Simon TayIor's Notebook
Historic cars look best on a historic circuit. This June, the Ulster AC will recreate the wild days of the TT at Dundrod
Historic motorsport is about bringing the past into the present. It’s how we can see great cars, not in faded photographs or dusty museums, but doing what they were built to do.
But if you didn’t witness them in action first time round, you may never get the full picture. The cars themselves look pretty much the same, despite the suited-and-visored figures ensconced in cockpits where once were a polo shirt and a Herbert Johnson. It’s the scenery which, almost everywhere, has changed beyond recall. Even historic circuits still in use, like Spa and Monza, have Armco barriers, wide run-off areas and sharp new corners and chicanes: appropriate for today’s racers, perhaps, but totally unsuitable for their 40 or 50-year-old predecessors.
That’s why watching historic cars race around the bland open spaces of Silverstone can be disappointing. And why Goodwood has been such an immense success: the Earl of March understands that period cars don’t come fully back to life unless the theatre is right. The changes that allowed Goodwood to gain its modern track licence are unobtrusive, and everything really does look as it always did. Magically, the clock is put back, and that’s why people flock to the Revival each year.
The Ulster Automobile Club has nothing like Lord March’s budget. Nor does it own the historic racetrack which lies a few miles to the west of the club’s Belfast offices. It’s just 7.5 miles of public roads, and an Act of Parliament is required to close it to traffic. Everybody knows about the five great Tourist Trophy races run there between 1950 and 1955, but more often forgotten are the Ulster Trophy events: Farina’s Alfa 158 howling round the Irish lanes in 1951, Moss and Fangio in the V16 BRMs in ’52.
But it was the 1955 TT which, for good and bad reasons, wrote Dundrod in the history books forever. Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin and Porsche all sent three-car teams, Jaguar a singleton D-type. In a 600-mile race that lasted over seven hours and featured weather ranging from bright sunshine to treacherous rain, Moss (300SLR) and Hawthorn (D-type) fought a torrid duel. Moss led until he blew a tyre: as he drove back to the pits, flailing rubber damaged rear bodywork which had to be hastily torn away by the Mercedes mechanics. Meanwhile, Hawthorn’s Irish co-driver Desmond Titterington was using local knowledge to turn in the race of his life, his times more or less matching Mike’s. Moss’ co-driver John Fitch, however, was slower and only stayed in the car for half an hour before Stirling was back in. Over the next four hours The Boy turned a 2min 13sec deficit to the Jaguar into a 2min 44sec lead. But Hawthorn was still ahead of Fangio’s Mercedes when, with just two laps to run, the Jag’s engine let go.
Tragically, Dundrod proved too fast and too narrow for the mix of driving talents accepted by the organisers. On lap 2 a string of smaller cars were stuck behind the standard 300SL of French amateur Comte du Barry, which out-ran them on the straights but held them up dreadfully through the corners. Trying to pass along Deer’s Leap, Jim Mayers’ Cooper was squeezed towards the bank and struck a concrete gatepost. The ensuing fiery pile-up involved Bill Smith (Connaught), Friedrich Kretschmann (Porsche), Peter Jopp (Lotus), Jim Russell (Cooper), Ken Wharton (Frazer Nash) and Lance Macklin (Austin-Healey). Mayers and the talented Smith were killed, and Wharton was badly burned; du Barry was later black-flagged by race officials. Elsewhere Jean Behra left the road in his Maserati: his injuries included the loss of an ear. Then, late in the race, Dick Mainwaring died when his works Elva turned over and caught fire. All this was barely two months after the Le Mans disaster, and no one was surprised that it spelt the end of Dundrod for motor racing (although those brave motorcycle racers use it still, averaging 135mph and nearing 200mph down the hill after Deer’s Leap!). But this year is the 50th anniversary of that 1955 TT, and the Ulster AC wants to put 1950s sports-racers on this historic stage again. Road-closure permissions have been obtained, but there is no question of full-blooded racing. Instead, it will be a pursuit sprint of three laps — a full 22 miles—with the cars started at 20sec intervals. That should be hairy enough.
Last month I saw the circuit for the first time, driven round initially by the UAC’s Bill McMahon and then doing several laps in a hire car alongside John Watson — who saw that 1955 race as a nine-year-old spectator. Apart from bypassing the narrow, angled bridge that crossed a stream near Leathemstown, it’s absolutely unchanged. It beggars belief to visualise 300SLRs and D-types, 300S Maseratis, Ferrari Monzas and DB3S Astons howling around here, not just because the road is narrow and bumpy, but because — with the exception of the bottom-gear hairpin just below Tournagrough — all the corners are so fast. Hawthorn set fastest lap in 1955 at an average of just on 95mph. Past the pits, still accelerating, the D-type was timed at 147mph, and it must have been doing more rushing down from Deer’s Leap.
The UAC want 60 historic sportscars on June 18 to bring Dundrod back to life, plus surviving original drivers for a commemoration dinner. It’s a pilgrimage that I intend to make. Never having seen Dundrod in its great days, I want to be there when it resounds to sports-racers of that evocative and poignant era.
If you feel the same, details are on www.ulsterac.dircon.co.uk