The great and the good from the worlds of F1 and motorcycling have come out to pay their respects to Tom Wheatcroft, after the Donington Park owner died on Saturday at the age of 87 – describing him as a 'legend' and expressing their sadness that the great man never lived to see the British Grand Prix held at the Leicestershire circuit.
Wheatcroft achieved one of his outright ambitions when he succeeded in bringing F1 to Donington for the 1993 European Grand Prix – so famously dominated by Ayrton Senna for McLaren-Honda during a torrential downpour, with the track owner being honoured with presenting the winner's trophy to the three-time world champion up on the podium afterwards.
It looked like he was set to witness the arrival of the British Grand Prix there too, until the ambitious £135 million dream of Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd (DVLL) chief executive and circuit lease-holder Simon Gillett finally encountered one stumbling block too many late last week, leaving Donington's very future up in the air.
“It seemed like I had known Tom forever,” Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive Bernie Ecclestone told the Derby Telegraph
, explaining that he had last spoken to Wheatcroft only a couple of days earlier. “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. We tried to give every opportunity for the finance to be found, but time ran out. I have no idea if it will take place at Silverstone instead next year or what will happen next at Donington. I will be speaking to Tom's family and will let them know I am here if they want any help.”
Wheatcroft was born near to Castle Donington, and never lived more than 30 miles from the circuit. As a teenager in the 1930s he used to cycle there to watch races, and after building up a multi-million-pound construction empire and running a racing team, he purchased Donington for £100,000 in 1971. After rebuilding the track, it was re-opened seven years later and also became the new home to Wheatcroft's impressive collection of classic cars. The Donington Grand Prix Exhibition is now the largest gathering of motor racing cars worldwide, some of which were donated by Ecclestone himself.
In 1993, Wheatcroft was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Derby for his services to charity and motorsport, and just four years ago he released his autobiography, entitled Thunder in the Park
, in which he admitted that he had spent only 18 months in formal education and had left school aged just 13.
'From the moment I arrived there I became totally hooked,' he wrote, reminiscing about his earliest experiences of both Donington and motor racing in general. 'The cars, the bikes, the sounds, the smells, the huge crowds, the bookies calling the odds, the thrills and spills of the races themselves – I found the whole atmosphere totally intoxicating. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before.'
Wheatcroft passed away at his home in Arnesby, near Leicester, following a long illness, and he leaves behind a wife and seven children. Other prominent figures within the sport have paid warm tribute to the man and his accomplishments.