Motor Racing: Donington's moment of truth arrives: Historic circuit to make case for continuing Formula One role. Derick Allsop reports

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The Independent Online
DONINGTON PARK, a rolling piece of countryside just beyond the runway of East Midlands airport, comes under the scrutiny of a largely sceptical global audience this weekend. To many, this track is no more than an emergency landing strip, to be endured this once. To those involved in the lengthy campaign to bring Formula One here, it represents Donington's arrival as a major international circuit.

Donington provided a ready and convenient solution when the proposed Asian Grand Prix, at Autopolis, Japan, collapsed and left a gap in this year's calendar. Tom Wheatcroft, the enthusiast who had dedicated 22 of his 70 years to bringing grand prix cars there, had his dream realised: he was to host the Easter Sunday Grand Prix of Europe.

For Wheatcroft and his loyal supporters it meant not merely a first Formula One world championship race but the bridging of a 55-year gap. This is a circuit with a history, a racing soul. Wheatcroft cycled to the track he would later acquire and reopen to watch, in wonder, the magnificent Auto Unions and Mercedes- Benz in pre-war grands prix.

At the 1937 Donington Grand Prix, which marked the invasion of the Continental challengers, the front row of the grid was occupied by Von Brauchitsch, Rosemeyer, Lang and Seaman: an evocative line-up. The race, which lasted more than three hours, was won by Bernd Rosemeyer. Less than four months later, he was killed in a speed record attempt on a German autobahn. His Auto Union was said to have been travelling at almost 270 mph when he crashed. The other three drivers were again on the front row for the 1938 Donington Grand Prix. They were joined by Tazio Nuvolari, widely regarded as the greatest of Italian drivers. Some would say he was the greatest of any nationality. He was certainly too good for the rest that day in England.

War interrupted the Donington sequence and by the time normality returned to this island, Silverstone was establishing itself as the home of British motor racing. Wheatcroft's crusade gathered momentum through the Seventies and Eighties, and now the cause is long term recognition as a grand prix circuit.

Some of the modern drivers shudder at the thought. They claim Donington is too tight and dangerous. Alain Prost, the championship favourite, suggests it will be like driving in his kitchen. Another Frenchman, Jean Alesi, contends: 'There could be a problem if you crash. I think the circuit is dangerous.'

Yet another Frenchman, Philippe Alliot, who won a sports car race at Donington last year, says: 'The track is a little too narrow. It is not very interesting because every corner is the same. I am not very happy that we are going there.'

During the winter, however, pounds 600,000 has been spent on improvements, most of that on safety measures. The first evidence will be presented in an unofficial practice session this afternoon but the case for the defence does have its voices, among them Brazilian voices. Christian Fittipaldi and Rubens Barrichello both say they like the circuit.

Balanced views come from some of the British contingent, who acknowledge that overtaking opportunities will be limited and that there are a couple of hazardous sections, yet argue there are more perilous venues on the Formula One schedule.

Martin Brundle, the Ligier-Renault driver, said: 'There are one or two areas of concern - the Old Hairpin and the chicane on the back straight - but you can say that about almost every track. There are a couple at the Brazilian circuit we've just been to; a couple at Montreal are lethal. If the wrong thing happens at the wrong time . . . My throttle stuck in South Africa. Had it been at another place it could have been curtains. You have to accept that if you don't want a track to be completely sterilised. Danger is an integral part of the business.

'When the chips are down, that's what we do, and part of the way we are. It's why we are followed the way we are. Not everyone can do what we do. People want to see cars doing things that blow their minds. They don't want to see drivers killed or seriously hurt, but the danger element has to be there. I would say that at the moment the risks are acceptable.'

Brundle's team-mate, Mark Blundell, said: 'There are plenty of other circuits with areas you would call marginal. What about Monaco? No one can claim that is safer or gives more overtaking opportunities than Donington.'

The opportunity for Donington now is to show it is worthy of hosting future Formula One races. Wheatcroft makes no secret of his intention to compete with Silverstone when the latter's contract for the British Grand Prix expires in 1996.

There may also be a revival of the lobby for a second grand prix in this country. Monaco, it is argued, is effectively another French race and the San Marino event, at Imola, another version of an Italian Grand Prix.

We await the verdicts of Sunday evening.

(Photograph omitted)