Donington Park claims a sizeable portion of Britain's motor racing heritage, being the country's first true road circuit to be built and the oldest still in current usage. From the classic Grands Prix of the 1930s through to the modern era, the East Midlands venue has posed a popular challenge for riders and drivers.
Rescued from dereliction by the late Tom Wheatcroft in the 1970s, the circuit has undergone a relatively turbulent few years since its failed bid to capture Formula One by leaseholders, only to re-emerge under the family's ownership. Now the circuit has a bright future having been leased to Jonathan Palmer's MotorSport Vision concern.
The circuit now boasts a strong race calendar, with yearly visits of the World Superbikes, British Superbikes, BTCC and British GT/F3, alongside a historic festival, national racing and off-track events, including the Download music festival.
Donington Park wasn't always a hotbed for petrolheads; the land on which the circuit is located was once part of the Donington Hall estate, built by the Second Earl of Moira in c1790 and owned since 1902 by the Gillies Shields family. The hall was requisitioned during the First World War and used as a prisoner or war camp, before eventually being returned to John Gillies Shields.
Into the 1930s, motor racing in Britain meant one thing – Brooklands – but for enthusiasts seeking entertainment further north in the Midlands, no permanent venues existed. Enter one of the two men who would have a lasting impact on Donington's fortunes as a racing circuit; Fred Craner. A former TT motorcycle racer, Craner was a local garage owner and secretary of the Derby and District Motor Club. Craner began exploring potential sites to hold races and prime among them was Donington Park.
Fortuitously, the park was open to the paying public, so after handing over his admittance fee, Craner began exploring the land and lanes and liked what he found. Not so pleased was the gamekeeper, who came across Craner in private area but was evidently won over by Fred's story and dispatched him to see Mr Shields. While perhaps not as easily won over as his staff had been, Shields was in relatively short order persuaded of the merits of holding a trial motor race.
So it was that, just five weeks later, a dirt course was marked out by joining existing park tracks together and a field of motorcycle assembled for the first event on Whit Monday, 1931. The inaugural winner was C.F. 'Squib' Burton aboard a 350cc Raleigh. Some 20,000 paying spectators thronged to the circuit to experience, in many cases, their first taste of motorsport. It would not be their last.
By the following year, considerable improvements had been made in spectator facilities and racing continued for a series of popular motorcycle races. Much of that original layout is recognisable from today's modern course, although the surroundings were very different. The park was still heavily wooded, and the roads were narrow and lined with outbuildings and other hazards. Among the more prominent features were the narrow arches of the Starkey's Bridge, through which the course passed in little more than single file and the farm yard at Coppice, which required racers to thread their way through a gate and between the farm house.
Into the 1930s, the circuit grew in stature, hosting a regular series of races and undergoing continual development and improvement. The considerable sum of £12,000 was invested in the 1932 off-season to lay a tarmacadam surface, widen the circuit and further improve facilities in preparation for the first car races, which were held in 1933. A small four car field took a Le Mans-style start in the first four-wheeled event in March, followed by three more races later that year.
Ahead of the 1934 season, the circuit was extended to 2.6 miles, with a new loop added at the end of the lap. Instead of climbing the unfortunately named Gallows Flesh Hill, the cars carried onto a hairpin bend, before doubling back on themselves and arriving at Redgate Corner, which was now a tight left corner run in the opposite direction to previously. The start and finish was relocated to this new section. In addition, a 'club' circuit was added for shorter races; essentially just a long thin loop which ran roughly parallel to the main course down to a hairpin at Coppice.
The Grand Prix Era
Donington's first Grand Prix was organised in 1935, with three continental entries boosting the race card: Dr Giuseppe Farina and Gino Revere in Maseratis and Raymond Sommer in an Alfa Romeo. Home-entered cars included the ERA of Prince 'Bira' of Siam, while the winner was Richard Shuttleworth in an Alfa Romeo.
The flowing parkland circuit was further extended again in 1937, with a new section taking the cars down Melbourne Hill and (just) into Derbyshire but it was in 1938 that the circuit hit its greatest heights, when Fred Craner was more than delighted to learn the great Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams had lodged entries for the Grand Prix.
