Glimpse of genius

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Eighty years ago this month Tazio Nuvolari competed in his first major race on the British mainland. It proved to be a unique experience for all who were there

He was, according to Ferdinand Porsche, “the greatest driver of the past, present and future,” but racing fans in Britain had surprisingly few chances to witness the singular brilliance of Tazio Nuvolari.

The Italian competed twice in the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy in the early 1930s in Northern Ireland – winning it in 1933 in an MG K3 Magnette – but his greatest victory came 80 years ago this month when he raced for the only time in a Grand Prix on the British mainland at an all-new circuit on the borders of Leicestershire and Derbyshire.

At the time Donington had only been used for car racing for five years after John Gillies Shields, the then-owner of the estate, and Fred Craner, the energetic secretary of the Derby and District Motor Club, resolved to bring the sport to the park grounds. The first Grand Prix took place in 1935 and was won by Richard Shuttleworth; the second in 1936 was won by Hans Ruesch/Richard Seaman; and the first ‘Silver Arrows’ Grand Prix of 1937 yielded victory for Bernd Rosemeyer (Auto Union).

The cream of the crop on a busy 1938 calendar was undoubtedly the fourth International Donington Grand Prix, an event that was to go down in the annals of world motor sport as one of the most dramatic Grands Prix of all time. Bearing in mind the legends that would grow up around the race and its eventual victor, it is perhaps surprising to recall that it was touch-and-go as to whether it would take place at all.

As late summer blended into autumn and the shadows began to lengthen, so the threat of war increased. The Grand Prix was scheduled for Saturday, October 1, but the Auto Union team arrived very early, with Nuvolari practising more than a week before race date. Meanwhile, world tensions were increasing and Britain had stated that it would fight Germany if Czechoslovakia was invaded. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain embarked on his dialogue with Hitler in an attempt to dilute this scenario in what was to become known as the Munich Crisis.

Due to the continuing international uncertainty the Germans did not wish to run the risk of being isolated in the UK, which would become enemy territory should war break out. Four days before the scheduled race date Fred Craner, who lived in the Coppice Farmhouse across the track from the barns where the German teams were based, was awoken by the sound of the Mercedes-Benz team’s 27 men, five racing cars and 10 trucks being prepared to depart. With their usual efficiency they were ready to return to their home country by 7.30am and set off in convoy by road to Harwich in order to catch the ferry to Hook of Holland.

The Auto Union team also departed on the short trip to Castle Donington railway station, where the cars were loaded onto wagons. The teams then kept in touch with their respective headquarters and with Adolf Hühnlein, the head of German motor sport. As international tensions were easing once more, Hühnlein instructed the teams to return. They were back at Donington about 12 hours after they had left. Unfortunately – and slightly comedically for the teams – the situation then worsened once again and the charade continued. The teams again made the decision to leave.

Some Auto Union personnel managed to catch the 5am boat from Harwich and at 12.30pm the rail wagons containing their cars edged out of Castle Donington station en route for the port, the Mercedes-Benz team departing by road at about the same time.

But Craner was a man of cast-iron will and stubborn determination and was not of a mind to let such a difficulty as a possible war breaking out hinder his efforts to run a Grand Prix. He continued in his desperate efforts to run the race, in spite of the absence of the prime participants. Eventually it was decided to postpone the race by three weeks. The German teams agreed to return to Donington yet again, in time for the new date of Saturday, October 22.

BILL BODDY, MOTOR SPORT magazine’s founding editor, was on the spot as the Germans arrived at Donington for the third time and the Grand Prix got underway.

“Through the wood beyond Red Gate the cars sound terrific, and their speed down to the hairpin is prodigious, but perhaps the most spectacular point is from McLean’s Corner, along the straight to Coppice Corner. Frequently the cars visit the grass verge at Melbourne and they come out of the woods like bombs, sliding sideways.

“The little Union Jack fell and already Nuvolari had a nice lead. The little Italian was astounding, arms flashing like pistons”

“During the afternoon a deer again strayed onto the course, but this one escaped alive and [Manfred von] Brauchitsch merely waved to it. (Nuvolari’s Auto Union had earlier collided with a stray, killing it instantly). Donington is a truly great spot at which to stage a great motor race. Wandering over the wide expanse of grass-grown paddock, studded with gnarled trees, the Hall forming an imposing background, it is difficult to believe that we had just seen Nuvolari screaming towards us at 160mph, tail sliding out so that the Auto Union’s nose pointed directly at us, front wheels flapping wildly to retain control.

“October 22 dawned misty and remained warm and gloriously sunny. HRH the Duke of Kent flew up from London and was driven to the course in a V12 Lagonda saloon, in which Richard Seaman, mackintosh over his overalls, drove him for two laps of the course. They say the second lap was quite rapid.

