When Giuseppe Farina and the other F1 stars raced in the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod it was “like having God there”. Gordon Cruickshank looks back
This month the rural quiet around the little village of Dundrod west of Belfast will be left in tatters by the bark of racing engines as the Ulster Automobile Club evokes the great days of the Dundrod TT races. From 1950 to ’55, snarling sportsracers pitted themselves against the swoops and lurches of a road built for everyday traffic. But it wasn’t only D-types and Aston Martins that graced the track: those same stone walls have also echoed to the blare of Ferrari, Connaught and BRM grand prix cars as some of the legends of the sport competed for a cup called the Ulster Trophy.
This TT Anniversary event (from June 15-18) runs as a pursuit sprint, and the winner will receive that same Ulster Trophy. The UAC’s grandest award, it’s been held since 2000 by Jarno Trulli, but its history goes way back, long before the days of Dundrod.
The Ulster grew out of the County Down Trophy, which before WWII ran on a small triangular road circuit near Donaghadee in Co Down before moving along the coast to Bangor. After the 1936 crash which ended racing at Ards, the council built a flower bed in the middle of Bangor’s start-finish straight, preventing any more racing. So in 1937 the Down Trophy moved again, to Ballyclare. As this was in County Antrim, the series was rechristened the Ulster Trophy Race, still running as a handicap. Rumours about a new rival circuit meant the cancellation of a 1938 race, and by ’39 racing was low on everyone’s agenda.
When the Trophy ran again in August 1946 a large crowd turned out to see Prince Bira’s ERA steal a knife-edge victory from Reg Parnell’s Maserati 4CL. The grid, though, was small, and it was hardly better in ’47 when Bob Gerard lifted the trophy in ERA R14B.
Continuing petrol rationing kyboshed a 1948 event — if spectators couldn’t get there, the race was a dead duck — so for the next year and a half the UAC concentrated on making a circuit out of a loop of country roads north-west of Belfast. It was a major undertaking: closing public roads needed an Act of Parliament, which also allowed the UAC to charge for vehicle access to fields around the circuit, and with the announcement that the TT would also run here big crowds were expected for both. Luckily the club could fall back on skills and equipment from the Ards TT, where crowds had reached 400,000; in addition UAC timekeepers often handled events on the Isle of Man, so there was no lack of experience.
Facilities at the temporary track were not lavish — scaffolding pits, gravel paddock, open grandstands, one bridge to the infield, while scrutineering was down at Thomson-Reid’s garage in Belfast, from where these pure racing cars would drive the five or six miles up to the hairpin among everyday traffic. Ian Titterington, who drove at Ulster Trophy meetings and in the 1954 and ’55 Yrs, recalls: “It was a tremendous, twisty circuit, a real test of a car. But if you made a mistake you paid for it. And it was very abrasive. Modern circuits are kart tracks in comparison.”
In its fourth home, on this exciting and frankly risky 7.5-mile circuit, the Ulster Trophy finally found its feet; from being a prestigious club race it was suddenly an international event attracting star drivers. Cannily scheduled a month or two before the TT, the Ulster would not only inaugurate the circuit but also offer a handy practice for drivers. For Irish racing this meeting took the first step back to the prestige of the Ards TT days, when the likes of Caracciola and Nuvolari crossed the choppy waters of the Irish Sea.
Though it was August, the weather at the 1950 opening meet was wet — no surprise to motor racing historian Simon Thomas: “It was a bleak, god-forsaken place, 700-800 feet up on the hills. The race was always in summer, but in the photos everyone is usually wearing coats and hats.” Nevertheless huge crowds turned out to see the meeting opened by the Prime Minister, Sir Basil Brooke. Sadly there were only nine entries for the main event, and only one even remotely top level. In an era when starting money lubricated the race machine, the club could not rustle up enough to draw the big teams, but they did manage to attract Peter Whitehead in his Ferrari 125. As a privateer he needed results to help get entries to continental events, so this was a race where his Ferrari, one of the first in Britain, could almost certainly bring him a win.
