Motor Racing: Wheatcroft's formula for success: A 70-year-old enthusiast is finally bringing motor racing's world championship to Donington. Derick Allsop reports

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The Independent Online
THE BMW slowed at the hairpin and the driver exchanged knowing nods with the workman. The orange earth-moving machine was familiar, too. It had the name 'Wheatcroft' painted in white letters on the back.

'We brought that out of cold storage to get on with the job. Why not?' reasoned the 70-year- old driver of the BMW, in the common sense manner he has reasoned his way through life.

Tom Wheatcroft owns not only the machine at Donington Park, Leicestershire, but also the circuit and the museum of racing cars and memorabilia. And now, after 22 years of legal and political battles, he has the exhibit he most wanted in his collection, a Formula One world championship event.

On 11 April, Easter Sunday, this track in the East Midlands will stage the third round of the title series, the Grand Prix of Europe. For all Wheatcroft's campaigning, the award of the race to Donington, following the demise of the Asian Grand Prix, took the world in general and this neighbourhood in particular, by surprise.

Wheatcroft is spending pounds 35,000 to advertise the message that this really is a championship race, just like the British Grand Prix which will be held at Silverstone, as usual, in July. He is also writing to local villagers, explaining the race will be worth pounds 5m to the country, more than pounds 2m of that to the local economy.

But Wheatcroft himself may only believe he is living his dream come race day. 'I was in Australia when I heard we'd got it and for about 20 minutes I felt like a million dollars. I'd wanted it as much as anything in life,' he said. 'Then I started to wonder if anything would go wrong. Well, I'd been promised a race five times and we'd be the only privately owned circuit to have a championship race. I couldn't help have my doubts.'

Wheatcroft's relentless endeavours to achieve that distinction represent one of the most celebrated crusades in any sport. He pursued his prize in the face of global competition and apparent resistance in some quarters nearer home.

Exasperated by vain attempts during the Eighties to win support from the RAC and the Motor Sports Association, the governing body in this country, he retaliated with a series of writs. Silverstone and Brands Hatch shared the British Grand Prix and then the former won an exclusive contract when Fisa, the international governing body, introduced a one-country, one-circuit policy.

Wheatcroft's support for the Formula One Constructors' Assocation, however, stood him in good stead and its president, Bernie Ecclestone (now also vice- president of Fisa and effectively the ringmaster of the grand prix circus), assured Wheatcroft Donington would be given a race when the opportunity arose. The collapse of plans by Autopolis, in Japan, to stage a grand prix, provided that opportunity.

Wheatcroft had demonstrated similar tenacity to gain planning permission to establish a museum and reopen the pre- war circuit in the Seventies. Nearby East Midlands airport was a staunch adversary on the grounds of safety, his only ally was a local farmer. Wheatcroft had to fight through a 30-day inquiry at a cost of pounds 10,000 a day. 'I remember thinking I'd like to be locked in a room with that lot and see who comes out,' he said, grinning mischievously.

He adopted a different approach with a woman who expressed her objection when the circuit opened. 'She thought it was terrible so I said to her, why not come along, with your husband, and see what it's all about. They did and I asked them to look at all the smiling faces out there in the crowd, people enjoying themselves. Wasn't that nice? They agreed, and they now come along as paying customers.

'When I was a small boy we lived about a mile from Leicester City football ground. I wasn't interested in football but when I heard the roar of the crowd I thought how good it was that there were all those happy people. It's the same with the pop concerts we now have here. I'm not into it and I see all these young people with yellow and red hair. But they're enjoying themselves and I was staggered to find what nice people they were.

'I would never sign a petition protesting about something because it will always come back to you. You have to be reasonable. Live and let live, I say. I can't understand jealousy. If my next-door neighbour had 500 Formula One cars I'd think, great, he's put effort into that, and I'd just have to go next door to see them.'

According to popular mythology, Wheatcroft scrambled under the fencing to see his first racing at Donington in the Thirties, the days of the magnificent leaping Auto Unions and Mercedes- Benz. 'It's not true,' he insisted. 'I think I've twice gone over the fence to get into pits or paddock at other circuits, but I thought that was fair game. I wasn't cheating anyone out of the admission money. If I saw someone climbing over the fence to avoid paying I'd be the first to throw him out. But if I saw someone standing at the gate who couldn't afford to buy a ticket I'd buy him one. It's what your morals are.

'No, I first went to Donington on the back of a motorbike, or at least I intended to. We had an off and my pal and I ended up in Leicester Royal Infirmary with scrapes and bruises. I took to cycling the 30 miles. It cost half a crown to get in.'

Even his name is not what it seems. He was christened Frederick Bernard and was to be known as Bernard. But his grandfather, wishing to avoid confusion with his own son, Bernard, called the youngster 'Tom' and it stuck.

Everything else about Tom is totally as it seems. He is almost a caricature of the self-made man. Craggy, jovial, pragmatic, unaffected, hard but compassionate, thrifty yet generous. The world should have been warned what to expect when, after being torpedoed in the war, he survived by tying himself to an oar.

He developed a building business and spread his interests to land deals. 'I've moved to my 'retirement offices'. Trouble is, I've got more work than ever.

'I prefer a hard man in business because then you know where you stand. I can't stand fools or people who aren't tradesmen. I admire people who are good at their jobs. I've had men with me 40 years, others two hours. It doesn't take long to spot a bad 'un. Respect and trust: you've got to have both.'

Wheatcroft never raced but ran cars in competition. His protege was Roger Williamson, a gifted Englishman who died at the age of 25 when his car crashed and caught fire during his second Grand Prix.

Twenty years on, Wheatcroft, a father of seven, still refers to Williamson as 'my lad'. He said: 'Nothing hurt me like that did. I thought it was the end of the world. For a long time after, I used to be sick, smelling the fire. Those had been the happiest days of my life, racing with Roger. He was brilliant and he was honest. I could see him being another Fangio, and Fangio was my hero.'

Comforted by friends in the sport he gradually came to terms with Williamson's death and threw himself into the challenge of bringing racing back to Donington. In 1977, six years after launching his venture, he was given clearance.

He has confounded cynics to make the British Motorcycle Grand Prix a success and plans to do the same with his Formula One Grand Prix, at this stage no more than a one-off. He is spending pounds 600,000 on improvements, mainly safety measures, and has a full- time staff of just nine to organise the meeting. 'There's a little input from me, but only a little. There are 78 people on Silverstone's payroll. We've heard the pessimists but I don't listen to them. Pessimism can only cause depression.

'It's the same with our critics, who say the track is too narrow. It's one metre wider than it has to be and I think closer racing will be good. If Davina Galica can come from the back of the grid to second, then it can't be that difficult to overtake. Not that I'm saying so because Davina's a woman . . .

'The whole of the sport has now helped me to get the race but we've got the hard bit to do. There's 18,000 tons of gravel to go into the run-off areas and we've got this weather to do it in. We'll make it a success, though. I reckon we'll have a crowd of 80,000 plus. I don't see the early date as a problem. Usually in England you don't know whether to take a coat with you but at least you know you'll have to take one in April.'

What, though, of the future? He hesitated, for once a little coy, then said: 'I've never hidden the fact that I wanted a Grand Prix and I shall do all I can to get another. If your salary goes up from pounds 100,000 to pounds 150,000, you'd try to keep it wouldn't you?

'I see this as Donington's coming of age. I came into motor racing for the love of it and now, after 22 years, the efforts of all our friends have been rewarded. I think life's nice.'

(Photograph omitted)

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