Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
The history of Donington Park
BY JOE SAWARD
October 22 1938 is a date which thousands of British racing fans will never forget. Britain and Germany were on the verge of war, but 60,000 British fans turned up at Donington Park to marvel at the mighty German racing machines fielded by Mercedes- Benz and AutoUnion - and funded by Adolf Hitler.
Although Britain had a thriving amateur racing scene, built around the great oval at Brooklands, the arrival of continental Grand Prix racing was quite an event.
The arrival of the silver arrows owed much to a Derby garage owner called Fred Craner. As president of the Derby & District Motor Club Craner had convinced John Gillies Shields, the owner of the Donington Park estate, to allow racing in his grounds and the first car races had taken place in 1933. They were a great success and two years later Craner took the bold step of staging a 300-mile Donington Grand Prix. It attracted only local racers and was won by 'Mad Jack' Shuttleworth.
The race was repeated in 1936 and won by rising British star 23-year-old Dick Seaman and Swiss owner/driver Hans Ruesch, who shared an Alfa 8C to victory.
It was Seaman's recruitment by the Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team for 1937 and the resulting increase in British interest in European racing, that led Craner to invite the big German teams to Donington in 1937.
It was the biggest event in British racing for years and a huge crowd watched four sleek Mercedes W125s take on three ungainly mid-engined AutoUnions. The rest of the grid was made up of outclassed local machinery.
After an exciting battle the race was won by German hero Bernd Rosemeyer in his AutoUnion, followed home by the Mercedes W125s of Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudi Caracciola. Seaman retired a collision with Hermann Muller's AutoUnion.
It would be Rosemeyer's last victory for on January 28 1938 he was killed while trying to break speed records on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. His death left AutoUnion in disarray. Dr Ferdinand Porsche was replaced by Karl Feuereissen and his engineers at Zwickau began to design a new mid- engined AutoUnion D-type to meet new regulations for 1938, the old 750kg weight formula being replaced by one limiting engines to 3-litre supercharged or 4.5-litres normally- aspirated.
The result was a new 60-degree supercharged V12 engine, capable of producing 450bhp, mounted in a sleek, aerodynamic chassis, which featured distinctive horizontal tail fins.
But who would drive the new machines? Rosemeyer and Ernst Von Delius were both dead and the company's first star Hans Stuck Sr was 37 and in semi-retirement. Achille Varzi who had been an important team member in 1936, had competed only a couple of times in 1937 because of his drug addiction.
The new AutoUnions were not ready in time for the start of the 1938 season, the team missing both Pau (which was won by Rene Dreyfus in a Delahaye) and Tripoli where the new Mercedes front- engined W154s were dominant, finishing 1-2-3 with Lang leading home Von Brauchitsch and Caracciola.
At the French GP at Rheims AutoUnion had cars for Hermann Muller, Rudolf Hasse and Swiss Christian Kautz, but the meeting was a disaster: Muller crashed in practice and both Hasse and Kautz went off on the first lap. Once again Mercedes dominated. AutoUnion needed help.
The answer came in the diminutive form of Tazio Nuvolari, at 45 a legend in racing circles. He had quit Alfa Romeo in disgust after being burned in a practice accident at Pau and in July led AutoUnion against the remarkable Mercedes squad at the Nurburgring.
It was a memorable day for British motor racing, as Seaman became the first British driver to win a Grand Prix since 1923. That win guaranteed a huge crowd for Donington in October.
August saw Mercedes wins for Caracciola in the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara and Lang in the Coppa Ciano at Livorno. At the end of the month the teams gathered at Bremgarten and the Swiss fans witnessed a tremendous duel beween Caracciola and Seaman.
On September 11th in Monza Nuvolari stopped the run of Mercedes victories with a win for AutoUnion. The stage was set for a great end-of-season showdown at Donington Park.
World events, however, overtook the racing. In early September at his annual Nuremburg Rally Adolf Hitler precipitated a crisis over the Sudeten lands of Czechoslovakia, which he claimed as German. On September 23rd the Czechs mobilised their armed forces. For a week Europe was on the brink of war, but on the night of the September 29th, two days after Britain mobilised its fleet, an agreement was signed in Munich. Chamberlain flew home proclaiming 'Peace in our time'.
The Donington GP had been scheduled for October 8 but the crisis forced a delay, so that the teams did not gather until the the 22nd.
Caracciola, already the European Champion for the third time, did not come, nor did the Italian teams which had been humbled all year.
But the Germans came in force with Mercedes-Benz fielding Seaman, Von Brauchitsch, Lang and youngster Walter Baumer and AutoUnion entering Nuvolari, Muller and Hasse.
French Champion Rene Dreyfus arrived in a Delahaye and the field was completed by an assortment of British machinery.
There was a crowd of 60,000 that day to watch the 80 lap, 250-mile race. Among them was the Duke of Kent.
In practice Nuvolari hit a deer in the woods and he went to the grid with afractured rib and bandages under his famous yellow jersey. It was he who led the field away, chased by team mate Muller. Dreyfus was an early retirement with fuel pump failure and then Nuvolari ran into trouble and had to pit for a change of plugs, leaving Muller leading Lang.
Nuvolari's pit stop coincided with a oil spill on the fast downhill section between the holly wood and the hairpin (now called the Craner Curves). It caused mayhem as Hasse crashed and Seaman spun and stalled.
These incidents worked to Nuvolari's advantage as he tried to catch Muller and Lang. Lang overhauled Muller and tok the lead until the routine pit stops with 30 laps to go when he led Nuvolari by nearly a minute.
Nuvolari responded to the challenge and his chase of Lang was greeted by amazement in the huge crowd. He clawed back half a minute in 10 laps and on lap 66, he caught and passed Lang. By the finish the great Nuvolari was over 90 secs ahead of Lang. The man who had made it all possible, Dick Seaman, finished third.
Within a year he was dead, killed in a crash at Spa, Britain and Germany were at war and Donington Park had been requisitioned as a military transport base...