And it did, though the 16sec gap to Bob Gerard’s ERA after 111 miles surely reflects a ‘just-fast-enough’ drive. In the supporting handicap, a field of Irish home-brew and road cars was headed by a pre-war pairing — Anthony Powys-Lybbe in his Tipo B Alfa Romeo. Unfortunately the relentless rain bogged down spectator cars and, although clerk of the course Gordon Neill quickly arranged wire matting for the VIPs, there were still cars stuck in the mud on Monday.
After this brave move, and the success of the first TT, Dundrod had gained a presence in the racing world, which helped UAC land the deal it needed — sponsorship from the News of the World. With a serious budget the club could aim high with its invitations for 1951. Don’t forget that at this time the fact that it was a Formula One race was much more exciting than whether or not it was part of the new World Championship; yet the UAC pulled the biggest coup of the lot by attracting World Champion Giuseppe Farina in one of the all-conquering 159 Alfa Romeos. Now the Ulster Trophy had joined the big league. Among 24 entries, Whitehead, this time in a 1.5-litre blown Ferrari, and Reg Parnell in the 4.5-litre Thin Wall Special were Farina’s expected rivals for the tempting £1000 first prize. And it was to be a royal occasion: Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, in Belfast for a Festival of Britain event, were driven round the course to “a tumultuous welcome”.
After Ron Flockhart had dominated a 1300cc scratch race, the 500cc event had a feeble turnout of five cars; Autosport commented on the very considerable expense of taking cars over to Northern Ireland. An unknown called JM Hawthorn fooled the handicappers in his TT Riley, finishing minutes ahead of expectations in a 10-lapper before the main event formed up.
Whitehead, the previous year’s winner, blew a piston as he warmed up his Ferrari, so the huge crowd prepared for a straight duel between Parnell, rated as top British driver, and World Champion Farina.
Denis Bell, then a schoolboy, had cycled over to watch: “Having Farina come to Ireland was almost like having God there. I watched at Leathemstown, so I could see them in the fast sweepers after the measured kilometre — very technical. It was a real driver’s course, but it was the sheer speed which impressed me.” As well it might — the crowd gasped as Farina was timed at 153.8mph, shrieking through what during the week was a quiet country road. Well matched in the bends, the sheer power of what Autosport called “the Milan miracle” catapulted Farina ahead out of the corners. Even though the thirsty Alfa had to make a pitstop, Farina was still able to re-pass Parnell to win by almost 50sec. Behind, the ERAs of Brian Shawe-Taylor and Gerard ran neck-and-neck to the flag.
As the enclosures emptied and competitors made their way to the Royal Avenue Hotel in Belfast to receive their cheques, the UAC could look back on a massive success.
A year on, the club had even bigger news: Britain’s grand prix hopes were pinned to BRM, and two of the fabulous beasts were coming. Even better, they would be driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss — the World Champion and Britain’s finest prospect. That news brought extra crowds to Dundrod, but the team from Bourne cut things close. Both the V16s had failed at Albi the weekend before and were flown over by chartered aircraft to be repaired in a Belfast garage, missing all except Friday’s final unofficial practice session.
Thinking the excitement was all over, Denis Bell was cycling home when he heard a wailing sound: “Suddenly a BRM roared towards me following Raymond Mays in a black Humber.” Ian Titterington was even closer — he was still practising for his handicap race when the BRM joined in: “Even at 80mph I could hear this highpitched engine note blipping and getting louder, then suddenly there was Fangio in my mirror and he just flew past me.” The Argentinian quickly put in the fastest lap so far, despite the traffic, but because it was unofficial both he and Moss started from the back of the grid.
