History has it that Hugh Fortescue Locke-King came up with his inspired idea in the Italian city of Brescia. The wealthy Englishman had crossed the Channel in 1906 to sample the brilliant yet fledgling beginnings of European motor sport at the Targa Florio and French Grand Prix races. He observed the cheering crowds that greeted the cars as they roared past exuding their glorious scent of petrol and oil. For the British tourist, the only thing missing were British cars. As both a businessman and patriot, he quickly realised that this situation would only change if British manufacturers had a high-speed race facility at their disposal, where they could subject their vehicles to an exacting work-out. The speed limit on public roads in England had been set by law at 32 km/h (20 mph) and was not raised until 1930. The only solution, in other words, was to build a private circuit.
The decision was taken without further ado and Locke-King identified a site on his own sprawling estate outside the small and tranquil town of Weybridge – 30 kilometres south-west of London – for a race circuit. In order to ensure that the track could be constructed as quickly as possible, he used his personal fortune to speed things along. The sums involved turned out to be considerable, Locke-King eventually investing a total of £ 150,000 in the project – a monumental outlay for the time. The circuit was to be named ‘Brooklands’ after the family’s residence located on the estate. It is an irony of history that the project had a significant impact on the development of the automobile, even though Locke-King himself never possessed a driving licence.
A high-speed oval circuit was duly built to fulfil a need that could not be met by the existing lower-speed test routes available on public roads. The track took the form of an oval with a pair of banked curves at either end, one of which had a slightly greater radius and steeper banking than the other.
Locke-King was a man of action. Building work began in October 1906 and within just a few weeks the site had become a blur of activity, with men and machines labouring hard around the clock. Only on Saturday and Sunday nights did the emerging circuit fall silent. Seven miles of railway were laid just to ensure the supply of building materials, with six locomotives ploughing an industrious furrow. The workers used heavy equipment to clear trees and bushes, move huge mounds of earth, mark out the track and build bridges. The ground also had to be levelled out for certain stretches of the track, such as the start-finish straight; the surplus soil was used in other areas of the site – as the basis for the two high-bank curves, for example. The River Wey was diverted so that the track could fit more smoothly into its surroundings, but the river could not be avoided altogether. One of the banked curves – known as Members Banking – projected out over the water, a curving bridge of steel and concrete that followed the circuit’s trajectory and represented a magnificent feat of engineering. Meanwhile, 200 carpenters were busy putting up fences, grandstands and huts. In total approximately 270,000 cubic metres (350,000 cubic yards) of earth were shifted and 180,000 tonnes (200,000 tons) of concrete mixed to create the track surface, with locomotives shifting extraordinary quantities of gravel and cement on a daily basis. All in all, this was a truly epic undertaking.
As one newspaper report at the time recounted: “Every hour of the day tall trees fall crashing into the undergrowth, to be drawn and coaxed away by pertinacious little traction engines which, spider-like, seem to put forth filaments of steel wire from some part of their interior economy to enmesh the fallen trees. Huge steam navies – there are dozens of them at work in different parts of the track – peck away tirelessly to drive the cutting farther through the hill. Over 600 workmen are engaged on the track, and their number is always growing.”
In all, 2000 workers were involved in the construction project. For observers, here was a striking and highly symbolic passing of the baton from steam power – which underpinned the realisation of the circuit – to the internal combustion engine, whose development the facility was intended to promote.
In December 1906, at the same time as the circuit was taking shape, the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club came into being. The club would later take over as the organiser of the races held at the track. A clubhouse was included in the plans for the site.
The blood, sweat and tears were finally rewarded when the world’s first professional race circuit officially opened its gates on June 17, 1907 – just a touch later than the original planned opening date of May 1907 and after some nine months in the making. Locke-King kept his speech to a minimum during the opening ceremony, preferring to let the new race track do the talking for him. The automotive world, he maintained, would prove whether or not the circuit was a success. When the formalities were over, the assembled guests made their way to the pit area, got into their cars and drove the first few laps of the new track.
Before his death in 1926, Locke-King would witness the ensuing upturn in interest in motor racing and was able to enjoy his grand projet in its prime. His wife Ethel Locke-King gave her full support to the project and was regularly to be seen at the circuit and around the grounds. Indeed, she continued to manage the circuit and property until 1936.
What the track had to offer
The total length of the race track, including the start-finish straight, stood at
5.2 kilometres (3.25 miles). 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) of the track were level, with all sections measuring around 30 metres (100 feet) in width. The longer of the two banked curves, Byfleet Banking, had a central radius of 472 metres (1,550 feet), was around six metres (20 feet) high and was built on five-metre (17-foot) banking. This elongated curve dropped down before the track crossed the River Wey and split into two at the fork. To the left was the start-finish straight, to the right the course climbed back up towards the shorter Members Banking curve – which had a central radius of 305 metres (1,000 feet), was 8.5 metres (28 feet) in height and was built on
ten-metre (32-foot) banking – before entering the flat Railway Straight (parallel to the railway line) and back to Byfleet Banking.
5,000 seats were provided, together with standing room for an estimated 250,000 fans. Seven specially designed run-off areas were included around the track, while track marshals’ huts were stationed at intervals of 275 metres (300 yards) and linked to each other by a system of electric bells and telephones. The pit area was positioned on the inside of the start-finish straight, where the VIP clubhouse and offices were also accommodated. Vehicles gained access to the track through a tunnel underneath the Members Banking and via a road towards the pits. Visitors arriving on foot entered the grounds by passing through a series of turnstiles.
