Silver Arrows or superbikes, touring cars or truck racing, surely every enthusiast in the land has at least one treasured memory of Donington Park.
For me it’s no contest. I was in a friend’s house near Brescia watching Italian TV and seeing the rain sheet down on a drenched Donington for the start of its one and only championship F1 race, the 1993 European Grand Prix. You will know what’s coming next. Ayrton Senna went from fifth to first – on the first lap – and eventually won, from Damon Hill, by over a minute.
Donington Park – the first permanent park circuit in England when it opened in 1933 – has witnessed plenty of memorable motorsport action like that over the decades, if not always as many world championship races as it would have liked. Remember the failed bid in 2008 to become the home of the British Grand Prix? And MotoGP, synonymous with Donington Park since 1986, also has its home farther south now in Northamptonshire (or maybe Wales? ed) rather than sunny Leicestershire.
But given such a glorious prewar history – Earl Howe in a Bugatti Type 51 winning the first race, Nuvolari and and Rosemeyer battling it out in their Auto Union Silver Arrows – and the circuit’s postwar regeneration under its owner from 1971, the enthusiast and collector Tom Wheatcroft, it would indeed be churlish to argue with the circuit’s strapline these days of ‘the heart of British motorsport’.
The past five years, predictably with a new generation of Wheatcroft now at the helm, have shown that to be far more than just geographically accurate.
When GRR called in a while back the place was buzzing with teams getting a bit of pre-Revival testing in. The circuit was still celebrating the success of its third Donington Classic Motorcycle Festival, and there will be another one of those next August. In April 2016 it will again be hosting a round of the Dunlop MSA British Touring Car Championship and later that month there will be the Donington Historic Festival. The circuit hosts a round of the British Superbike Championship as well as regular saloon and sports car club races.
Later this month (on 25 October) there will be the first competitive rally event at Donington Park since 1998, and in between all this is the expected mix of test days, track days, driving experiences and, on two wheels, the Ron Haslam Race School. Donington Park is also the global HQ of the FIA Formula E Championship – the first single-seater all-electric race series.
Oh, and there’s also the matter of a little museum attached…
The thought with this eclectic mix has to be: how difficult is it meeting safety regs for modern championships while retaining the character of the original circuit? Luckily the man to answer that, the circuit’s managing director Christopher Tate, is on hand…
‘We think we have found the perfect compromise,’ he tells us, referring to what he sees as a middle ground between Goodwood and, for example, Silverstone. ‘There are circuits where it is hard to see the cars or bikes because they are so far away. We have more gravel traps and debris fencing now but have kept the heritage.
‘The track is why people want to drive here, with its gradient and the Craner Curves, the climb up to McLeans, all the famous corners. It is all restored now to what it should be and it is exciting whether you are in a standard road car or on a grand prix motorcycle.’
After so many high hopes, the ‘restart’ for Donington Park came in 2010 after Kevin Wheatcroft took the reins following the death of his father and the bankruptcy of the leisure company that had taken a lease on the circuit.
Christopher Tate says it has been an exciting five years: ‘We have gone from closed circuit with no licence to the hosting of international races and our own catalogue of events. We are now busier than you could image, with a 50:50 split between cars and bikes using the circuit.’
‘And what of the museum? Tom Wheatcroft’s great legacy – the world’s largest collection of grand prix cars – is in rude health.’
The Donington MD is proud of the circuit’s role in being HQ for the electric Formula E series. ‘The cars don’t make a great noise but they are wonderful pieces of technology and there is a big future for the series. We had 13,000 people come to watch the cars testing. And there was a wonderful moment when going down the pitlane were cars driven by Prost, Piquet, Senna and Villeneuve…’
How good to see the yellow, green and blue design of helmet again at Donington then, although this time of course worn by Ayrton’s nephew Bruno…
And what of the museum? Tom Wheatcroft’s great legacy – the world’s largest collection of grand prix cars – is in rude health. First, though, you have to get past the extraordinary collection of WW2 military vehicles (Kevin Wheatcroft’s great passion) that immediately confronts you after you’ve paid your tenner. There are some rare and wonderful machines here for sure – command cars and half-tracks and Schwimmwagens – but they make a curious juxtaposition to the beautiful racing single-seaters that lurk beyond.
Things immediately take a turn for the better (for GRR at least) when the first grand prix car you see is Alberto Ascari’s 1952/53 Ferrari, the most successful GP car ever.
And after that? A hundred and 30 or so more cars from the 1950s to the 2011 Williams. There are Vanwalls, BRMs, Lotus and Ferraris by the score, all just inches away in the refreshingly unpretentious ‘halls’. There are more Williams and McLarens on show here than you will see in public anywhere, including the championship winning cars of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill – and, yes, the McLaren Senna drove to victory in that wet European GP in 1993.
You are not meant to of course, but I did just touch it.
All up, then, an absolutely smashing day out at one of the country’s most wonderful and significant motorsport venues… all that was missing was that blast up under Starkey’s bridge to McLeans…
Photography by Tom Shaxson