 8CTF. The pictures I had seen of it really turned me on. The 1938 season marked the start of a new Grand Prix formula, with supercharged engines limited to three litres. By 1937 the top cars had reached six litres, and were still governed by the 750 kg weight formula, but officialdom felt that power and technology were running away from reality (we seem to have heard that song quite recently!). I thought the Maserati 8CTF was the most beautiful racing car I had ever seen and during the season it showed glimpses of brilliance as it challenged the silver Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams. I knew it had little hope of eventual victory, being a lone entry against the full German teams. In those days a complete factory team comprised four cars, not the paltry two of today.
My journey to Donington Park (in a Singer Porlock) was full of excited ambitions, apart from the pleasure of actually riding in an open sports car. I was not disappointed when I first saw the red Maserati, being driven by the rising star Luigi Villoresi. It had not made a very good start and was 11th on the opening lap, but my eyes never left it as it flashed past slower cars, even passing two of the German machines.
So excited was l about the performance of the Maserati that I was not paying much attention to the leaders. My favourite car got up to sixth place and the tail-enders in the leading bunch were beginning to look over their shoulders.
After 15 laps it was all over, the engine broke, and it was parked by the transporter, still looking beautiful when we made our way to the pits after the race.
Like 1937, the 1938 Donington Grand Prix was won by Auto Union, though this time the victorious car was driven by Tazio Nuvolari. Sadly, Bernd Rosemeyer had been killed earlier in the year and the brilliant little Italian had defected from Alfa Romeo to join Auto Union, to win races for them. In those days Grand Prix racing was very much an inter-nations affair and I disapproved of a top Italian driver joining ‘the opposition’. If only Villoresi could have won with the Maserati…!
Nothing really changes in motor racing, even though many people tell me: “It’s all changed today, you know.” I smile to myself and think, “Yes, it has all changed… but nothing is different.”
All the above has taken me back to 1938 and the Donington Grand Prix, and I was all set to go to the 1939 Donington Grand Prix, for though Nuvolari had described the circuit as “acrobatic” after his win, nobody had voiced thoughts of not coming back. By September 1939 there was no more motor racing as far as we were concerned.
If you were at Donington Park for the 1993 Grand Prix and were anywhere near the daunting high-speed descent of the Craner Curves, I hope you spared a thought for Fred G Craner, the rotund secretary of the Derby & District Motor Club, who was the first man to show us all what Grand Prix racing was all about. Wherever you were, even perhaps in front of the television, you must surely have given a thought to Tom Wheatcroft, who brought it all back? D S J