Stately Donington Hall has a history dating back to around 1790, and a pedigree that could see it scratch out an entry into Burke’s Peerage. The gothic pile near Derby was bought by the Gillies Shields family in the early 1900s, and served as a prisoner of war camp (during World War I), and a refugee camp (for displaced Hungarians) in the 1950s. Sandwiched in-between those two events, Donington Hall and its beautiful park-like estate was the unlikely staging ground for a race that would forever alter the face of British Motorsport.
The sound of fury
One quiet misty morning in the early ’30s, a gentleman by the name of Fred Craner—a one-time motorcycle racer and then-secretary of the local Derby Motor Club—ambling across the sprawling jade parklands that surrounded Donington Hall, couldn’t help but imagine the lanes that criss-crossed the estate alive with the sound of racing bikes. Inspired, Craner went up to the Hall and asked whether he might have a chat with the squire.
The chat proved fruitful and so it was that, a year later, on Whit Monday, ’31, a dirt track—connecting the existing lanes that had first inspired Craner—fielded the first-ever race at Donington Park. The course was narrow, a single-lane-only track that cut over Starkey’s Bridge and the even-narrower run beside the farmhouse at Coppice. It proved no obstacle for the bikes, though—or the entertainment of the 20,000 spectators who showed up on a crisp, cloudy day.
A year later, the track was paved and extended, with a tight hairpin at Melbourne added to allow for motor cars to join the action.
Brooklands—the oldest purpose-built race track in the world—was the then-undisputed home of British Motorsport, but that was set to change in ’35 when Donington attracted a field of international stars that included Giuseppe Farina (15 years away from becoming the first official Formula One World Champion), Raymond Sommer, and British-based star Prince “Bira” (who would, many decades later, die unknown and forgotten on a London subway).
In ’37, Donington’s international reputation was cemented into the history books when Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz came with their Silver Arrows driven by the Titans of pre-war racing—Caracciola, Lang, Varzi, Nuvolari, and Rosemeyer. Over 50,000 astonished spectators stood transfixed as the Silver Arrows ripped through the bucolic countryside at speeds of over 280kmh, all-four wheels launched into the air over Starkey’s Hill like mechanical talons.
They returned for ’38, and by then there was no mistaking the fact that Donington was now the epicentre of British Motorsport.
Time’s arrow, though, was blunt; the ’39 race would never take place as the roar of German engines took to the skies, and by the time it was all over, Brooklands was gone forever, and Donington would remain silent for another half-century.