The Donington Grand Prix - 1937
by Rodney Walkerley
Donington Grand Prix of 1937 was the race and the year in which the already legendary
German Grand Prix cars made their first appearance in Great Britain.
Although I had been watching these cars and reporting their races since they first emerged from their factories in 1934, the race on that October day remains in my memory, not so much on account of the racing, which developed on the usual lines, but because of little incidents and one moment which was profoundly impressive.
There were the remarks of a group of journalists who were attending the race to observe the German Grand Prix machines for the first time. We were standing in the autumn sunshine during the first practice session on the sloping grass overlooking the so-called Hairpin Bend, which was a sharp, right-angled turn to the right on an uphill gradient at the foot of a fast, curving downhill approach with the woods on one side and the famous blasted oaks of Donington in the parkland on the other. Behind us the celebrated mansion of Donington, once the residence of a dissolute nobleman of the 18th century, a prisoner of war camp in World War One, and at the time in question a kind of hotel and restaurant for visitors to what had become a Derbyshire pleasure park open to the public.
The enterprise of the Derby and District Motor Club, led by the energy of brusque Fred Craner, who used adjectives when referring to a spade and was no respecter of persons, especially those we now call "VIPs" turned the roads of the estate into a racing circuit for motorcyclists. The immediate success of the venture led to motor racing, then to the steady extension of the circuit and the organization of important, international events.
That day the circuit measured 3 1/8 miles. It was shaped rather like a distorted frying pan, of which the "handle" was the latest extension of the course. The start and pits were on a very short straight at the top of a sharp uphill known as Melbourne Rise. Then came a right angle to the left (Red Gate), a long curving run downhill through Holly Wood and down, through a fast left-hander to the Hairpin, where we were grouped, waiting. Beyond us, the course wound away gently uphill and out of sight among the trees, through the yellow arch of the famous Stone Bridge (with room for one car at a time) to the near 90-degree turn of McLean's Corner in the woods and so to Coppice Corner, which was a right-hander sharper than a right angle. From here the road passed through scattered farm buildings and out on to the fastest section of all - the long mille and a half, with gentle, full-throttle curves, into the final dead straight line of Starkey's Straight which ended with the quite steep dip down, past the back of the pits, to the U-turn of Melbourne Hairpin. The course then returned uphill to the pits and grandstand enclosure at the top.
The practicing had just begun. Away beyond the woods we heard the approaching scream of a well-tuned E.R.A. and down the winding slope towards us came Raymond Mays. He changed down, braked, skirted round the Hairpin and was gone.
"There's the winner," remarked one of my friends. "Knows this course backwards."
Half a minute later came the deeper note of a 2.9-litre Maserati, and "B. Bira" (Prince Birabongse of Siam, Mays nearest rival and a new star in the racing firmament) shot past us, cornering with that precision which marked him as the master he was.
"Or him," said another.
We waited again. Then they came.
Far away in the distance we heard an angry, deep-throated roaring - as someone once remarked, like hungry lions impatient for the arena. A few moments later, Manfred von Brauchitsch, red helmeted, brought a great, silver projectile snaking down the hill, and close behind, his teammate Rudolf Caracciola, then at the height of his great career. The two cars took the hairpin, von Brauchitsch almost sideways, and rocketed away out of sight with long plumes of rubber smoke trailing from their huge rear tyres, in a deafening crash of sound.
The startled Pressmen gazed at each other, awe-struck.
"Strewth," gasped one of them, "so that's what they're like!"
That was what they were like.