Paying the £3500 starters fees was a calculated risk which paid off handsomely for the circuit, when 50,000 spectators showed up to be wowed by the brilliance of the German machines. Four Mercedes – for Manfred von Brauchitsch, Hermann Lang, Richard Seaman and Rudolf Carraciola – and three Auto Union machines – for Bernd Rosemeyer, Achille Varzi and Herman Müller – made a thunderous sight as they reached 170mph on the straights. The Silver Arrows swept all before them, with Rosemeyer heading home von Brauchitsch and Carraciola with the first non-German entry coming home in fifth.
The following year's Grand Prix promised more of the same, but the clouds of war were beginning to circle overhead. The original race, scheduled for October 1, was cancelled when it appeared war was imminent and the Silver Arrows cars, which had arrived three weeks earlier, were shipped home. Then, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's famous (and short-lived) accord allowed a hastily rescheduled race to take place on October 22. The Silver Arrows again swept to victory, with Tazio Nuvolari's Auto-Union coming home ahead of the Benz's of Lang and Seaman.
Into the 1939 season, a full calendar of events was scheduled, starting with the Tourist Trophy and leading up the Grand Prix in September. However war was to intervene and racing came to a close abruptly when the final race on August 12 had to be abandoned after a serious accident. It would take nearly half a century for the roar of racing engines to be heard again in this corner of Leicestershire.
The circuit, hall and surrounding land were once again requisitioned for the war effort and turned into a storage area for military vehicles. Nearby, the RAF created an air base, RAF Castle Donington, which in later years would be transformed into East Midlands Airport.
In the post war years, a number of attempts were made to restart racing at Donington Park but these all foundered with a combination of planning difficulties (caused by the track straddling county borders) or financial issues. Into the 1970s, it looked increasingly likely that the circuit would remain nothing more than a ghost.
However, one man had other ideas. Frederic Bernard Wheatcroft, better known by his nickname of Tom, was was born in Castle Donington and had amassed a small fortune in the building trade. Having attended the 1937 and '38 Grands Prix, he had become a lifelong racing fan and over time amassed the largest collection of motor racing cars in the world, as well as sponsoring up-and-coming drivers Derek Bell and Roger Williamson. In 1971 he purchased 300 acres of land, including all of the circuit, for £100,000 and set about restoring it to glory.
The first development on site was the construction of a building to house his racing car collection, today known as the Grand Prix Collection. Then came the hard task of securing the necessary permissions and finances to make the circuit's rebirth a reality. Through stubborn determination and hard work, Wheatcroft's dream became a reality and by 1977 a £1.2million refit meant the track was ready to host racing once again.
The layout was familiar, following the pre-war circuit for the most part, with a new start and finish straight leading to a new Redgate Corner – restored as a right hander, similar to the original 1931 course – before swooping down through Hollywood and the Craner Curves to a revised Starkey's Bridge section. This bypassed the perilous bridge itself, which survived in truncated form on the outside of the new track. A new McLeans corner lead onto a shortened straight before a deceptive and tightening Coppice Corner and onto the back straight. A right left chicane brought the lap to a close.
The new Donington Park had some notable features; concrete walls and run-off areas with sand traps meant that the only Armco barriers ran alongside the straight around the Dunlop Bridge, next to the Rolls-Royce depot. The quaint pit buildings also owed more than a little in design terms to the semi-detached homes Wheatcroft was familiar with building.
A special press preview event was held in May, with Mercedes-Benz bringing a collection of pre and post-war cars. Special guest was Hermann Lang, who was frustrated in his attempts to sample the circuit in a 1955 Mercedes W196 by a misfire, but nonetheless got to turn a lap in the unique Multi-Union II Brooklands racer.
An initial first car meeting was cancelled when heavy rains made the circuit infield a quagmire – not the way Wheatcroft wanted to showcase the circuit. So, in a repeat of history, the first event at the new circuit was actually a motorcycle race, with cars following a fortnight later.
The circuit soon established itself as an integral part of the British motor racing scene, with occasional international visitors in the shape of Formula Two (later F3000) and rounds of the transatlantic motorcycle match races. Tom, however, had grander ideas and was keen to host a Grand Prix once more.
Central to gaining more international racing was increasing the length of the lap. From the outset, a new Melbourne loop had been planned for, but it took until 1986 for the necessary permissions and finances to be in place. In the meantime continuous improvements around the track were made, including the gradual relocation of the concrete perimeter walls to create much improved run off, particularly down through the Craner Curves.
Once the circuit extension was in place, attention turned towards gaining a Grand Prix. This happened – for motorcycles at least – in 1987, quickly followed by the World Superbikes a year later. A Formula One Grand Prix looked a distant dream however.
