Motor Racing: Privateer picks the grid lock: Tom Wheatcroft fought to make next Sunday's European Grand Prix possible. David Tremayne reports

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The Independent Online
THE RAIN fell in a steady drizzle as the cars swished by on one of those typically dank British days. The craggy man surveyed his domain and smiled warmly, his old raincoat losing the battle to cover a stocky frame. A fearful noise came from deep within him, and it was a moment or two before you realised that he was laughing.

'Bloody marvellous, this, i'n't it?' he enquired, consumed with satisfaction, oblivious to the fact that we had never met. 'Bloody marvellous.'

That was 1979, but Bernard 'Tom' Wheatcroft still has one of the most distinctive guffaws in the business, like an old tractor that won't start. Next weekend it will be heard a great deal at Donington Park, in Leicestershire, the dormant pre-war race track that through his persistent efforts had finally re-opened two years before our first meeting.

Wheatcroft always dreamed of staging a grand prix, even when he poured the first of several millions into the track, but the awesome struggle would long ago have deterred a lesser man. 'It has been a battle when you go through everything. Twice I've had it and then couldn't run it, five times altogether we've been promised it. For some unknown reason the RAC Motor Sports Association didn't want me to have one. We were always fighting against the old pals' act.'

For a man who on the odd occasion is reputed literally to have bulldozed opposition away during a successful career as a land developer, Wheatcroft is well versed in the art of persistence. He likes a good scrap. 'When they did give me the first one, they gave me a grand prix for five years' time. Then when the five years came around, they backed off again.'

He is a resourceful man. He tried to run an Irish Grand Prix in England, only to be told that there could never be two grands prix in one country. The following year Brands Hatch came up with the idea of a European Grand Prix, and was given a date.

'I decided to start putting the legal pressure on then, because that was stabbing you,' he says. 'That gives you some kind of idea of what a closed shop it was. It has been uphill all the way. I've fought Rolls-Royce, East Midlands Airport, half the local villagers, the council, the county council. Every time I put in for planning permission, the answer would be no. The word council makes me sick to my stomach.' Every failure has simply strengthened his resolve, even when legal appeals run to five figures every time. There have been many of them, but then he can afford to indulge himself.

Only recently he withdrew a writ against the RAC MSA, the governing body of the sport in the United Kingdom. A pragmatic man, he knows when to fight and when to desist. He still takes on the local planners. 'You get the French, German, Italian, Spanish and Belgian grands prix all sponsored by government money. Here we are, the only private grand prix, and these people won't let you get on.'

His persistence has now finally won him the race he coveted, but the sniping continues. The French drivers Jean Alesi and Alain Prost have been openly critical of the track itself, but the latter's Williams-Renault team-mate Damon Hill is more complimentary. 'All in all it's quite a good circuit,' he says. 'It's hard on the brakes and some of it is very high g-force. There are some very fast corners, but it will be more like South Africa for us than Brazil.' That means a more favourable chance for Ayrton Senna in his McLaren, and the prospect of a closer race.

When Wheatcroft hears the sound of the engines at his own Grand Prix of Europe next Sunday, it is inevitable that he will think back to another grand prix, at Zandvoort in the Netherlands in 1973. There, in the dunes by the sea, his young protege Roger Williamson crashed and died, the needless victim of fire as marshals stood and watched his fellow- racer David Purley struggle vainly to free him.

Wheatcroft loved the aggressive Williamson like a son. For the 1974 season, though courted by Ken Tyrrell, Williamson had begged to stay with Wheatcroft. The builder was planning to run a private McLaren for him. 'Roger were very loyal,' Wheatcroft remembers, and his already jovial manner softens. 'He never asked me for anything. I were ill for weeks after he were killed. Just the smell of burning . . . '

That day a dream died; next weekend will finally see the realisation of the new dream that helped an arch motor racing enthusiast to start living again all those years ago.

(Photograph omitted)

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