Instead it was Italian veteran Piero Taruffi, standing in for the injured Luigi Fagioli in the further-modified Thinwall Special, who took the front row, beside Mike Hawthorn, making his Cooper-Bristol lap absurdly fast, and French privateer Louis Rosier in a 4.5-litre Ferrari. But the total field was only 13, and at the flag Taruffi stalled and Moss’s BRM staggered, while Fangio spun at the hairpin, putting Hawthorn into a surprise lead — chased, to the crowd’s elation, by the Alta of Dubliner Joe Kelly. It was exciting, but not very ‘grand prix’…
Moss’s V16 soon overheated and retired, while Fangio’s recovery was brief; passed by Taruffi, his fuel-starved BRM could not catch Hawthorn and on its sixth pitstop the British green hope was pushed away. Some of the spectators began to leave. Even Hawthorn’s heroic second behind Taruffi and a third place for Kelly didn’t offset the fact that the winning speed was 10mph down on 1951. It was thrilling for the home crowd — Denis Bell still treasures autographs from Taruffi, Fangio and Ron Flockhart — but it was another catastrophic letdown for BRM fans. Titterington: “I have a photo of Moss looking totally p*”*d off at his car.” His drivers absent, Raymond Mays made an apologetic speech at prizegiving…
With grands prix running to Formula Two rules in 1953, there was little chance of a new lap record when the UAC began compiling entries for another Ulster, but it did mean a bigger field, demanding two heats and a final. But there was reason to cheer; a works Ferrari driven by a Brit — Hawthorn was now an official Maranello driver — and Moss and Roy Salvadori would race Connaughts, an Irish name at least. Thanks to clutch trouble which ruled him out of starting the final, Moss finished Heat One second to Duncan Hamilton’s HWM, while Hawthorn unsurprisingly took Heat Two, but he had a hard fight with Ken Wharton (Cooper-Bristol) and local star Bobby Baird in his own Ferrari. The grid for the final showed just how hard Dundrod was on cars: there were so many retirements that all bar one car went through. To Salvadori’s displeasure: “It was a horrible circuit. The cambers were all wrong, they were always resurfacing it so you got pebble-dashed when you came up behind someone. It suited some people — Peter Collins was marvellous there — but I detested it. I wanted to hand my car over to Stirling and they wouldn’t let me. I was quite glad when my de Dion broke.”
Surprisingly Hawthorn did not lead at the first corner — but he was in front by lap two and proceeded to beat everyone hollow, lapping some cars twice; but Wharton and Baird had the grandstands roaring as they wrangled over second. Denis Bell: “Bobby Baird owned the Belfast Telegraph and he was the best of the Northern Irish drivers, at least until Desmond Titterington came along. There are stories about him ringing Enzo Ferrari and complaining that his car wasn’t fast enough, and Ascari being sent out in it to show how fast it really could go! But that was a great dogfight — Wharton was so flamboyant.”
It wasn’t thrilling enough for the News of the World, which withdrew its sponsorship after the 1953 race. There was no Ulster Trophy in ’54, and for ’55 it was awarded for fastest finisher in a mixed sportscar/single-seater handicap; run on a minimal budget, there were no international names and the crowd was small. Desmond Titterington (cousin of Ian) took home the silver, but it was looking a little tarnished.
Ian Titterington reflects: “I think the sponsorship just tided it over; it was barely profitable. The organisation was a huge task with all those crowds; marshalling was an enormous job.”
There was in any case no future for the Dundrod circuit. After the seven-car accident in the 1955 TT and three deaths, the RAC refused to license the circuit again. Despite the fine job the UAC and Gordon Neill had made of carving a circuit from country roads and handling large grids and cup final-sized crowds, the bumpy, swooping track with its unforgiving borders was doomed.
Simon Thomas again: “The Ulster Trophy was a big event, as big as, say, the Daily Express Trophy. And the UAC were good organisers; they even had translators on hand for the foreign drivers. But the event was hampered by the lack of permanent facilities and it took a long time to crane the cars on and off the ferry.”
A handicap race on Bishopscourt airfield in 1963 was the sad last race fling of the trophy; after that it was sporadically awarded on points for Formula Libre racing at Bishopscourt. In 1992 it resurfaced at a pursuit sprint, where John Watson collected it, and in 2000 the UAC took it out of storage for a Belfast city-centre Millennium sprint — which is how Trulli fits in.
This month it leaves the storeroom to become the target for the Dundrod celebrations; only sportscars are eligible, but the club hopes that, if only as a demonstration, grand prix single-seaters will once again hurtle past the reservoir, turn right at the crossroads, go light over the Tornagrough crest and thunder, brakes squealing, into the hairpin. It will be a flashback to the time when the grand prix gods came to Ulster.