Uncovering the history of Donington

| 29 Apr 2014

A recent trip to Donington Park for the Historic Festival preview day confirmed my affection for a circuit that was so nearly lost after the ill-fated attempt to host the British Grand Prix a few years ago.

I have only once managed to get to the Festival itself – organisers could do with moving it away from my wedding anniversary – but it was a very enjoyable meeting. Donington remains a great circuit, and a far better place to watch old cars than most.

Its heritage lends itself well to historic racing. The original 2-mile circuit was laid out in 1931 by Fred Craner – secretary of the Derby & District Motor Club – and John Gillies-Shields, who owned Donington Hall and Park. It gained a tarmac surface the following year, and car racing began there in ’33.

By 1937, it had been extended to include the famous Melbourne Loop and upgraded to such an extent that it hosted Grand Prix racing. Mercedes and Auto Union came, and swept aside all-comers with a dominant and awe-inspiring display.

A friend of my grandfather was there on that occasion, and related that – such was the impact of the German cars – he found that the excitement got to his bladder and he had to nip into the trees…

Bernd Rosemeyer won for Auto Union on that occasion; by the time the race was held again 12 months later, the German ace had perished in a record attempt. His good friend Tazio Nuvolari took a fitting victory for Rosemeyer’s old team.

During the war, Donington was given over to the storage of military vehicles, and not until 1956 would the forces leave – by which time the track was in a poor state.

Donington 1971 Wheatcroft

Then, in 1971, along came Tom Wheatcroft (above). The boss of a local – and very successful – building business bought the site with a view to creating a museum in which to house his collection of racing cars. And, eventually, to reopen the circuit.

A quick look through our LAT archives turned up photographs showing what Wheatcroft had bought. It was all still recognisable, even if cows were grazing where Rosemeyer and Nuvolari once wowed the crowds.

Donington 1971 Melbourne Loop

Certain practicalities, however, forced Wheatcroft to re-route the track slightly. The Old Hairpin was still easily recognisable (below) but going one at a time beneath Starkey’s Bridge was obviously out of the question by the 1970s, so at the bottom of the Craner Curves it turned right about 100 metres earlier and ran roughly parallel to the original layout, bypassing the bridge and running up to McLeans. 

Donington 1938 Old Hairpin

Donington 1971 Old Hairpin

A similar tactic was employed at Coppice. The new design turned right earlier than the old corner, missing out the famous farmyard and instead taking cars on to the pre-war manufacturers’ loop, which now formed the back straight.

The pre-war ‘straight’ – which was actually anything but – was therefore not employed. In George Monkhouse’s peerless account Motor Racing With Mercedes Benz, there is a wonderful image of Manfred von Brauchitsch flat-out on this challenging section aboard his W125.

The understated caption says: ‘Note that Manfred is examining his rear tyre.’ If I had been Manfred, my concentration would probably have been taken up with what was happening in front of me…

The biggest change came around the site of the current pits. The much-photographed run to and from Melbourne Loop – where the pre-war German titans would take off cresting the brow – was abandoned, as was the old left-hander at Redgate, upon which stood a building used by Rolls-Royce.

Instead, a new pit straight linked up with the old circuit via a new right-hander that retained the Redgate name. 

I have a fascination with sites such as this, searching out clues to the past and working out exactly where the various sections were. The Melbourne Loop still exists at the western edge of the site, and is used for markets and manufacturer events – Alfa Romeo was running one of the latter on the day I visited.

The original Redgate would have been near the current paddock entrance, where the factories are being built that will house the teams for the new Formula E series.

Donington RAC Rally

Starkey’s Bridge remains, of course, and when I went to Donington to watch the RAC Rally go through in the early 1990s, the stage replicated the pre-war circuit by taking Integrales, Sierras and the like through one of its archways (above). 

The outbuildings at Coppice, where cars used to blast through the farmyard, have gone, but the farmhouse itself is still there. Using nothing more than guesswork and the position of the old Lodge as a reference, I was able to get a rough idea of where the famous image of Rosemeyer (below) was taken in 1937.

Donington Old Coppice

Donington 1937 Rosemeyer Coppice

With Donington reopening in 1977 under Wheatcroft’s watch, it is easy to regard it as a relative newcomer among the former WW2 airfields that now make up most of the UK’s circuits, and forget about its status as a road-racing alternative to the increasingly anachronistic Brooklands through the 1930s.

The peaceful woodland setting of old may now be more exposed – to say nothing of being adjacent to East Midlands airport – but this remains one of the country’s finest layouts, as well as a good place to indulge in a little motor-sport archaeology.