The British racing community has paid tribute to Tom Wheatcroft – the building contractor and racing enthusiast who renovated Donington Park in the 1970s and brought a F1 championship race to the circuit.
Mr Wheatcroft, whose full name was Frederick Bernard, died aged 87 on Saturday from cancer. Born and raised in the vicinity of Castle Donington, he had watched pre-war motor racing at the circuit as a boy, preferring that to the tiresome business of formal education.
Donington Park had come into use in 1931 thanks to a local motor club, and was soon staging events for both motorcycles and cars. The young Wheatcroft had never seen anything like it; the course of his life was set.
But the outbreak of war in 1939 put a stop to racing. The circuit was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence as a storage site for military vehicles and Wheatcroft joined the army, where he drove tanks.
After the war he set to work on making his fortune as a building contractor, being worth more than £100 million in recent years, and making it comfortably onto the Sunday Times Rich List. He started to amass an impressive collection of racing cars.
For a while he ran his own racing team and, in 1971, he bought the derelict circuit and started a long and often painful campaign to bring it back into use.
His car collection took up residence in 1973 but negotiations, arguments about rights of way and planning problems meant it took a further four years before racing could begin again at Donington Park.
A wide selection of events for four- and two-wheeled racers were staged – but Wheatcroft wanted to see Formula One racing at Donington Park and the circuit was upgraded with an extra loop in 1985 to provide the necessary length for more ambitious events.
Eventually his persistence paid off and, in 1993 Bernie Ecclestone was persuaded to grant Wheatcroft his wish. The European Grand Prix was held that year at Donington.
Competing in that race were Martin Brundle, Mark Blundell, Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert – but the only person who is really remembered is Ayrton Senna who put in a terrific drive on a rain-soaked track in a less-than-racy McLaren-Honda to come home more than a minute ahead of his nearest rival – Hill in a Williams.
The track played host to a wider and wider range of events including a Le Mans Series race and the British Motorcross Grand Prix as well as becoming a major venue for rock festivals – but still Formula One remained elusive.
All that changed in 2007 when Wheatcroft was persuaded to issue a 150-year lease on the circuit to Donington Ventures Leisure Limited in hopes of finally securing the British Grand Prix. That company managed to win the contract from Ecclestone but could not find the funding to support it.
Unfortunately the bid was declared a failure just days before Wheatcroft’s death and British racing fans are left hoping that a successful future for the circuit will provide a fitting memorial to the man who worked so hard to rebuild it.
Since his death he has received tributes from the highest echelons of the motorsport world. Bernie Ecclestone said:”It seemed like I had known Tom forever. He was a very special person and immensely dedicated to motorsport.
“Tom was very kind and I would trust him with anything. He was brave enough to put his own money into running a grand prix at Donington Park in 1993, and I admire him immensely for that.
“It’s a great, great shame the British Grand Prix will not go to Donington. I had spoken with Tom about his desire to see the race there, and it is a shame he did not live to see it happen.”
BRDC President Damon Hill said: “I knew Tom from going back to my bike-racing days. He has always been a tremendous, larger-than-life character and someone everybody loved to know.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh said: “The term ‘legend’ is maybe used a little too liberally in the world of sport, but without doubt it is justified in the case of Tom Wheatcroft.
“He was a larger-than-life character and an always-engaging conversationalist. He was also an able and successful businessman who contributed a lot more than many people perhaps appreciate to the story of motorsport in Britain. He will be very much missed.”
Murray Walker said: “Tom is an enormous and immeasurable loss to the world of motor sport. He was a wonderful character and a true friend to everybody – he was always enormously kind and hospitable to people.”
Tom Wheatcroft leaves a widow and seven children. His family is planning a private funeral and a separate memorial service.
A book of condolence has been opened at the circuit and anyone wishing to remember him can do so with a donation to the Hope Against Cancer charity.