Columns - The Youth of Today

Heroes, revisited


I'm told that meeting your heroes is, more often than not, to be avoided unless you're prepared to have illusions shattered. For me though such disappointment has seldom been a problem because, for the most part, my heroes have departed for the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

It's far harder to feel bruised and let down by a legacy - still possible, I grant you - but at least memoirs, letters and anecdotes are a better gauge of what someone sees and feels for the world than two minutes of shared embarrassment. In the case of racing drivers though they most often leave something of even more value... their racing cars.

Before flying out to Brazil I visited Donington Park for the first time in a while. Even on an inhospitable March morning, it's always good to get back to dear old Donington. More importantly, though, was that between a silver-gray sky and a silver-gray circuit sat a silver-gray racing car. A 1938 Auto Union to be exact.

There will be an extravaganza of Audi Tradition at Donington on 19-20 May this year, and as a teaser a handful of journalists were treated to a glimpse of the car in which none other than Tazio Nuvolari took victory there.

It remained silent, but despite the running of the unique twin-chassis Lotus 88 and even that giant of Formula 1 history the Alfa Romeo 158, the Auto Union commanded the center of attention. Such is the mystique of seeing one of the real Silver Arrows in the flesh.

There is nothing in the story of these cars, of the men who built them, the men who drove them and the races they created which fails to leave you breathless. The sheer magnitude of the technical and human achievements, of the personalities and of the intrigues that percolated around them are of an age when motor racing could - and did - change the world.

Grands Prix then were the equivalent of Jimi Hendrix playing his improvised, apocalyptic Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock while Grands Prix now are like watching Britney Spears on MTV.

Mercedes once put David Coulthard in its 580 hp W125 from 1937 - and he was openly terrified. Although DC would doubtless approve of the speed, comradeship and whisky and sodas in the pits during qualifying he's a bit too much of a muesli and pasta boy to be a real Silver Arrow.

"Three hours round the Nurburgring?" he gaped. "No chance. I wouldn't do three minutes in this thing anywhere. It's just another world altogether and you'd have to drive it yourself to appreciate how frightening it is." Then as now Donington Park was a surreal place for these German giants to appear. The great circuits of AVUS, Tripoli, Brno and the Nurburgring with all their Herculean scale were far more fitting theatres than the back garden of an English stately home. And yet as much if not more of their legend was created at the Grands Prix Donington staged in 1937 and '38 - and Auto Union triumphed on each occasion.

Unlike, say, Brno or the Nurburgring, the modern circuit at Donington wouldn't be entirely unfamiliar to Auto Union's winners, Bernd Rosemeyer and Tazio Nuvolari. It takes in most of the winding top section of its forebear, albeit with gravel traps rather than the trees fringing the corners where once the silver cars were artfully threaded downhill in long power slides. Modern Donington shies away from the old stone bridge, but both bridge and the track remain intact. Many such parts of the old circuit still remain and, just as lapping the Nordschleife is a prerequisite of visiting the 'Ring, it's an enchanting way to spend an hour or two.

Nuvolari on his way to victory, Donington, 1938

For example as you drive the narrow, bumpy perimeter road from the farmhouse (now the circuit office), past the Donington Collection museum you are on the old back 'straight' just as it was in the Thirties. Here is where Manfred von Brauchitsch lost the lead for Mercedes in 1937 when a tire let go at 170mph... spine-tingling stuff.

The path of the time traveler is however blocked by the downhill leg of the modern Melbourne loop. For the recent historian it was of course here that Ayrton Senna lunged through to take his unassailable lead at the European Grand Prix in 1993, but of the earlier world there's little to see.

The intrepid must make their way through the site of Donington's Sunday Market behind the paddock to find the final, most charismatic part of the old circuit. The downhill plunge into the Melbourne hairpin saw drivers fight their way down from over 180mph into the tight, narrow right-hander before blasting back uphill and into racing legend as the Silver Arrows leapt over the crest and, airborne, they finished their laps.

As I left Donington I took the rare opportunity to drive down to the old Melbourne loop. I only meant to have a nostalgic look in the afternoon mist, but with some suitably stirring music - the theme from The English Patient, actually - and the place to myself the accelerator took on a life of its own... With the village of Melbourne vaguely outlined far below everything went light, tipping over the edge like a downhill skier with Donington Castle looming to the left. The grass inside the actual hairpin is now gone, smothered in billiard table smooth asphalt which made braking all the easier as I made my best guess of where Rosemeyer's apex would have been.

The solid wall of the return leg was a daunting prospect where the horizon loomed blackly. Drifting left to take the old kink onto the pits straight I crested the rise with not a fraction of an inch between my wheels and terra firma... and jumped on the brakes.

The line of the old circuit is gone. Where once the pit lane stood is now tree-lined grass and narrow tarmac in the shadow of the wartime Rolls-Royce factory. I turned gently left and drove over the site of the old grandstand into the Sunday Market compound to the edge of Holly Wood, where the deer now run excitedly without threat of being bowled over by Nuvolari's D-Type. Of all the men who wrestled those greatest of Grand Prix cars only one is still among us, the aristocratic rogue Manfred von Brauchitsch. With his 96th birthday fast approaching however the last of the Silver Arrows now sees no reason why he should waste any more of his time thrilling and terrifying journalists, which one colleague likened to doing the Cresta Run on a bed of nails.

A part of me is and always will be inconsolably sad that I have missed out on sitting in the old lion's glare, but then again there will always be that legacy he and his colleagues have left us. You can find little bits of it all over the world but, as a place to start, I recommend Donington Park this coming May.