Donington Collection to close

The collection of historic racing cars amassed by the late Tom Wheatcroft is to be closed to the public from Monday, 5 November. It is hardly unexpected news, but nonetheless rather a sobering thought that this, one of the world’s finest collections of racing cars, motorcycles and memorabilia, will soon disappear.

Wheatcroft fell in love with motor racing as a child in the 1930s, when he visited the recently-opened Donington Park circuit. As an adult at the helm of a highly profitable construction company, Wheatcroft indulged himself by collecting cars and then becoming the backer of rising British talent Roger Williamson, seeing him all the way through from Formula 3 to Formula 1.

After the death of Williamson at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Wheatcroft walked away from such a close involvement with the professional sport and put Williamson’s cars in pride of place in his new museum. Then he set about restoring his beloved Donington Park circuit, which had been used as a depot during World War 2 and subsequently fell into disrepair.

Ever since the venue reopened in 1977, a visit to the Donington Collection has been an essential part of the experience for many people. Thanks to the loan of additional cars by other collectors, and a decent chunk of the McLaren historic car collection, a truly incredible array of machinery has awaited every visitor.

7. Replica of 1937 Mercedes Benz W125 Grand Prix Car (24 Sep 2014)

Originally there was a genuine Mercedes W125 in the Collection, brought back from behind the Iron Curtain by Colin Crabbe. This is a toolroom copy that replaced it from Crossthwaite & Gardner

Some of the cars had astonishing stories. There was the ‘1939 Auto Union’ that Wheatcroft brought back from Russia (in fact a Cisitalia 360, the post-war realisation of what the Auto Union engineers were creating for the abandoned 1940 Grand Prix season).

There was also what could well be statistically the most successful chassis in the history of the world championship: Alberto Ascari’s primary Ferrari 500 F2 from the 1952-53 seasons (pictured at the header). As a child, this was a particular favourite and, later, the sight of it being driven with a wildly enthusiastic grin by McLaren principal Ron Dennis in Bahrain will live long in this author’s memory.

After Tom Wheatcroft’s death in 2009, the Collection passed to his son, Kevin. It has been an open secret that his wish has been to reduce the number of racing cars that he has to look after, replacing those that have been sold from the museum with his own collection of prized military vehicles and other militaria.

The closure and, most likely, the dispersal of the Donington Collection is a sad prospect for those who appreciate the extraordinary passion for motor racing that flowed through Tom Wheatcroft’s every fibre. But by goodness it was a remarkable achievement.

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A white and silver anniversary

Everyone loves an anniversary. And a landmark achievement. F1 people are usually rather good at this sort of thing, as all the sponsors love a bit of Victoria Sponge cake with their logos on it and there are any number of websites that will run a photo.

If you’re lucky a crew from Sky F1 will come over and film each other dribbling jam on their shirts and doing emotive pieces to camera about your heritage. All the fun of the fair.

This year, Monaco has become Finland-on-Sea at Grand Prix time: the 1982 world champion Keke Rosberg being shoehorned back into his title-winning Williams FW08 with his 2016 world championship-winning son Nico (officially German but…), rolling out alongside him in his victorious Mercedes.

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The Rosbergs, père et fils (Dickie Stanford)

Meanwhile Finn du jour Valtteri Bottas has chosen to wear a replica Mika Häkkinen crash helmet, to mark something or other we expect.

Perhaps this is all a bid by Formula 1’s new American owners to pave the way for a highly lucrative Finnish Grand Prix deal. That would be a popular move, if rather hard going on the kidneys.

Yet some anniversaries really are special. Last year, Ferrari marked 70 years as a constructor of racing cars – and perhaps more importantly as a constructor of the myths about racing cars. Here at the S&G we shall be cutting the cake next year on the 90th anniversary of Scuderia Ferrari’s founding, but there were some nice moments in 2017 too.

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One anniversary appears to have happened without great celebration, however. It seems remarkable in this day and age that anything in motor sport can happen without a plinth being erected outside Lord March’s conservatory, a tribute crash helmet design or a commemorative piece of regalia – but here it is: in Spain, Mercedes achieved 110 race wins for its Grand Prix cars in 110 years of competition.

Now, S&G regulars will of course remember that Mercedes took itself away from Grand Prix racing as a constructor for 55 years on account of the Le Mans disaster, so it can hardly be called a continuous history in Grand Prix racing. Its attendance was also a bit patchy in the 1920-30s on account of many things (not least Germany’s international standing after World War 1), and was similarly banned after World War 2 until the 1951 season.

But take all of that aside – 110 years is a thumping period across which to have been winning Grands Prix. And an average of one per year for more than a century is a good story… two per year if you discount 1955-2010… and roughly three per year across the 40 season of Grand Prix racing that have actually been undertaken by Mercedes.