The circuit remained fundamentally unchanged until the construction of the ‘Campbell Circuit’ in 1937. This significant addition to the Brooklands facility was a winding,
self-contained course built inside the main oval. The drivers turned onto the new circuit from Railway Straight and rejoined the original track along the start-finish straight. This advanced track segment was designed to address some of the many challenges facing Brooklands.
Pure oval circuits had lost some of their appeal in the eyes of spectators, who had tired of the constant high speeds. Slower and more varied courses requiring more cornering had become more popular. The Campbell Circuit also represented the Brooklands response to the challenge laid down by other rival circuits elsewhere in Britain. Donington Park was opened in 1933 and a course at Crystal Palace followed suit in 1937.
The development of vehicle technology also had various knock-on effects. In the 1930s, the speeds of which the cars were capable began to exceed the physical limits of the banked curves. The huge centrifugal forces generated at such extreme speeds meant the banking was no longer sufficient to keep the cars on the asphalt. As a result, drivers were beginning to opt instead for long, flat surfaces – such as dried-up salt lakes in North America – as the venue for their record attempts.
Another alteration was made to Brooklands in 1909 with the construction of the Test Hill, where motor manufacturers could test their vehicles’ climbing ability and braking power. This narrow concrete strip was 107 metres (352 feet) long and included inclines varying in gradient from 1:4 to 1:8. The average incline was 1:5.
The first record
The race circuit saw its first record attempt even before the opening race could take place. On June 28, 1907, Selwyn Edge set out on a 24-hour attempt on the track-based record of 1,754 kilometres (1096 miles) held by two Americans. In the run-up to Edge’s attempt, there had been intense debate as to whether the human form could withstand being subjected to the forces and speeds involved and whether the car could hold out that long. The debate succeeded primarily in generating unexpected publicity for the new circuit. Edge fulfilled his objective, covering some 2,531 kilometres (1581 miles and 1340 yards) in the space of 24 hours at an average speed of 107.87 km/h
(67.03 mph). In so doing, he also set world distance records for every time split from
1 to 24 hours and time records for 50 miles and 1,000 miles. His 60 hp Napier was built largely in standard production trim, save for the touring-car body. The hundreds of street lamps positioned around the inside of the circuit to enable night-time driving, and the blur of the roaring car as it flashed by, must have made for a rather surreal scene.
The first official race meeting at Brooklands was scheduled for 6 July, 1907, with six races on the bill. There was still little in the way of a precedent for this kind of event, and so horse racing rules were adapted for the occasion. In order to distinguish one car from the next, the drivers sported coloured racing jackets similar to those worn by jockeys. The cars raced anticlockwise around the track, each competitor completing the stipulated number of laps before turning into the start-finish straight after the final lap. After crossing the finish line, the cars continued for a short distance on the track, before turning off to the left towards the pit lane.
The outstanding record drive of 28 June was there to be shot at, but the expected excitement never materialised. The races were fairly drab affairs, as only a small number of cars were capable of speeds in excess of 145 km/h (90 mph) and most of the standard chassis involved looked really rather pedestrian on the wide expanses of the concrete track. The insufficient catering facilities for visitors also proved a problem and the gravel paths were not suitable for ladies’ footwear. In addition, the road used by the racing cars to exit the track was so steep that many were unable to make it up and some even set themselves on fire. And there were no announcements of lap times or speeds. All in all, it was a rather inauspicious baptism for the Brooklands circuit.
However, the organisers continued with the event undeterred. The prizes on offer included the Gottlieb Daimler Memorial Plate, contested over a distance of
25.5 kilometres (16 miles). The race was headed in the early stages by a yellow 35 hp Minerva, with a Daimler and an Ariel-Simplex locked in a battle for second place and the rest of the field filing in behind. The Minerva and the Ariel-Simplex were eventually forced to retire with technical problems, the Daimler going on to win with almost a lap to spare from a Darracq in second place. And that was it for the final placings, with no other cars making it to the finish.
The main event of the afternoon was the first running of the Montague Cup over
48 kilometres (30 miles) – and with a first prize of £ 1400 on offer. The field of starters included several Mercedes vehicles and it was a 120 hp Mercedes which crossed the finish line first after an exciting race. There was no official time, but estimates put the car’s average speed at 132 km/h (82 mph). A second 120 hp Mercedes finished
The season progresses
A race in August 1907 has since taken on historical significance. The race organisers were looking to add more clarity to proceedings and moved to replace the old system of distinguishing one car from the next solely by the colour of the driver’s clothing. Car numbers were introduced for the first time.
Official timing apparatus also made its debut during the course of this first season – previously the order of the cars crossing the finishing line had sufficed to determine the winner and minor places. Special timing systems were developed over the following months and constant improvements made.
The prize money in that first season was extraordinarily generous, with Mercedes cars garnering £ 2,800 sterling, Napier £ 1,760 and Darracq £ 1,000 over the first three days of racing. Mercedes racers were the most successful cars in the first season of competition.
However, Brooklands was designed not only for car racing – year one of track action also saw motorcycles thundering down the straights.