The Donington Historic Festival

Unlike the vast majority of UK circuits, which were originally airfields that were repurposed for racing following the Second World War, Donington Park in Derbyshire was constructed as a racetrack from the outset, in the grounds of the Donington Hall stately home. It does have a military element to its history, though, as it was used as a vehicle storage depot during the war. It then lay derelict for decades, before being acquired and revamped by the late property developer Tom Wheatcroft in the 1970s. Despite this patchwork history, Donington is a firm favourite with UK racegoers, so there was universal concern in 2006 when a failed venture to attract the British Formula One race to the circuit from Silverstone left the venue as a half-finished construction site. The lease reverted to the Wheatcroft family, however, and the track is now being slowly revamped in a more modest fashion for the 21st century.

The track’s revival efforts received a notable boost when it was announced that Duncan Wiltshire’s Historic Promotions outfit was planning a historic racing festival at the track in 2011. The UK enjoys a bevy of top-class historic events, including the world-renowned Goodwood Festival of Speed, its companion event the Goodwood Revival, the Silverstone Classic, the Oulton Park Gold Cup and the Masters Historic Festival at Brands Hatch. A crowded marketplace, you might say, but the appetite for historic motorsport is both considerable and growing, and with Donington’s rich pre-war history to draw on, the organisers believe the event has legs.

Reasonable ticket prices saw a claimed 12,000 visitors attend the two-day event, which benefitted from unbroken sunshine throughout and a healthy entry of over 300 cars. As ours was a one-day visit, we unfortunately had to forgoe Saturday evening’s hour-long race for pre-1972 sportscars. Having attended a similar evening endurance event at Silverstone in 2008, I can confirm that the slight change in light makes all the difference in evoking a real period atmosphere for drivers and spectators alike.

Sunday kicked off with a race for pre-1966 under-two-litre touring cars, the forerunners of the modern World Touring Car Championship. It’s a grid dominated by Lotus Cortinas, Alfa Romeo GTAs and Minis, as well as a clutch of BMW 1800s. The meeting was bookended by touring-car classes, in fact, but unfortunately the closing race for Group 1/2 and Group A touring cars suffered from a very thin grid, as the evocative TWR Jaguar XJS and several BMW CSL 3.0s failed to progress from qualifying to the race due to mechanical issues. The P6B and SD1 Rovers from the entry list were nowhere to be seen either, but past experience has shown that a fledgling historic class can take time to build up some momentum – both the FIA’s Historic Formula One series and the Group C Racing series have grown from unsteady beginnings to solid success stories over the past few years, and hopefully the same will be the case with this JD Classics-sponsored class.

Closer to lunchtime, the glorious pre-1963 GT cars rolled out. This race featured one of only three Ferrari 330GTOs ever built, as well as an even rarer rival from the Aston Martin stable in the shape of Wolfgang Friedrichs’ DB212 prototype. More ‘common’ offerings from both marques included three Ferrari 250s and two Aston Martin DB4s, while the Jaguar E-Type was also well represented in what is its 50th anniversary. This race also featured an extremely unusual collaboration between two great names in automotive history: the Porsche 356B-based Carrera Abarth. Driven by Graham Hill to class victories at the RAC Tourist Trophy in 1960 and 1961, this unique car was the result of some creative rules interpretation – the rulebook defined the chassis and running gear requirements, but made no mention of bodywork, so Porsche commissioned Abarth to build a lower and lighter aluminium body for its iconic roadster.

Next up on the bill was the Stirling Moss Trophy for pre-1961 sports prototypes. This relatively new addition to the world of historic racing is a fantastic and varied spectacle, as with narrow tyres and no aero grip, you can really see the cars move around in the corners and gain a deeper appreciation for the dynamics of racecar driving. This is especially evident when these cars are seen back-to-back with the grippy, slick- and wing-shod machines of the Historic Formula 2 championship. Of the Moss Trophy runners, Bobby Verdon-Roe in his Ferrari 246S really stood out, executing a perfect powerslide out of the Goddards chicane on every single lap. There was also a terrific din from both the Jaguar-engined Lister of Jon Minshaw/Martin Stretton and the Chevrolet-engined sister car of Mark Gibbon/David Hall. This class is given an extra edge by the fact that the winners at the end of the season receive the actual trophy won by Stirling Moss on the occasion of his first-ever Grand Prix victory, and the British legend himself is an occasional competitor in the series.

The main course was served up late on Sunday afternoon – a round of the Group C Racing Series. Worries that some of the more hotly anticipated cars on the entry list would not make the start proved unfounded – the rare Lancia LC2 of Rupert Clevely in particular was a welcome sight. This was quite an unusual historic Group C grid, in that it featured no examples of by far the most common Group C chassis, the Porsche 956/962, but it did have Bob Berridge’s Sauber Mercedes C11, a trio of Silk Cut-liveried Jaguars and series newcomer Katsu Kubota in a Nissan R90CK. And just after the contemporary Aston Martin team announced the withdrawal of its squad of AMR-ONEs from the Spa 1000kms due to engine issues, Paul Whight took that car’s namesake, the 1989 AMR1, out at Donington. David Richards and company will certainly be hoping that car’s lacklustre single season of competition is not a portent for their efforts in 2011.

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