No mean feat.

Surely Monaco, the blue riband race of the year, should be playing host to the great snorting white beasts from the rough-hewn roads of Dieppe and Lyon, Caracciola’s SSK and the awe-inspiring Silver Arrows of the Thirties? Mika Häkkinen should be there in person, wearing his own helmet and tramping round in Fangio’s W196 (and complaining about its brakes again), rather than a bunch of beloved Scandiwegians.

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Why so shy? What have the patisseries of the Côte d’Azur done to deserve such a massive loss of potential earnings for silver-iced tartes tatin? What is going on here?

Perhaps Mercedes is fighting shy of claiming the 1937 AVUS-Rennen as a win for its Grand Prix cars because it is where they were dressed in extraordinary all-enveloping bodywork and hit more than 220mph. Perhaps victories like the Eifelrennen, Coppa Acerbo and Coppa Ciano are omitted from the total because, while they were for Grand Prix cars, they weren’t actual Grands Prix.

If that’s the case, then Mercedes has at least bought itself some time to actually put an anniversary party together. They are unlikely to win in Monaco but Canada is Lewis Hamilton’s fiefdom and that means – oh yes! – next up is France. So if Mercedes drops the mad 1937 race from its tally, it can claim 110 wins in 110 years in time for its return to the nation where it all began: France.

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Now wouldn’t that be an idea?

Sir Stirling’s stepping back

Sir Stirling Moss is stepping back from the many and varied roles at which he has worked tirelessly over the years, be that an insouciant F1 pundit or ever-popular presence in the paddocks of the world’s great historic race meetings. His homepage now carries a message from Stirling’s son, and at the S&G we can only wish this fabulous knight and Lady Susie, their family and many friends the longest and most enjoyable days to come.

It is no great presumption to say that the scribes and regulars here at the S&G are numbered among those millions around the world united in admiration both for all that Sir Stirling achieved in his youth and all that he has brought us ever since.

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Meeting real heroes does not often happen – if it happens, make sure that you’re wearing trousers. S&G.

Thank you, Sir Stirling, for being a hero par excellence. This is the statement from stirlingmoss.com

To all of his many friends and fans around the world, who use this website for regular updates, my father would like to announce that he will be closing it down. 

Following his severe infections at the end of 2016 and his subsequent slow and arduous recovery, the decision has been made that, at the age of 88, the indefatigable man will finally retire, so that he and my mother can have some much deserved rest and spend more time with each other and the rest of the family.

The entire and extended Moss clan thank everyone for all their love and support over the years and we wish you all a happy and prosperous 2018.

That time at Sandown…

Here’s a little something that pops up every so often – the racy demonstration of Sir Jack Brabham in his Brabham-Repco and Juan Manuel Fangio in his 1955 Mercedes-Benz W196. Both cars had been recently restored by their owners in Australia, and as a support to the 1978 Australian Grand Prix at Sundown they were to be reunited with their original drivers.

All the hype and Fangio’s own insistence was that this was not a demonstration by two champions but a race. Perhaps it was, but it’s worth remembering that, in their heydays, there was a full minute’s difference between the two cars over a lap of Spa-Francorchamps and 13 seconds at Monaco.

Nevertheless, while Black Jack is the perfect gentleman and makes a show of it, it’s clear that Fangio is properly ‘on it’ for a recently-restored car that was worth a major sum of money even 40 years ago. And both men clearly wanted to be first past the chequered flag.

Incidentally, the Australian Grand Prix was a Formula 5000 race, won by Graham McRae in his self-built Chevrolet-engined car in a highly attritional race that saw two drivers hospitalised.

It’s thanks to this sort of enthusiasm for old cars, so clearly on show at Sandown that day, that the Silverstone Classic, the Goodwood Revival and the Nürburgring Old-timer exist as some of the best-attended motor sport events in the world. This is why…

Norisring under threat?

The future, or rather the character, of one of Germany’s most popular racetracks is under threat. The venue in question is the Norisring, the Bavarian street circuit which was first used in 1947 and provides Germany’s biggest race series with their most tumultuous and atmospheric amphitheatre.

The 2.3km circuit is built around a vast concrete edifice, measuring 360 metres in length, which acts as the main grandstand. When a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) touring car event really lights up, it is when there are tens of thousands of passionate fans backing their chosen brand – Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Because the Norisring is a street circuit with a colossal grandstand towering over it the atmosphere becomes like a cup final, with hooting and hollering and intensity the like of which is seldom seen in motor sport.

