Britain’s first true Grand Prix road course now hosts a market, provides a car park, and passes through walls and underneath buildings. Gordon Cruickshank explains
Where in Britain can you still drive in the wheel tracks of Nuvolari, Rosemeyer and Lang? Or recapture for a fleeting moment the zing of supercharged V16s echoing among trees? Donington Park, that’s where. And you don’t have to be racing on Tom Wheatcroft’s revived track. Even as a spectator, in your car or on foot, you can still reach parts of the pre-war track where your nostalgia can let loose.
Here, in 1937 and ’38, the greatest teams in the world came to amaze British enthusiasts, thanks to Fred Craner, indefatigable secretary of Derby and District MC (headquarters: Friary Hotel, Derby). It was he who visualised the original circuit in 1931, steadily boosted the racing to grand prix level by 1935, and two years later tempted the German superteams to attend (helped by generous starting money).
Everyone knew that privateer Alfas, Maseratis and ERAs had no hope against Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, utterly dominant in European racing (Bob Gerard said later, “We didn’t so much race them as set off at the same time!”), but it was a chance to see these fabulous machines on British soil, and huge crowds arrived to admire Caracciola, von Brauchitsch and English hero Richard Seaman in action. Both races made a lot of money. The Germans were due back in 1939, but found they had a prior engagement, and racing at Donington came to a halt.
The story of the track’s resurrection is an unlikely one. The sprawling acres of parkland and circuit were requisitioned by the army and became the largest vehicle depot in the country. Where Maseratis and Mercedes once trailed Castrol R and tyre smoke, Fodens and Willys Jeeps massed in long ranks; the once-busy pits and paddock were submerged by workshops and stores, and Rolls-Royce built two ‘shadow’ factories. Through the war and the subsequent peacetime clear-out, the previously manicured estate became an overgrown shambles, and when it reverted to private ownership in the ’50s, it had no clear future.
No-one could have possibly predicted that Leicester builder Tom Wheatcroft would, in 1971, buy the whole lot, build a fascinating museum of single-seaters, and then bulldoze endless objections to reopen the circuit. Since 1977, the new track, with its plunge-and-rise profile and superb spectator views, has seen some wonderful racing, culminating in ‘bike and F1 grands prix. Tom’s new track incorporated a good deal of the layout of those far-off years, and if you park in the infield and take in that terrific sweeping prospect over the Craner Curves, you will still see the broad form of the original, including Donington Hall and the relics of the famous bridge.
What you don’t see, unless you frequent the weekend market, is the sheer mountainous drama of the Melbourne loop. This westward extension, added for 1937 to bring the track length up to 3.12 miles ready for the arrival of the Germans, incorporates what has to be the blindest hillcrest on any grand prix circuit. Today you thread through usually locked gates from the paddock to find a large flat expanse of Tarmac where the space between the two straights has been filled in. This was where the wooden pits buildings stood up to the war. Drive to the western edge, past where, in 1934, Starkey’s Corner turned back on itself to form the circuit’s first extension, and the ground suddenly falls away to a view of the Trent valley. Below your toes the 1937 extension plunges down for another quarter-mile to a severe hairpin before surging back up to the crest.
At least, Melbourne Corner used to be a hairpin — the apex has gone now, filled in with Tarmac, so it looks more like the end of a runway. It’s quite hard trying to follow Nuvolari’s line when there’s nothing to aim for, but boy is it sharp: from a screaming 170 along Starkey’s Straight, over the drop, down to this first-gear, full-lock crawl… The smell of brakes must have been acrid.
And then The Rise. Even today it’s a daunting trip back up the slope. It starts steep and gets steeper — to an amazing 1-in-8. There are hill-climbs flatter than that. I’m doing a paltry 85mph as I come to the crest — and it’s terrifying. Completely blind. I know it was clear a minute ago, and I keep telling myself the photographer will yell if there’s an errant tractor over the brow, but I just haven’t the nerve to breast it with an open throttle. The car goes light, thumps down — and we’re heading 20deg off course. What nobody tells you is that this isn’t just a brow, it’s a bend. Look at the plan and you’ll see how the tip of the loop bends to clear the public road alongside.
So, as you gun your Mercedes W125 up the slope approaching 120mph, not only must you balance the throttle to land safely, you have to clip the left verge, otherwise you’ll land on grass, not Tarmac. And if someone else has stopped over the crest, you won’t know till you land on something crunchy. It’s a real testosterone moment.
Up here was the start-finish line and a full grandstand electrified by the sight of the silver cars leaping into view, but there’s nothing left now. A Donington worker tells us that it’s only a couple of years since they cleared away the timbers of the old timing hut. Now, instead of keeping it flat to cross the line and set up for Redgate’s original lefthander, we have to hit the brakes. There’s a wall in the way. Slap across both arms of the loop is a workshop compound. It means trickling round to the gates to rejoin on the other side of the wall, and this untidy set of buildings doesn’t seem to belong on a GP circuit. Except for one feature. Our friend beckons us. He knows we are looking for history, and he points to a small lump of Tarmac in the yard. ‘That’s the old stuff, the pre-war track.” Not being experts in bitumen archaeology, we gaze solemnly at a black square. And then move on.
