The first weekend in September promised no let-up from the intense summer of automotive indulgence. Saturday 4th September offered the return of racing to that most evocative of venues – Donington Park. Having been saved from possible extinction by incumbent Kevin Wheatcroft, the Masters organisation was charged with returning four-wheeled racing to the Park. Greeted by sunshine, though customarily little warmth, it was a pleasure to find oneself back at a circuit which I fist visited as a pre-teen in 1995 for the Karcher BPR Global GT Championship.
Rather comfortingly, little had apparently changed compared to the last couple of meetings of 2009, when there remained that bemused optimism that maybe, just maybe, Simon Gillett could pull that rabbit from the hat – a Grand Prix at Donington Park. Having disappeared into the sunset, Gillett had left something of a mess behind him, with Donington still looking as much deserted building site as race circuit. While its dilapidation is sad, the motor racing enthusiast could once again rejoice in observing cars at speed around a circuit which boosts a history now almost 80 years old.
In deference to that history, the Masters had put together an exciting race card offering a fabulous mix of old sports, GT, touring and Grand Prix racers. Sadly, the opening race of the day was missed but as the warhorses from the World Sportscar Masters took to the track nothing could wipe the grin from my face. A representative field of big-banger and small-capacity sports racing machinery put on a fine display, with the primary interest being the fierce competition between Roger Wills in his McLaren M1C and Oliver Bryant in the family Lola T70 MkIIIB. Every lap, the pair hammered into Redgate as one with Wills relishing the McLaren’s huge torque with lurid powerslides on the exit. Bryant was more controlled, but the Lola equally dramtic with monster Chevrolet power of its own. After 30 minutes of action, it was Bryant who crossed the line first, and what a magnificent start to a day of racing.
More sports racing cars followed with the Interserie Revival/Proto 70s showcasing heavy metal from the late 1960s and 1970s. Group 7 challengers from the Can Am and Interserie butted heads with 2.0L and 3.0L sports prototypes. The end result was never in doubt though, as Rick Hall scampered into the distance to win at a canter in Brazilian Abba Kogan’s wailing Matra MS670B. Frank Bradley was valiant in attack behind in the March 717, but even the enormous power of the March was unable to make an impression, though he convincingly beat Rick Hall in the second of the Matras. While the racing may not have been edifying, the sound and spectacle of high-revving 3.0L engines overlaying the off-beat thump of the big-capacity V8s was a treat in itself; one might never grow bored of that glorious Matra V12.
A frantic race for pre-1966 saloon cars saw a classic scrap between a brace of Alan Mann Lotus Cortinas and the BMW 1800TI of the McInerneys. The Cortinas displayed that most distinctive handling trait – oversteer on the entry, apex and exit of Redgate. Even from the first lap, cars were taking to the dusty hard-standing on the outside of Hollywood as the road pitches down into the Craner Curves and a precedent was set which continued throughout the race. A representative grid of Minis, Mk II Jaguars and Austin A40s provided dicing all the way down the field. Leo Voyazides won the bout by 20 seconds once pit stops had shaken themselves out, with his sideways style once again winning many fans.
Between races were interspersed a number of demonstration runs for machinery of all kinds. Historic karts and bikes offered an alternative viewpoint, but fast laps from a variety of historic racing cars were the highlight. Featuring a handful of Tom Wheatcroft’s favourite Grand Prix machines from his own collection, the crowd was wowed by Vanwall, Ferrari and Lotus, among a host of famous names. Enthusiasts of enclosed wheels weren’t ignored and the glorious Ferrari 512S lapped with a selection of Super Saloon and Modsports heroes. While it is a fine balancing act trying to avoid being all things to all men, the day offered a fascinating glimpse of the sport’s rich history.
The day’s fastest action was reserved for the 3.0L Grand Prix cars of the period 1966 – 1983 when Cosworth’s DFV offered a hitherto unseen miscellany to the sport. A tremendous field of pretty and indecently rapid machinery put on a fine display; that crisp V8 bark so evocative as it echoed around the parkland. The battle at the front was a close one, with Steve Hartley and Rob Austin aboard a pair of Arrows and Bill Coombs in his Tyrrell 009 all in with a shout. By the chequer it was Austin who had emerged victorious but once again these cars proved that wheel-to-wheel racing between high-powered single seaters is perfectly plausible, as the Hartley and Coombs had so eloquently proven at the Silverstone Classic earlier in the summer. Stirring stuff indeed.
A exciting field for the Sports Racing Masters encounter was left depleted by a first-lap incident which eliminated the Wills McLaren, Watson Chevron and Monteverde Lola T70. Red Bull design chief and ardent historic enthusiast Adrian Newey appeared pirouetting down the Craners in dramatic fashion but emerged unscathed and continued to lap rapidly in his GT40. At the front, however, the brothers Buncombe looked unruffled in their own GT40. Chris and Alex are the offspring of Jonathan, a club racer of some merit during the 1970s. His talent appears to have rubbed off and a stellar drive left them a handful of seconds ahead of the Minshaw clan, who won the unofficial Chevron class.
The final race of the day was the Gentlemen Drivers’ Over 3.0L enduro, scheduled for 2 hours running into the autumnal dusk. A striking sight, and ferocious noise as the pack descended on Redgate for the opening lap. Clear favourite was Jon Minshaw piloting his Lightweight Jaguar E-Type, whose neat style contrasted with three foot long flames from the side-exit exhaust of the Jag. His adversaries were at the mercy of reliability and the speed of their co-drivers. Father and son Cobra pairing Graham and Olly Bryant were able to salvage second, though one must attribute that mostly to Olly, who entertained on a level only matched by Rob Hall who found maximum grip on the grasscrete outside the Old Hairpin, kicking up the dust every lap. Proper cars and proper drivers, with the likes of Simon Hadfield, Gary Pearson and Mark Hales also putting in superb drives aboard a range of beautiful and mellifluous GTs from the 1960s. A wonderful way to finish a long and hugely enjoyable day back at Donington.