CIRCUITS: DONINGTON PARK

Name: Donington Park

Britain's oldest surviving racing circuit is at Donington Park, which is located 12 miles from Nottingham on the top of a windswept hill close to the East Midlands Airport.

The Donington Park estate belonged to the the Gillies Shields family and like many other English country estates until World War I when it was requisitioned by the British government and used as a prisoner of war camp. In 1915 Gunther Pluschow, a German pilot, made one of the few successful escape attempts of the war from Donington. In the years that followed the war the estate returned to normality and it was not until 1933 that Donington again made the headlines. A local garage owner from Derby called Fred Craner approached John Gillies Shields and convinced him to let the Derby & District Motor Club - of which Craner was the president - hold races on the estate roads. Racing on public roads in Britain had been banned after the disastrous Paris-Madrid race of 1903. It was this law which resulted in the decision to build the huge banked speedway at Brooklands, but the great oval was an exception to the rule and for most British racers it was a question of looking for private estates on which to race and so began the tradition of hillclimbs and sprints which developed at such venues as Prescott and Shelsley Walsh.

Having convinced Gillies Shields to allow him to organize races, Craner ran the first races at Donington in 1933 on a 2.1-mile track. The races were a big 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 event was repeated in 1936 and won by a 23-year-old rising star called Dick Seaman, who shared an Alfa Romeo 8C with Swiss owner/driver Hans Ruesch. The following year Seaman was recruited by the factory Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team. British fans began to take notice of European racing and Craner decided that he would invite all the big Grand Prix teams to an event in October 1937. Britain and Germany were edging towards war but 60,000 fans turned up to watch the mighty German racing teams: Mercedes- Benz and AutoUnion. The race provided an exciting battle between Bernd Rosemeyer in his AutoUnion and the Mercedes W125s of Manfred von Brauchitsch and Rudi Caracciola. Seaman collided with AutoUnion's Hermann Muller. Victory went to Rosemeyer.

The following year Seaman won the German GP, the first British driver to win a Grand Prix since 1923 and his success guaranteed a big crowd for the Donington race.

World events, however, intervened with the Czechoslovakia crisis, which took Europe to the brink of war. The Donington event was postponed. Meetings in Munich averted conflict and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew home proclaiming that there would be peace in our time.

The race was rescheduled. Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union both sent over cars and Tazio Nuvolari won a brilliant victory for AutoUnion.

When war broke out in 1939 Donington Park was requisitioned as a military transport base and it remained closed until it was bought in the 1970s by Leicestershire racing fanatic Tom Wheatcroft, who remembered the Donington Grands Prix of the 1930s and dreamed of getting a round of the Formula 1 World Championship to the circuit. Wheatcroft funded a major renovation program and Donington reopened in 1977 with a round of the European Formula 2 Championship which was won by Bruno Giacomelli. The following year Keke Rosberg was the winner and in 1979 victory went to Derek Daly. The series returned again in 1981 with Geoff Lees winning. The European Formula 3 Championship also became a regular visitor to Donington with wins for Brett Riley in 1977 and 1979 and a popular victory in 1978 for Derek Warwick.

The 1981 season marked the first long-distance race at the revived track and the Donington 500 quickly became a major European Touring Car Championship fixture with Tom Walkinshaw Racing's Jaguar and Rovers providing a series of victories for the British fans between 1983 and 1986. At the same time the track developed a keen following among motorcycle racing fans.

Formula 3000 replaced F2 in 1985 and the inaugural championship was settled at Redgate Corner on the first lap of the race when Emanuele Pirro and Mike Thackwell collided, leaving Christian Danner to win the race and the title.

Wheatcroft's dream remained to host a Grand Prix and various plans were announced but the F1 cars never arrived. In June 1983 Wheatcroft got an agreement from the Royal Automobile Club that Donington could host the British GP in 1988. He built a new section of track behind the paddock, restoring the famous Melbourne Hairpin name (although it was not in the same place as the 1930s hairpin), to bring the track up to the minimum distance needed for an F1 track. The race never happened and the battle ended up in the courts. Wheatcroft continued to develop the facility, pioneering many new schemes, hosting rock concerts and attracting spectators with a Sunday market. His Donington Collection museum is one of the best in the world.

Finally, in November 1992, Donington was given a date on the Formula 1 calendar as the 1993 European Grand Prix. The weather was terrible but the event marked a spectacular victory for Ayrton Senna in an underpowered McLaren-Ford. It was probably one of his finest victories.

Although he had achieved his ambition Wheatcroft continued to develop the track and in 1997 concluded a 25-year lease of the track to the Two Four Sports promotion agency, which had been renting the track from him on an annual basis since 1987. In October 1999 the track came under the effective control of the US company SFX Entertainment although it still belongs to the Wheatcroft family.

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