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The Norisring brings a crowd and an atmosphere like no other in Germany

But then, this is a venue that was built for just such pyrotechnic displays of bombast. The Norisring has a unique bit of history attached as well…

The Zeppelinfeld upon which the Norisring exists was not designed for motor sport. The colossal grandstand is in fact the ‘Führer’s Rostrum’ designed and built by Albert Speer from which Adolf Hitler would lead the Nazi Party’s annual Nuremberg rallies.

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When the Zeppelinfeld was built, it had an altogether different purpose

Speer’s handiwork is now beginning to crumble. At the back of the gigantic structure there is considerable netting and signs that warn “Danger of collapse!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk”.

“We will only be able to prevent permanent decay if we start carrying out the necessary repair work soon,” Daniel Ulrich, Nuremberg’s building maintenance department chief, told The Independent this week. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing more here than a heap of rubble.”

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The 1,000 year concrete probably didn’t have a lifetime warranty

Speer claimed that he had used special building materials and that the complex – which featured a parade ground the size of 12 football pitches, a two-mile-long “Great Way” paved with 6,000 granite blocks for mass stormtrooper marches, a congress hall the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the tribune with its balustrades and ceilings decorated with golden stars and Nazi swastikas – would last for 1,000 years. As it turns out, Speer’s calculations were a little bit optimistic.

When the Norisring was first in use as a circuit, the entire Führer’s Rostrum was virtually intact, minus the most obvious Nazi motifs but retaining the quarter mile of balustrade upon which Speer built his ‘cathedral of light’ by mounting 150 searchlights to bring a bit of extra ‘wow factor’.

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Speer ‘turned it up to 11’ with his Cathedral of Light

Today all of those pillars have gone, leaving the tribunes where once the Party faithful flanked their leader to look out over an endless sea of banner-carrying and flag-waving members of the Master Race. Today these are the most celebrated seats in German motor sport; looking out over the temporary pits and main straight of a circuit that always delivers fast and frenetic action.

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These days the view is of the pit lane, with this vast area lying as scrubland covered in parked cars, VIP hospitality and temporary grandstands

In the beginning, the Norisring was primarily used for motorcycle races – not least due to the severe restrictions that were imposed upon Germany’s automotive industry and motor sport the defeat of 1945.  Cars and motor sport were major tools of Hitler’s social order and the level of suppression was extraordinary when viewed from today.

22B  Pit area at Noris Ring, Nurnburg.

The thriving paddock of a Norisring bike meeting

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Cars returned to action in the 1950s

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Much more of the Führer’s Rostrum was in place in the circuit’s early years

Eventually, in the 1950s, German cars returned to action on a regular basis. New German-made Formula 2 cars, Volkswagen-based ‘specials’ and the emergence of top quality machinery from Porsche reinvigorated the national racing scene. The Norisring flourished, and in the 1980s it even hosted frenetic and spectacular sprint races for Le Mans machinery, joining the World Sportscar Championship in 1986 to provide spectacle such as this:

The venue is now best known as the most popular round of the DTM, and the series’ own website describes the Norisring thus: The spectacular street circuit – incidentally the last surviving racetrack of its kind, in Germany – is popular with drivers and fans in equal measure and winning here counts slightly more than winning elsewhere.

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Victory at the Norisring is a unique highlight for German racers

There is no doubt that the Norisring is a special place and for many reasons. Should the old tribunes be torn down? At the S&G, the feeling is that they should not. For one thing, what would replace them?  Certainly it is unlikely that Nuremberg council could create a grandstand that could rival it, or that was designed to generate the sort of fervour that this one does. Students of history and lovers of motor sport cannot fail to marvel at the place in all its insane pomposity.

It is impossible to understand something unless it can be witnessed, and the giganticism of the Norisring tribune, just like that of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, offers a beacon to navigate history: to understand the means by which Germany was so catastrophically seduced in the 1930s. If we do not understand the threat that humanity can pose to itself then we are failing as a race.

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How do we explain and learn from what we cannot witness?

Meanwhile as a sporting venue, the tribunes would be utterly impossible to replace and losing them would rob motor sport of a unique asset. While the past of the Zeppelinfeld is an abomination, the heritage of the Norisring is anything but. Bringing joy to a place like this, through the very best in motor racing action, and creating a new history of almost 70 years of achievement, is something well worth preserving.

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23B  Pit area at Noris Ring.

Fitting AVUS into the living room

Flat-out in Berlin – and in miniature

We love a bit of slot car racing here at the S&G – be it Scalextric, Carrerabahn or anything wild and wacky. Not much can compare with this layout in the latter stakes – a recreation of Berlin’s mighty AVUS circuit in its 1930s prime.

