Located at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, the Top Gear test track was originally designed by Lotus Cars to be used primarily as a testing facility for the company’s Formula 1 racing program. But it wasn’t until the reinvented Top Gear launched in 2002 that it was truly thrust into the spotlight. Dunsfold Aerodrome was formerly a Royal Canadian Air Force airbase constructed during the Second World War and was later used by British Aerospace as a manufacturing and test facility. It is on these same runways and taxiways that the track was built; marked out using painted lines and simple structures such as cones and tyre stacks. Lotus designed the 1.75 mile track to put cars through a varying range of conditions, from provoking understeer, oversteer, to testing brake balance and high speed stability. The track is a true equaliser of cars and has become arguably the most famous test track in the world, thanks to Top Gear’s success over the past 14 years.
Reaching almost Nurburgring levels of fame, the Dunsfold Park test track has also featured in blockbuster video game titles such as the Forza and Gran Turismo racing franchises – and has even been used as a film location for various movies. The modified Boeing 747-200 located at Dunsfold was used in the James Bond film Casino Royale and for the flight scenes in Come Fly with Me. The closing sequences of the film Red 2 were also shot at Dunsfold, with parts of the test track seen during the closing car chase of the film.
You might be surprised then, to learn that the days of the Top Gear test track may be numbered..
Since 2005, plans have been on the table for the entire 600-acre site to be levelled and transformed into a 2,600 home master planned community. The site owners at the time, the Rutland Group, envisaged an eco-village set within a 350-acre country parkland which would be accessible by the public. Looking at the map below, you can see how part of the main runway will be preserved as a parking space, with an ornamental canal running along its length. A central Market Square forms the heart of the village and contains various community facilities, including a primary school. Homes are arranged around a network of streets, courtyards and parking barns – which are hidden under grass roofs in an effort to hide cars and keep them out of the village center.
This is what Dunsfold Park looks like today..
…and this is the housing estate that will eventually replace it.
While reactions to the master plan were apparently “widely admired”, the project was put on hold due to the local Appeal Inspector at the borough council considering the application to be “premature” – due to the location requiring additional transport infrastructure in order to handle the increase in population. In September 2008, the council unanimously rejected an application. Rutland appealed against the decision, with a lengthy public inquiry following in March 2009, before being rejected in September that year.
Fast forward to earlier this year – the Rutland Group strikes a deal with a Trinity College and sells Dunsfold Park for over £50,000,000. As part of the deal, the Rutland Group entered into a long-term partnership with the college in what it said would “ensure the future of the site”. In other words, ensure the housing project goes ahead as soon as development approval can be obtained. In the meantime, they’re looking at extending the business park or expanding the airfield business in order to raise profits.
Martin Bamford, managing director of financial planners Informed Choices, said the deal should mean Rutland stayed as manager of the park, with the college seeking to maximise its revenues from new developments and events. Maximise revenues? You can’t get any bigger than developing and selling two-thousand six-hundred homes. Dunsfold Park represents an opportunity to make an absolute goldmine of money, something Trinity and Rutland both realise.
So without a doubt, Dunsfold Park as we know it is in grave danger, but which will come first? The end of Top Gear, or the demolition and redevelopment of Dunsfold Park? While there are currently no signs of either happening in the immediate future, we’d probably put our money on the track going first.
Top Gear is still riding high with record levels of popularity and is certainly not showing any signs of slowing. But how would it function without the track we all know and love? Jeremy’s power tests would have to be conducted elsewhere, not to mention Top Gear’s huge Power Lap Board, F1 Board and four different Star in a Reasonably Priced Car boards would all become obsolete. It is an issue that has the potential to change the dynamic of the show completely.
Should we start worrying yet? Its hard to say. But I personally think that we should treasure each and every Top Gear episode we see from now on. Sometimes we might lose faith in the show after one too many scripted accidents, or grow tired from the boy’s exaggerated characters – Jeremy “POWER” Clarkson, Richard “Buffoon” Hammond or James “Captain Slow” May. But one day we’ll look back on it all and realise just how good it really was. There is nothing else in the world that is quite like Top Gear – and it’d sure be a sad world without it.