There is an over used word which if you have teenage children you’ll be familiar with but when considering Donington Park racing circuit the word awesome is barely adequate to describe the aura of the track.

Donington was the backdrop of the titanic 1930s battles between Mercedes and Auto Union and the scene for the dramatic 1993 European Grand Prix. It was also the setting for last weekend’s Donington Historic Festival which is three days of rip roaring action, 19 races for cars that date from the 1920s to more modern touring cars and everything in between including Formula 1. Donington is spectacular and has one of the most exciting series of bends of any circuit, anywhere. Imagine your favourite country road and times it by 100, that might just get close to Donington.

Don’t imagine for one moment that because the cars are old they are driven sedately by old duffers out for a Sunday afternoon bumble. The action is fast and furious with a mixture of seasoned amateurs, professional racers and up and coming hot shoes.

One of the really enjoyable aspects of Donington is that you can trek around the entire circuit and view from any point and also wander around the paddock and talk to anyone. I had arranged to meet Duncan Rabagliati, the larger than life powerhouse and organiser of The Formula Junior Historic Racing Association and managed to catch him as he left the drivers’ briefing.

William – “I’ve been told you’re the Bernie Ecclestone of Formula Junior, how do you go from driving to organising ? “

Duncan – ” It started with Dinky Cars, then it became real cars so I thought let’s go racing. When the formula needed organising I stuck my finger out and that became the F.J.H.R.A. and that was 25 years ago, and of course, Bernie used to race Formula Juniors when they were new.”

W – ” What is Formula Junior ?”

D – “Formula Junior was equivalent to Formula 2 in modern terms. Count Jonny Lurani concocted the formula to find a successor for all the Italian drivers who had been killed. It was meant to be a poor man’s formula using production engines made by Fiat, Ford , BMC, DKW  . Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, John Surtees, Lorenzo Bandini and Giancarlo Baghetti all moved straight from Junior to Formula 1. It started as a training formula but my goodness, it became a real racers’ formula.”

W – ” Where do you race ?”

D – “This is the third year of our world tour. We’ve raced all over the world. America, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and this year we’re going to The Baltic States and Sweden.”

W – ” Who does Formula Junior ?”

D – ” We have a very great mixture of drivers from the very rich to over grown mechanics and everything in between much like it was in the day. We have really close racing, all of our cars are original. In other formulas you can race replicas or “continuation cars”, you can’t do that in Junior, every car has a racing history.”

W – ” How would someone start ? “

D – ” They would come along and talk to me, I’d get them to come a couple of races, see what sort of thing they were interested in, then I’d point them to drivers who might have a car for sale.”   

W – ” What types of car are there ? “

D – ” There are five different classes of car, early front engine Italian cars with ladder chassis, front engine cars with space frame chassis, early drum braked cars, later drum braked cars and finally disc braked cars ,some of which have monocoque chassis. Wherever possible we have separate races for front and rear engine cars.

W – ” What sort of costs are involved ?”

D – ” Race worthy cars are between  £40 – £60,000, you might pay a bit more for a race winning car. You can get away with using two sets of tyres per year but if you only do three or four races  a year you’ll just need one set which could last you a couple of seasons. My engines are about £ 3,000 but you could pay a lot more for a top ,top engine.

Lotus X1 from the Stirling Moss Trophy

Duncan is a busy man, racing and organising and whilst he was preparing to go out and qualify I wandered over to the café.

The level of professionalism and preparation of some of the teams in historic racing is no different from that of a team competing in a contemporary race series. Whilst enjoying a cup of tea I noticed someone else I wanted to talk to, Chris Ward. He is a brilliant driver and could be dropped into any contemporary racing championship and be a front runner. Chris drives for J.D. Classics, one of the biggest teams in the paddock and they had conveniently situated their transporter next to the café.

William – ” Chris what are you driving at this event  ? 

Chris Ward – “Yesterday we raced the Bastos Touring Car Rover, we’ve had some handling and braking problems which haven’t happened before so we’ve made one or two changes, it’s improved but it’s still not where it needs to be but we won our class, which is always good especially when you’re up against the BMW M3s.” 

W – ” I thought they were from a different era.”

C.W. – The Rover is from 1985 and the M3 is from 1990/91. The BMWs are lighter and technology had moved on a lot from the Rover, although the Rover has slightly more power. Donington is hard on brakes and the extra weight makes it difficult. We have to improve the cooling and make sure we have better brakes although the next round at Thruxton is all about long flat fast corners but when we get to Oulton Park later in the year we’ll have to know we’ve resolved the braking problem.

W – ” Is Thruxton your next event ?”

C.W. – The Rover will be out at Thruxton on 1st June. We’ve been incredibly busy. Last weekend we were at Tour Auto (event in France), next weekend we’re at Monaco Historique then it’s straight on to our biggest event of the year, The Mille Miglia where we’re running 12 cars, hence the reason we’ve only brought three cars to Donington.

W – ” What else are you driving ?”

C.W. – “Later today we’ve got the big Lister Jaguar out. We’ve owned it for many years. It’s been in quite a few pieces, it’s gradually been built up over the last year and this is the first time I’ve raced it and qualifying has gone okay. It’s been a lot of work and needs a bit more to be really competitive. The guys are working hard on the car now, there are certain things we can do to make it more drivable. We’ll see what the race brings for us.

Watching big 1950s Jaguar, Ferrari and Lister racing cars is to be recommended, always spectacular cornering in beautifully described drifts which when performed expertly have the finesse of a ballet dancer and the grace of a gazelle but when it goes wrong it is an expensive trip to the barrier.

The race did go okay for Chris. He won, which as my teenage son would say is “pretty awesome.”

Contact formulajunior.com for more information on race dates.

William Lansbury 2018 First published in Automotivepress 2018

Photography  — Thomas Harling