“The little Union Jack fell and in a crash of sound they were off around Red Gate. Already Nuvolari had a nice lead from Brauchitsch, Seaman and Hermann Lang. Another lap, and the Germans were up to 170 or so along the straight, the whole circuit sang to the sound and the almondy boot-polish fumes became quite pungent. Came drama! Robin Hanson’s Alta broke its engine and dropped much oil by the approach to the hairpin. Rudolf Hasse skidded to the right, shot across the road, hit some fencing on the outside of the course, which uprooted as if struck by a bomb, missed a hut in which sat Mrs Craner, and smote the safety bank. Seaman left the course on the inside, came back across the road and ended up beyond the wrecked Auto Union.

“Nuvolari had passed Hermann Müller; the little Italian was astounding. He went out of the wood and down to the hairpin in his inimitable style, arms bowed out and flashing like pistons to head level, the car in full control, yet never straight for a moment. The greatest race we have ever had… Nuvolari crossed the line, the winner. He stopped, received a wreath of honour and drove another lap. Lang finished second, Seaman came in third. Our biggest motor racing crowd, now rapidly invading the course, stood most impressively to attention, in honour of the greatest driver of all time, Tazio Nuvolari.”

THE GERMAN CARS had competed in a race of their own, on a supreme and separate level to the best that the British could offer. The 60,000 spectators that day were transfixed. They had never seen, or heard, anything like it. The sight of the silver on silver flashes threading between the dense Donington woods; the visual sensation amplified by the sound-box effect of those same trees. And they had seen Nuvolari, almost 46 years of age yet at the peak of his career, in his only Grand Prix on the UK mainland. It was something of a miracle that he survived to this age. As a youngster he’d attempted to fly by jumping off a house roof whilst wearing a home-made parachute; his racing career started on two wheels in 1920, when in one motorcycle race he broke his legs and yet went on to win strapped to his machine. His car racing exploits were also peppered with a series of mishaps, once ignoring doctors’ orders to remain in hospital to recover for a month only to discharge himself and win the Nations Grand Prix at Monza just six days later. Nuvolari’s cast-iron will and dogged determination to win mirrored the pioneering partnership of Craner and Shields, the men who had created the first Donington circuit just a few years earlier in 1931, initially for motorcycles and at that time based on little more than loose-surfaced former horse-carriage tracks that meandered through the park to the majestic Donington Hall.

Nuvolari was to make one more appearance in the UK, when in 1950 he was due to race a Jaguar XK120 at Silverstone, but by then he was fading fast due to ill health and had to withdraw. The crowds at Donington Park in 1938 had been privileged to witness a maestro at work and to see a man at the peak of his powers and it was a race that left an indelible impression on the victor himself. At the awards dinner Nuvolari described Donington as a challenging and “acrobatic” circuit. It had been an unrepeatable motor sporting occasion and one that underlines Donington’s unique heritage; no other active circuit in the UK can compete with a racing history that goes back more than 85 years.

It is truly a story of “Gravel to Grand Prix” and one that I felt had to be told. The catalyst was a celebration event 20 years ago, held at Donington and hosted by the man who brought racing back in 1977, Tom Wheatcroft. The occasion marked the 60th anniversary of Nuvolari’s epic win and it was a privilege to rub shoulders with special guests Ian Connell and Wilkie Wilkinson, who were part of the prize-winning ERA team that day in 1938.

The Donington story will go on, its future now assured in the hands of Jonathan Palmer’s MSV organisation. But the book Donington Park: The Pioneers is complete and due to launch later this month.

That magical Donington day 80 years ago was truly a new and atmospheric dimension in motor racing that affected the senses like nothing before. The Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz teams were dominant. And this on a demanding, heavily wooded and tight road circuit that passed through a narrow stone bridge archway, a similarly narrow farmyard section between Coppice Farmhouse and outbuildings and then a nerve-jangling straight over a mile in length and downhill all the way, with a drop of 1 in 9 at its steepest. Here, the silver cars approached 170mph and then negotiated a 30mph hairpin before becoming airborne over the Melbourne Brow within a few hundred yards; the all time iconic image of pre-war racing in Britain.

Donington had delivered.

John Bailie is the author of Donington Park: The Pioneers, published by Silver Fox and launched at the Donington Collection on October 24. It is available from [email protected] and hortonsbooks.co.uk priced £85 or via the Motor Sport Shop. A limited edition of 85 copies in silver foil-blocked slip case, individually numbered and signed by Kevin Wheatcroft and the author, are also available for £185.