Alfa's picnic in the Park

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When motor racing came to Dublin city centre in 1929, a former Russian Guards officer triumphed in the two big races aboard a pair of Alfas to claim the inaugural Phoenix Park Grand Prix. Bill Boddy delves into the story of Boris Ivanowski’s win and the short history of Ireland’s ‘Grand Epreuve’

The Ulster TT of 1928 (Motor Sport, March) was a truly memorable event, a veritable battle of production-type sportscars over a difficult, demanding circuit outside Belfast normally used by public transport — closed roads being a luxury denied the mainland, then as now. If Ulster could hold such an interesting and informative race Dublin had to show that it, too, could organise one of like calibre.

The Ulster RAC TT continued to be a very important and interesting contribution to the sportscar racing scene until a fatal accident and increasing traffic, making closure of ordinary roads impractical, caused it to be abandoned after 1936. Until then, what an impressive race this TT was, a continuation of the touring and racing car contests of 1905-1922, the winners being John Napier (Arrol-Johnston), the Hon C S Rolls (Rolls-Royce), F Courtis (Rover), W Watson (Napier-Hutton), K Lee Guinness (Sunbeam) and Jean Chassagne (Sunbeam), on the hilly Isle of Man circuits.

Following the initial Ulster TT, won by Kaye Don in a Lea-Francis from a FWD Alvis, came the stupendous drive in the rain in 1929 by Caracciola, driving a 7100cc s/c Mercedes-Benz to win from Campari’s Alfa Romeo, with Frazer-Nash’s Austin 7 third. The ’30 race was a 1-2-3 victory for the team of 1750cc Alfa Romeos, and in ’31 it was Norman Black’s blown MG Midget that beat Borzacchini’s 2.3 Alfa Romeo to the chequered flag. Crabtree’s s/c baby MG was third. The Riley Nines of Whitcroft and Eyston were first and second in ’32, beating Eddie Hall’s MG Midget, and in ’34 Dodson’s MG Magnette beat Hall’s 3.5-litre Derby Bentley and Thomas Fotheringham’s 1.5-litre Bertelli Aston Martin, with superchargers now banned. The battle for the first three places in ’35 was between the great Freddie Dixon’s 1.5-litre Riley, Hall’s Bentley and the Bugatti of Earl Howe. It ended, sadly, in ’36 with Dixon and Dodson sharing the winning 1.5-litre Riley, Hall’s now-4.25-litre Bentley second, ahead of AFP Fane’s Frazer Nash-BMW, with all races handicapped. The TT then moved on from Ards to Donington, Dundrod and Goodwood.

Back to 1928, Dublin was busy with a race to show that it could organise one as Belfast had just done. The Royal Irish Automobile Club was able to obtain permission for the intended race to be run the following year in Phoenix Park, a place of tourist appeal dating back to 1747, once the property of the Duke of Ormonde. It had been used for speed-trials in 1903, in spite of the enormous and famous Phoenix Park Memorial causing an unwanted obstruction. This does not seem to have hampered Fernand Gabriel, who drove his Mors along the road at 84.09mph — faster than the existing LSR.

By 1926 the Irish road-closing bill of Professor O’Sullivan was passed and the course thus made legal for circuit racing. Segrave and K Lee Guinness had inspected the proposed circuit in 1924, noting that the monument would need to be moved back from the road centre at Gough Corner. That such a formidable task was accomplished for a motor race is significant. Top prize money included £1,000 for the winner of the main event, while among the trophies was a 20-inch high silver replica of the Phoenix Park Monument and Lord Wakefield’s handsome cup as the Team Award.

The actual course was no rival to the TT’s genuine road circuit, consisting of a two-mile straight, from which drivers would arrive at full speed to the tricky 90-degree Mountjoy Corner. A narrower, winding, cambered section flanked by trees took the cars past the zoo and Garda depot to the double right-hand turn at Gough Corner. The course was, on average, 30ft in width, though it measured 40ft on the straight, for easy overtaking. A subway wide enough for cars gave access to enclosures inside the course, where the pits and a huge scoreboard faced the main grandstand. The lap distance was four miles and 450 yards, and the rules followed those governing sportscar racing but dosed cars were not accepted. Hoods, while compulsory, were not to be erected and screens were not required.