Of course, the ever-persistent Tom Wheatcroft was not one to take no as an answer and his campaigning paid off in 1993, when after initially being given first reserve status on the F1 calendar, Donington was announced as the host of the European Grand Prix after the finances went south for the Autopolis race.
Who can forget that weekend in 1993? After much build up and anticipation, the weather was atrocious but even this didn't dampen the spirits, as Ayrton Senna drove away to one of his greatest victories and, arguably his best first lap ever.
In truth, the facilities were probably weren't quite up to what the F1 brigade had become used to and it was inevitable that this would be a one-off unless there was considerable redevelopment, particularly to the pit and paddock buildings. In 2001, plans were announced for an extensive redevelopment, but the necessary finances could not be found, so a smaller project to rebuild the pits, control tower and media centre were completed for the 2006 season.
Lacking the necessary finances to complete a modern F1 venue, in 2007 the Wheatcroft family sold a 150-year lease to Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd, headed by Simon Gillett. Ambitious plans to redevelop the circuit to secure the British Grand Prix seemed to pay off when Gillet was able to negotiate a 17-year deal with Bernie Ecclestone, starting in July 2010.
Hermann Tilke was brought in to develop the new circuit masterplan which included an entirely new pit complex along Starkey's Straight and increasing the circuit length to 2.944 miles (4.738km), by the addition of a new infield loop. The layout included two circuit variations which could be run simultaneously and a national course similar to the original 1977 circuit.
Initial groundworks began at the end of the 2009 season. This included the demolition of the iconic Dunlop Bridge and the creation of a new access tunnel between McLeans and Coppice. Unfortunately on 24 October 2009, media sources reported that Donington Ventures Leisure had failed to raise the £135 million needed to stage a British Grand Prix and by November the company went into administration.
Acting swiftly, the FIA awarded the Grand Prix to Silverstone until 2027, echoing the earlier move of the FIM who had switched the MotoGP to Silverstone in a 10 year deal when the F1 bid was announced. It meant that, in the space of just a few months, Donington had lost any chance of hosting either category for the foreseeable future.
With the termination of the lease, the ownership and rebuilding of the circuit's infrastructure fell once again to Wheatcroft & Son Ltd, by now headed by Kevin Wheatcroft after the death of his father in 2009. Much work was required to bring the circuit back to life, not least completing the tunnel which had gouged a trench through the track.
In May 2010, the Worcestershire-based Adroit Group acquired the lease to the circuit and began making good on repairs. These continued throughout 2010, meaning that almost a full season of racing activity had been lost. During these renovations, the opportunity was taken to modify the chicane on the National Circuit, moving it further from Goddards corner to provide greater run-off. The Foggy Esses were also realigned, with a faster exit created.
In August 2010 the track passed a crucial safety inspection and the first races for 12 months were held in September. Donington was back in business!
Despite this positive news, by year's end it was announced that the Wheatcrofts and Adroit had failed to agree terms of a final lease contract and hence terminated their outline agreement. Control of the circuit thus passed once more back into family hands in the form of Donington Park Racing Ltd. Under Kevin's helm, the circuit began to re-establish itself with a full calendar of national events, headed by a one-off return of the WTCC in 2011 and the more lasting return of the World Superbikes the same year.
In January 2014, the FIA Formula E Championship announced it was building its headquarters and team workshops at the circuit, in a new building in the western paddock, adjacent to the entry to the Melbourne Hairpin. The series also used Donington Park circuit for testing and development work on the first-generation Spark-Renault SRT_01E race car.
The circuit became part of the MSV Group in January 2017, when Kevin Wheatcroft sold a 21-year lease on the estate to Jonathan Palmer's company, which also took over the running of the circuit business. The deal was not cleared by competition authorities until August 2017, when MSV could finally take charge. Thus Donington Park found itself part of the largest circuit group in the UK, alongside Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Cadwell Park, Bedford Autodrome and Snetterton.
As with other MSV circuits, Donington has undergone a considerable revamp since the takeover, meaning the circuit has generally never looked better. During winter 2018, a new, hard surface was laid for Paddock 3, many new toilet blocks added around the circuit and the superb Garage 39 café, restaurant and bar was created in the paddock. The following winter saw the redevelopment of the main paddock entrance for pedestrian access into the circuit. Spectators now enter the venue through a new section just to the right of the existing main entrance point, completely separate from vehicles, with three ticket booths and six pay lanes, allowing for much swifter entry.