Sports Cars Were At Donington Over Sixty Years Ago
© David Blumlein

David has never been one to worry about attendance figures or television coverage of sports car events – “It’s history in the making, I don’t mind whether there are 12 cars racing or 30.” Perhaps in another sixty years, someone will reflect on how Andy Wallace nearly beat the Jan Lammers' Dome, despite a failing gearbox on the DBA – in what could be the last sportscar race at Donington Park for some time.

David looks back to the sportscar events at the Midlands track in the late thirties….

If you were to ask a motor racing enthusiast what he knew about Donington Park in the early days, he would probably recall that the mighty German Grand Prix cars, the Mercedes and Auto Unions, visited just before the Second World War. Donington was indeed privileged to welcome these mighty cars and their mighty drivers, the best in the world, in both 1937 – when Bernd Rosemeyer won for Auto Union (he was to perish while record-breaking a few months later and this English win was his last) – and 1938, when English race-goers had the priceless opportunity of witnessing Tazio Nuvolari (surely one of the best ever?) repeat the success for Auto Union.

An understandable reply indeed, but I am sure the majority of those present at the FIA SCC race on August 9, whatever their role, would not have been aware that Donington hosted three important sports car events prior to the war. And of course, today’s cars were using basically the same circuit as was used over sixty years ago, the main difference being the exclusion of the full Melbourne Corner, and the addition of the return leg behind the pits leading via Goddards down past the current finishing straight to Redgate, which is the only new part added in Tom Wheatcroft’s reconstruction.

Donington, first used for car racing in 1933, is an historic site, Britain’s longest serving road circuit still in use – and it was first used for endurance racing in July 1937, when a 12 hour sportscar race was held. Le Mans was, of course, all the rage in the thirties, especially in the latter part of the decade, when there was a big French sports car revival to counter the untouchable superiority of the German Grand Prix teams, which carried all before them to champion Hitler’s new found Reich.

It was the Derby & District Motor Club, under the enthusiastic Fred Craner, which was the inspiration behind the activities at Donington – and it was their idea to hold the (one and only) twelve hour race, on a circuit which at that time was two and a half miles or so in length. The regulations were aimed at two-seater sports cars made in reasonable quantities, but they could shed all necessary road equipment if the teams wished. It was a scratch race with no handicap, with five classes according to engine size, and superchargers were not allowed. During the 1936 T.T. in Ulster, the Delahayes had gone very well and a privately owned example, that of ‘Bira’, co-driven by Hector Dobbs, came home first, having covered 691 miles at an average speed of 57 mph. The Frazer-Nash entered BMW of Aldington and Fane, a possible winner, led for a time before succumbing to gearbox maladies.

The Donington 12 Hours was marred by a fatal accident, which caused the race to be temporarily halted while ambulance crews worked at the crash scene. It seems that M.K.H. Bilney (who had recently finished 14th at Le Mans in an open-bodied Ford ten – just think of that!) lost control of his AC while alongside Robinson’s Riley going through Holly Wood (the section from today’s Redgate Corner to the Craner Curves) and his car finished up crushed between the Riley and a wall: Robinson escaped with a broken thigh, but poor Bilney was killed.

Riley cars came second and third and the two-litre class was won by a Wolseley Hornet. An old 4.5 litre Bentley trailed in in 23rd position, second in its class.

If the poor attendance frightened the organisers into not repeating the event, Donington was about to implement a welcome boost. The famous Tourist Trophy race, Britiain’s oldest competition, had found a splendid home on the Ards circuit outside Belfast since 1928, but during the 1936 race, a Riley crashed into spectators (standing in a forbidden area), killing several and injuring many more. Not unexpectedly, this killed off the Ards circuit, leaving the T.T. with no home.

The RAC had approached Mr. Shields, the owner of Donington, who had readily agreed to extend the circuit with what became the famous Melbourne Loop, increasing the length to just over three miles, thus rendering the track suitable for Grand Prix use. This work was completed in time for the T.T. to be run in September 1937, and the prestige of the race attracted a large crowd and a more exciting entry than three months previously.

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Thus did Donington host its second big sportscar race, this time a handicap affair, as had been the previous Tourist Trophy races, over 100 laps of the new circuit. The French came with three ‘works’ Talbots (renamed Darracqs here, to avoid confusion with the British built Talbots) and the Germans came with official BMW 328s. Riley contributed two works cars to back up the privateers, Morgan made its T.T. debut with a new little 4/4, and Arthur Fox entered one of his Le Mans-type Lagondas. Gordini was present too, with a couple of Fiat-Simcas, while the Le Mans-type Singers, which had disgraced themselves in 1935 with steering failures, were back but in private hands.

Fane in a BMW led initially on handicap, as Sommer tried to topple him in the big Talbot / Darracq, but both were destined to retire, with back axle trouble and a dropped valve respectively. The 12-hour winner, Hector Dobbs, had had the back axle fail on his works BMW on the starting line, but a German mechanic set to work replacing it and duly sent Dobbs back out some two and a quarter hours later – BMW was after the team prize.

The Italian veteran Comotti, replacing Louis Chiron, finally triumphed in the Talbot, ahead of team-mate Le Begue. ‘Bira’ salvaged some honour for BMW with a third place, while Singer restored some prestige for the company with a fourth overall and a class win. A private Delahaye came fifth, driven by Mongin and Paul, these two having taken second place at that year’s Le Mans.

The success of this race led to the RAC going ahead with the 1938 T.T. at Donington, the date selected being September 3 – an ominous one just a year later. Pre-occupied in France, the Delahayes scratched, but the two Talbot / Darracqs came back, Louis Gerard brought his re-bodied, three-litre Delage, three BMWs were back to try again – while H.J. Aldington added a fourth for Richard Seaman (the recent German Grand Prix winner), who had recently become engaged to the daughter of BMW’s top man and had negotiated a release from his Mercedes-Benz contract.

The race, won by Gerard, was notable for the lack of accidents of any sort and for the stupendous drive put in by the promising St. John Horsfall, who finished second in his two-litre Aston Martin Speed Model, leaving the nearest rival BMW some ten minutes behind. Darracqs took the next three places, while Seaman could only manage 21st, having applied Grand Prix braking techniques to what was really a production car.

The Grand Prix teams came to Donington a month after each T.T., but that became later in 1938 because of the Munich crisis. The advent of real war in 1939 overtook plans for any more long distance sports car racing at Donington, but do recall that the 1998 ISRS race was blessed with the title of Tourist Trophy. What a pity that the old tradition is not carrying on.

 

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