Donington Park: The future of the Derbyshire track
PUBLISHED: 13:39 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:51 20 February 2013
Kevin Wheatcroft talks to Geoff Ford about the Future of Donington Park
At the same time as James Thompson, Andy Soucek and Co. were thrilling race fans with great action on track at Donington in 2009, the on-going will it wont it saga of Donington and the 2010 Grand Prix was casting a dark shadow over the circuit.
Ultimately, Simon Gillett and his Donington Ventures Leisure Limited group failed to secure the required funding and it was left to Silverstone to save the future of the British GP. As Silverstone announced a ten-year deal, with an option on a further seven, DVLL went into administration. When corporate recovery specialists Begbies Traynor were unable to find a buyer for DVLLs lease, the circuits staff were laid off and the lease returned to the Wheatcroft family. Sadly at the same time circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft, aged 87, lost his long battle with illness. Kevin Wheatcroft, Toms son and aide at Donington for 32 years, spoke to me about the events of the past twelve months.
Things had begun to go wrong for DVLL as the worst recession for years began to bite hard. They were trying to raise money at a time when it couldnt have been more difficult, Kevin told me. I think the fundamental plan they had was a sound one, but funding should really have been in place when the first announcement was made in 2008 and it wasnt there. He continued, As soon as DVLL had disappeared, the flood gates opened and everyone came to see me wanting to talk. The Wheatcroft family has been left with huge debts. We have been working seven days a week since Christmas Eve.
After all his efforts over the years to bring the Grand Prix to Donington, Tom Wheatcroft must have been very disappointed with this latest failed attempt. Im pretty sure that the whole situation shortened his life, without a doubt, said Kevin. The thing I can never really find it in my heart to forgive is that I should have been with him every day while he was dying and I couldnt be because I was here trying to get our possessions back. I had worked with Dad very closely. We were together five days out of seven and never off the phone to each other, whether we were travelling or holidaying, whatever we were doing. He pauses, I miss that.
What has been a great comfort to Kevin is the support hes received from race fans. Tom Wheatcroft was one of the most loved figures in motor sport. I dont think even he understood how much people respected him and Donington. I am amazed at the sheer love of this place from the ordinary fans. Weve had offers of help, physical help, offers of money, you name it weve had it. People wanted to turn up in force. I seriously wish Tom was alive to witness this adoration of the circuit.
So I have a duty of care now to ensure that Donington has a solid future and that we can go forward with people we can trust. I will guide it through in every way I can. It is important to me, both for the memory of my father and for Donington as a place. Donington has such an incredible history. I dont want to be the one to spoil it.
Kevins first priority is to save something of the 2010 season for Donington, but he is clearly angered by the mess he has been left with. The circuit itself has been cut through with 14 trenches, sanctioned by DVLL, which have nothing to do with the planned redevelopment but are the result of an archaeological dig. As far as Kevin is aware nothing was unearthed from it. He says, It is our job to put the circuit right. Today we are having a pre-works inspection and are going out to tender for reconstruction work. I think we could repair the surface for around 600,000, but there are also going to be works to upgrade the safety facilities and if were going to do it, now is the time. This has always been renowned as a safe circuit and I mean to keep it that way.
By the summer of 2009, very little progress had been made towards F1, aside from the removal of the iconic Dunlop Bridge and the construction of the new tunnel that caused so much disruption early in the season. In late August the bulldozers moved in and earthworks progressed quite quickly. At the final meeting, in September, the diggers were carving out the course of the proposed track extension. Today the levelled F1 paddock area sits waiting for something that now may never happen.
Kevin hopes to be able to fulfil the British Touring Car Championship and Vintage Sports-Car Club fixtures pencilled in towards the end of the season. They are keen to leave the dates in. We should be up and running by then, so these dates will be catered for. These operators love Donington and dont want to leave. Its not just business, there is a love for the place. I have a great debt of gratitude to those who have stood by us, he said.
In the long term the support Kevin has received also extends to those wishing to take on a lease to run the circuit. This is something he feels others are better suited to do, although he intends to retain a close personal interest. I dont want to run it myself, I never have, and I cant with my other business commitments. We have about 15 interested parties which we will narrow down to five. Most enquiries were to keep motor sport here, only two offers were for non-motor sport development, but however high those bids are, Im not going that way. Donington is Britains oldest road race circuit and I want it to survive.
It is hoped that a final decision on the new lease holder will have been made during February. I want to remain involved, Kevin continued, and everyone has asked me to stay involved, they think the Wheatcroft name is synonymous with Donington. I have a fairly in-depth knowledge of the place and the same love for it my father had. I realise its now time for someone else to take it to a new level. What I dont want is to be in the same place in twelve months. I want to make sure that there is not another mistake made for Donington; I dont want to see her damaged again.
Any future development work will be in the hands of the new lease holder, although it is unlikely that the F1 pit complex will be built. The current pit-lane was rebuilt just four years ago and is, as Kevin states more than adequate for what we have been running.
Having resumed control of the circuit, Kevins first task was to get power and telephone services restored, re-opening the Donington Collection museum, shop and caf on Christmas Eve. A skeleton staff has also been taken back on, primarily security staff. There are plans to restore power to the adjacent exhibition hall which had services removed ahead of demolition as part of the intended F1 redevelopment.
As a thank you to the fans for the support Donington has received there is a parade planned for March 7th, expected to attract over 7,000 supporters, and includes an autojumble, talks and demonstrations.
Further information can be found at www.savedonington.co.uk,
the website set up by Lee Coombs who led the support campaign.