That whole western limb of the Melbourne Loop was sidelined in Wheatcroft’s various planning battles. Whereas most of the circuit lies in Leicestershire, the loop penetrates Derbyshire, and having fought one expensive public enquiry for the main circuit, Tom was reluctant to invoke a separate one for the loop. So it remains tantalisingly empty, except for a weekly market.
Redgate Corner has vanished under more recent pockmarked paddock Tarmac, but by extrapolating the lines of the new Melbourne loop, which exactly follows the old track, and the row of buildings to the west of the paddock, it’s easy to locate. Make that left turn and walk alongside those sheds and you are now on the old track heading for Redgate Lodge. In the 1930s you’d be grabbing third, then fourth here, leaving the Lodge on your left as you tore into Holly Wood, then curved right and downhill towards the Hairpin; today wire fencing keeps you well away from the new Redgate corner, a square right instead of an acute left. Stroll around the lodge and you come to the access road which shadows the track down through the scary adverse-camber sweepers now known as the Craner Curves.
Through this roller-coaster the new track converges on the old, heading for the Hairpin, where the estate road once branched left for Donington Hall. From the spectator banking you can see the 18th-century Gothic frontage of mossy stone, where in WWI German prisoners were held. It’s now the HQ of British Midland Airways. Once the Hall looked over a tranquil, wooded valley with narrow tracks to its estate lodges; today it is completely divorced from the circuit it used to dominate. When the Shields family owned the estate in the ’30s, it was itself a minor tourist draw. Early race programmes call the park ‘The beauty spot of England. Luncheons are available at the Hall if arranged by telephone (Castle Donington 43). Tunnel on view, whereby prisoners escaped.’
Back to the Hairpin. It never was that tight, and today it’s much opened out, but still seems sharp because it’s at the bottom of the slope and you arrive with more inertia than you expected. Here the tracks old and new diverge again. Wheatcroft’s version turns inside to skirt the single most memorable feature of the pre-war version — the Bridge. Stay on the access road and pause under the remaining stone arch; it’s barely believable that grand prix cars raced through here. Yes, it was a ‘no passing’ zone (and in fact much of the track was the same width as the arch), but even single file, at 100-plus it must have raised the heart-rate. Now an abutment and one sad arch stop in mid-air, going nowhere; the rest was flattened for the new circuit.
It was here that the pre-war boys dived back into the woods, as they smoothed out two lefts into the square-right of McLeans. Now there’s not a tree to be seen. Coppice Wood, like Holly Wood, has vanished completely, replaced by rumble strips, gravel traps, and wire fencing. But the old and new do coincide for the run to Coppice Corner. This is the old estate road running straight to Coppice Lodge, which still marks the public entrance. Again Tom has cut the corner, making Coppice a long sweeping right with an awkward blind apex. But if you follow the line towards the lodge, you’ll find the old Coppice.
It’s visible from the museum car park, wire gates closing off a short, kerbed roadway between concrete walls, now used by maintenance vehicles and sometimes as a spectator entrance. But 63 years ago, the bark of ERA and the shriek of Auto Union engines bounced off the trees as the best-of-the-rest Brits and the dominant German aces snicked down the gears to attack this 90-degree right into the farmyard. And it really was a farmyard: the drivers had to aimfor an unforgiving slot, not much wider than the bridge, between farmhouse and barn before they could let rip on the run to Melbourne.
Barn and yard have gone, but the farmhouse still stands to guide you between Coppice and the one stretch of pre-war circuit anyone can drive. Now it’s the Circuit Office (very suitably, as it was Fred Craner’s HQ, too), with a door on the north side which would have put you right in the one-time path of the racing cars. If you drive past it on your way to the Exhibition Centre or the paddock, here, alongside the tall trees and the circuit wall, there remains some flavour of the old days — a narrow ribbon of tar bordered with grass which was once Starkey’s Straight. Instead of dodging Mondeos and Vectras, you should be passing Maclure’s Riley or Bira’s Maserati, trees whipping by as you reach maximum revs on the long downhill dash towards Melbourne. Today’s Starkey’s Straight runs parallel to your right, but even that’s historically correct: in the ’30s, Derby & DMC added an inner return leg from Redgate back up to Coppice Farm, giving a long thin oval which could be used for ‘bikes and club meetings.
It’s that inner leg which the new circuit uses, though in the opposite direction, before jinking left-right to rejoin the old route into the new Melbourne loop and back up to Goddards hairpin. Indeed, the Wheatcroft Straight, with its pits complex, is the only completely new section of track. Outside the wall, our few hundred yards of ‘ancient’ Donington disappears under the Exhibition Hall.
It’s quite an achievement to have built a modern circuit which retains the topography of the old, if not the parkland setting. Tom’s boyish enthusiasm (why he bought the track) is clearly cheek by jowl here with his builder pragmatism (why he chopped all the trees down). He saved the patient and has made it live again. All it needs now is some sympathetic landscaping to further strengthen its visual ties with an illustrious past.