My first trip to Donington

On Friday I’ll travel to Donington Park for Round 6 of this year’s World Superbike Championship. The Leicestershire circuit was the first I ever visited at the age of ten and it was while on that visit that I became addicted to a drug from which I’ve never recovered. The drug of motor racing.

Greg Haines writes from Barcelona

I spend lots of time talking and writing about motorbikes, although car racing was my first love and, to be more specific, the British Touring Car Championship. This all came from spending hours playing the superb Codemasters computer game TOCA Touring Car Championship and its successor TOCA 2. They really were brilliant and I could still spend hours on them today were it not for work or, more importantly, my girlfriend Sophie…

By the time the new millennium came, ‘Super Touring’ racing was on its last legs. The 2-litre formula had been introduced full-time in 1991 and provided some of the most entertaining motor racing we have ever seen; couple the closely-matched saloon cars with the terrific coverage provided by BBC Grandstand and its Murray Walker commentary and you had a marriage made in heaven. The cars were the same models people were driving to the circuits, the drivers were all sumptuously-paid professionals and some had even come from the glitzy world of Formula 1. The year 2000 sadly signalled the last of this formula, with costs spiralling out of control and manufacturers pulling out at a worrying rate; Audi and Peugeot had left at the end of 1998 before Volvo, Renault and reigning champions Nissan at the end of 1999. Did a ten-year-old Gregory Haines care about financial problems? Absolutely not. Thanks to race marshal Geoff Richards, the nicest and most reliable man you could ever meet and long-time colleague of my dad’s, we had free tickets to the Bank Holiday BTCC round at Donington Park. Geoff is no longer with us, despite being somebody you feel is always there. Until this point I’d only ever played the PC games and watched on TV. Now I was entering this fantasy world.

The 2000 BTCC grid may have been down on numbers but certainly was not down on quality. Vauxhall fielded Jason Plato and Vincent Radermecker alongside Yvan Muller. Honda had Le Mans ace Tom Kristensen with 1994 champion Gabriele Tarquini and James Thompson, although this weekend Peter Kox was racing after Thompson suffered a heavy accident in the Brands Hatch season-opener. Matt Neal was top independent in his Team Dynamics Nissan but the attention was on Ford’s three-pronged attack in their stunning yellow and blue liveries. 1998 champion Rickard Rydell was new in the squad, running the third car alongside Anthony Reid and 1997 title winner Alain Menu. Menu would do the double at Donington that weekend and would go on to narrowly win the title in a floodlit Silverstone finale.

At Donington, I watched on with my mum, dad and brother Mitchell. I still feel excited as I write this 18 years later. I remember crossing through the Dunlop Bridge, going into the paddock and getting Derek Warwick’s autograph. He was heading up the Vauxhall team, run by the Triple Eight outfit he owned and had raced for up until a couple of years earlier. He joked about my mum being the only one brave enough to ask for the autograph. Ironically, years later I enjoyed numerous telephone calls with Derek when I was covering F1 and I can safely say he is one of the nicest and most genuine people in motorsport.

What do I remember most about that Donington weekend in April 2000? It’s not the sights or smells. It’s the sound. The sound of Menu, Reid and Rydell plunging down the Craner Curves in their V6 Ford Mondeos built by Prodrive, just down the motorway in Warwickshire. They would be the most expensive touring cars ever built and I saw them racing in the flesh twice that year, both at Donington and then at the mid-season Silverstone meeting. The sound of those cars was unbelievable. It wasn’t just the engine note but the distinct sound of the tyres over the kerbs through the Craners and on the exit of the Old Hairpin. It was fantastic. Every time I go back to Donington I can hear those V6 engines and Michelin tyres riding the kerbs.