At the time of opening, AVUS was 19½ km (12 miles) long – each straight being approximately half that length. Before the 1937 AVUS-Rennen the North Turn was rebuilt to become a towering banked curve made of bricks and tilted at 43 degrees in order to maximise the speed of the cars. As the AVUS race did not count towards the championship, the use of streamlined cars, similar to the cars used for high speed record attempts, was permitted.

Given their vast weight and speed, all of the streamliners had holes cut into their bodywork to allow drivers to check on the condition of their Continental tyres. Blowouts were one risk to life and limb but so too were the aerodynamic forces at play – in practice Hermann Lang’s streamliner was fitted with covers over the wheels and, while doing roughly 390 km/h on the straight, enough air became trapped under the to lift the front wheels lifted from the ground.

While Mercedes struggled to configure its cars appropriately, the Auto Union team had a much less dramatic time and Bernd Rosemeyer set a time of 4m 4.2s (averaging 284.31km/h or 176.7mph). Such feats and glorious spring weather prompted a crowd estimated at 400,000 to witness the races – staged in two heats and a final – from which the overall winner would pocket 12000 Reichmarks. The winners of the heats would get 2000 RM, second place 1000 RM.

That prize ultimately fell to Lang for Mercedes in an event that has rightly been set into legend – and now it has been recreated – in spirit at least – for smaller scale racing.

The daunting North Turn at AVUS in 1937

There’s clearly still some work to do on the scenery, but even at this early stage it’s clear that a masterpiece is taking shape.

An epic fail from Lewis

This week saw one of the motor manufacturers competing in F1 roll out some of its heritage – in this case Mercedes-Benz, which took two of its all-conquering W196s to Monza. In one car quite rightly Sir Stirling Moss was to be found. In the other was Lewis Hamilton.

Stories like this are popular fodder to graft a little of the sport’s old grandeur onto its modern day successor. Usually it is quite fun, such as when Michael Schumacher took the wheel of Bernie Ecclestone’s Ferrari 375 at Silverstone to mark 50 years since the Scuderia’s first Formula One victory:

It is also a chance for Formula One drivers to endear themselves to fans by showing how much they value the sport’s heritage and appreciate their role in continuing the legacy. After all, if you’re one of the 18 men qualified by talent, marketability or financial backing to sit in one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth then it is entirely right and proper to celebrate such good fortune, is it not?

Apparently not in Lewis’s case. He buried this particular story in his BBC column beneath selfies taken at the recent boxing match, stating: “Mercedes took two versions of the 1955 F1 car, the W196, the open-wheeler and the ‘streamliner’, and Stirling and I drove them on the old Monza banking, which they used for grands prix until 1959.”

Erm, Lewis…

Monza banking in its final F1 appearance… in 1961, not 1959 Mr. Hamilton

Monza banking in its final F1 appearance… in 1961, not 1959 Mr. Hamilton

Having comprehensively shot himself in one foot, Lewis then took aim at the other when he turned his apparently limited attention to the W196 itself. “I think that might be my favourite car of all time,” he enthused. “I just love the sound of it, with its old V12 engine – I’d love to have a road car that sounded like that.”

The Mercedes-Benz W196 with its straight eight engine

The Mercedes-Benz W196 with its straight eight engine

The problem is, of course, that the W196 was famously powered by a straight-eight engine with desmodronic valve gear. I know that there are question marks about Lewis’s technical feedback but spotting that this was not a V12 engine should have been a fairly straightforward task. I’m sure that one of the gentlemen of Mercedes’ fantastic technical team who tend these priceless cars would have explained it to him as well – although perhaps Lewis was preoccupied with his selfies at the time.

Modern day racing drivers tend to do this sort of thing very well – even if driving old cars isn’t their cup of tea. Schumi was famously terrified when he drove one of Ferrari’s turbocharged cars from the 1980s and swore blind he would never again allow himself to be strapped into a machine that seemed intent on causing him actual bodily harm.

He was not alone. David Coulthard found the pre-war Mercedes W125 rather too much for comfort and Mika Häkkinen really never liked driving the W196 because by comparison with his carbon fibre machine it lacked any sense of there being a functional set of brakes included in the design.

And yet they did it with grace, good humour and the sense that they perhaps gained a little understanding of their privileged place in the world to be paid fortunes for driving cars that are a thousand times safer on circuits that are 60% run-off area and fenced in with soft barriers. Sentiments that do not come across from Hamilton’s exposure to the living legends of Moss, the W196 and the astonishing Monza banking.

Hamilton didn't seem to understand the significance of this moment - a shame, as they are getting fewer

Hamilton didn’t seem to understand the significance of this moment – a shame, as they are getting fewer

It was, as Lewis would no doubt say, an epic fail.