NOVEMBER 1, 2009
As the grid was forming up in Abu Dhabi, word began to filter through from England that Tom Wheatcroft has died at the age of 87. Wheatcroft is best known as the man who revived the Donington Park racing circuit and in 1993 achieved his ambition to host a Grand Prix at the Leicestershire track, where he first caught the racing bug in 1937 when he saw the great AutoUnion and Mercedes-Benz teams battle. Wheatcroft came from humbling beginnings and cycled to the track that day. He had little formal schooling but after spending the war driving tanks, he set up a building company and soon became very wealthy. This enabled him to indulge in his passion for racing cars and in 1970 he set up Wheatcroft Racing and bought a Brabham BT30 Formula 2 for rising star Derek Bell. This was followed by a BT26 Formula 1 car for selected events. The F2 programme was a big success with Bell finishing second in the European Championship. In 1971 he acquired much of the 1100-acre Donington Hall estate for £100,000. On the grounds was the old racing circuit which had been converted into a military transport base during World War II and was never revived. Wheatcroft dreamed of rebuilding the facility and first won a lengthy series of legal battles to get the track reopened and then funded a complete renovation. His goal was to take the British Grand Prix to Donington Park.
In 1972 Wheatcroft Racing took on a new rising star in Roger Williamson and ran him in British Formula 3, with occasional European F2 races as part of the programme. In 1973 Williamson embarked on a season of European F2 and selected F1 races with a Wheatcroft-funded March factory car, run by Max Mosley. Williamson made his debut at the ill-fated British Grand Prix where he was involved in the famous first lap accident. His second race was the Dutch GP. The car suffered a puncture and crashed on the eighth lap, coming to rest upsidedown with Williamson trapped beneath. The car caught fire and the poorly-prepared marshals could not save him, despite the heroic efforts of fellow driver David Purley who tried everything to get his friend from the wrecked car. Devastated by the loss Wheatcroft concentrated on Donington but did later sponsor other young drivers in Formula Atlantic and Formula 2 - notably Brian Henton.
Donington reopened in 1977 with a round of the European Formula 2 Championship which was won by Bruno Giacomelli. At the same time he was building up an extraordinary car collection, know today as the Donington Grand Prix Exhibition. This includes the world's only complete collection of Vanwall cars and almost all of the McLaren F1 cars. There are also a large number of Williamses and BRMs and several of the rare four-wheel-drive F1 cars, notably the unique Cosworth. When Wheatcroft could not buy cars he had them made and the Exhibition includes a pre-war AutoUnion built from the original plans and a perfect replica of Ettore Bugatti's personal Royale, which cost a staggering $2.5m. This was a quarter of the price of buying one of the originals.
Wheatcroft began campaigning for a Grand Prix once Donington was firmly re-established and in 1982 announced plans to host a non-championship race. That never happened but Wheatcroft refused to give up and funded the construction of an extension to the circuit in order to meet the requirements for F1. He landed the British Motorcycle Grand Prix, from 1987 but his attempts to lure F1 were frustrated. Finally Bernie Ecclestone relented and in 1993 Donington was gives the European Grand Prix. The weather was terrible but it was a famous day as Ayrton Senna drove to a brilliant victory in a McLaren-Cosworth. The race was a costly affair but he did not care. In the late 1990s he handed over the management of the circuit to an outside promotional agency and it hosted many successful races for cars and bikes and some of Britain's biggest music festivals. In 2007 he agreed to lease the circuit for 150 years to a company called Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd, which subsequently announced a deal for the British Grand Prix, beginning in 2010. Sadly DVLL failed to deliver the money needed and the plan fell apart just a few days before Wheatcroft, who was suffering from cancer, died.