Thank you to our Chief Instructor Mark Hales for this fantastic article on Donington Park.
Donington Park is the only circuit in the UK which existed before the second world war and is still operational today, albeit with a bit of a break in between. Bike races were held on the estate’s roads from 1931 before Fred Craner, then secretary of the Derby and District Motor Club and a former motorcycle racer laid a permanent track which opened in 1933. It ended a monopoly held by Brooklands since 1907 and our corner subject here bears Craner’s name as tribute. Like so much else, the track’s future was soon curtailed by the conflict of ’39-45 which turned Donington into a military car park, thereafter lying dormant until local hero Tom Wheatcroft bought the estate in the early ’70s. He realised a lifelong dream when the track reopened to host the Nottingham Sports Car Club’s meeting in May 1977.
Donington is a firm favourite with most drivers and for the same reason as Spa, Brands Grand Prix and Oulton Park; the road winds across hilly ground which means the corners can confuse the car as well as a driver who can’t see the exit. The Craners are hillier than most and the dive downhill turns a minor bend into a major challenge, much as it does for Raidillon at Spa; how fast you take either depends on what you are driving and how much grip it can generate. For all but the most aero-equipped, the trap is always carrying too much speed through the Craners and messing up the Old Hairpin which lies in the dip below.
Back in the late ’80s, I travelled most of the way from Craner entry to Old Hairpin without any of my Toyota Corolla’s wheels touching the road. If you put the car in the right place, the Craners were just about flat in a 1.6litre Corolla fitted with slick tyres – whereas for a Sierra turbo from the big class, it definitely wasn’t. Rather than accept that I occupied the piece of road the Sierra would need next, one of them barged his way up the inside, clipping the Corolla’s unloaded left rear corner and sending me into a series of end over end cartwheels. I still have the scar where I put my hand through the side window but Patrick Watts and I raced the car later that day, which is testament to the strength of a proper roll cage, and the energy of motivated engineers. The sequence opened the BBC’s Saturday coverage of Saloon Car racing for some time afterwards.
It’s a tale I have told before, but the memory of a passenger ride at Donington in a 911RSR with Le Mans winner and marque expert Jurgen Barth, is unforgettable. We left the pits, rounded Redgate, swept though Hollywood and got to the Craners, already pulling hard in fourth. He sat slumped in the cockpit with torso almost motionless, arms moving from the shoulders down, eyes glued to the road ahead. Then, as we plunged down the hill, his foot relaxed the pressure on the accelerator.
Immediately, the RSR’s ample tail began to swing. All too soon it was a 45 degree moment, maybe more, and we were travelling extremely quickly. Why, I thought, did it have to be me sitting there on the only occasion in years when Jurgen gets it seriously wrong… But, he simply relaxed his grip on the wheel and lifted his left hand clear of the rim by a couple of inches. The wheel twirled until he closed his right hand again, while at the same time his foot thumped the accelerator back to the floor. The moment went on for what seemed like minutes, the car’s attitude seemingly frozen in time. Then it began to rewind. Barth calmly stretched his left hand to the opposing side of the rim and took one sweep to peel it back, then another with his right hand. His shoulders had barely moved and his eyes had never left the road ahead. The 911 plunged on neat and straight towards The Old Hairpin.
Any drama at Craner Curves is almost exclusively because the road crests just where the apex spans the road. Crouch down and and look ahead and it’s almost like a ridge across the horizon. Just as the weight is transferring to the right side wheels, the road drops away. When Jurgen lifted his foot, the weight also went forward just as the road fell from beneath the rear tyres. In his case, he was in the right place but going so fast that realignment wouldn’t have made much difference. If he’d kept his foot in, the front would probably have given up and we’d have ended up too far to the right for a good entry to the Old Hairpin, so maybe it was intentional, but went a bit too far.
Assuming you’re not driving a Radical or a Formula Three, the best defence is simple to say but hard to do. You aim at a point on the left, round the corner and out of sight as you approach. The temptation is always to go for the piece of kerb on the left which is still visible, then when you get there, find the road is still turning left under you and the nose is heading for the middle of the road at best. Most people have problems because they turn too early and then have their lift in the middle, just on the summit of the crest where the car is already unbalanced. Not everybody has Barth’s recovery skills.
There’s a lot of macho stuff about ‘taking the Craners flat’ but the simple truth is that in some cars it is possible, some it’s not. The more important thing is an exit far enough to the left, so you don’t make the Old Hairpin any tighter.