Where the race differed from other sportscar contests was in a two-day division; Friday’s race for two-seater cars of up to 1.5 litres, Saturday’s for cars of over 1.5 litres up to unlimited engine size. The first race was the Saorstat Cup, the other the Eireann Cup. The RIAC had rather audaciously labelled the combined affair as a grand prix, a title which to the opinion of most should be confined to top classics for true racing cars. The grand prix prize was awarded for the combined best performance from the two races.

The 1929 Irish GP came after such races as the Brooklands Six Hours, Le Mans and Double-12 Hours, and before that year’s TT. Race duration was 300 miles (70 laps) and a credit handicap was used so that the onlookers could see the faster cars closing on smaller ones. Non-supercharged 750cc cars had 17.2 miles fewer to do than s/c ones, non-s/c 1100cc cars had a 6.8-mile advantage over s/c class-mates, and for the 1.5-litre division (and subsequent classes) the gap was 4.3. ‘Aspirated’ A7s had to cover 59.2 miles less than the total distance.

It had cost some £7000 to ready the park for motor racing. Admission cost 2/-, or 25/- for a seat in the stands, while vehicle charges varied —£2 for charabancs. For competitors customs officials were lenient and number plate restrictions were eased, with no charge for Free State driving licences. Race commentaries were made on Dublin and Belfast radio.

The final entry list numbered 44 cars: four Austin 7s, one Triumph Super Seven, eight Riley 9s, one Amilcar, one Lombard, one BNC, two Astons, one Marendaz, one Alvis, seven Alfas, four Lea-Francis, one Mercedes-Benz, seven Bentleys, one Du Pont, one Chrysler, one Sunbeam, three Bugattis, two Austro-Daimlers, two OMs and three Lagondas — but there were quite a number of non-starters.

In practice Thistlethwayte’s privately owned 36/220S Mercedes-Benz went round at 78.7mph, Sir Henry Birkin’s Bentley at 76.3mph, the quickest 1.5-litre Alfa Romeo at 74.8mph, the best Aston Martin at 70.4mph, the quickest LeaF at 70.6mph, an Austro-Dairnler at 68.2mph, a Riley at 67.6mph, and one of the s/c Ulster Austin Sevens at 65.5mph.

Amid keen anticipation and with every vantage point lined with enthusiasts, the first of these international Irish GPs started in blazing sunshine on July 12, 1929. Of the 22 cars Ramponi’s Alfa Romeo was soon leading, from the Lea-Francis’ of Green and Jimmy Shaw. The ex-Russian Imperial Guards officer Boris Ivanowski was fourth in an Alfa Romeo. Already Bertelli’s Aston Martin was sick with clutch slip. Soon Ivanowski was slipstreaming Ramponi, and The Autocar‘s Sammy Davis was next. But the smaller cars led, courtesy of the handicapping, Gunner Poppe’s s/c Austin 7 being chased by the Riley 9s. Melting tar caused much skidding at Mountjoy Corner.

After an hour and a half Frazer-Nash led in a non-s/c Austin, but later had to change a headgasket. The little Triumph retired. The Lombard was out, boiling furiously, and Kaye Don was left without gears. Ramponi crashed and Ivanowski went on to win at 75.02mph, ahead of Davis’s Lea-Francis, with Green third, Eyston’s Riley fourth, Shaw fifth, the rest flagged off. Austin, Riley, Alfa (1.5 and 2-litre), Bentley and Austro-Daimler took the class wins.

Saturday’s race for the big cars was even more enthralling, 18 starting, flagged away by President Colgrave. There was a battle between the Mercedes-Benz and Birkin’s Bentley, but it was the team of 2-litre Alfas that dominated, Ivanowski again driving an impeccable race, supported by Headlam and Dr Benjafield. Skids and gyrations were rife. Campbell’s s/c 3-litre Sunbeam retired with various problems, Field’s T43 Bugatti caught fire, Headlam’s good run ended with steering failure and the Austro-Daimler needed much water. Then, after 27 laps, the Merc stopped, with reported gasket trouble, after making the fastest race lap of 83.8mph. The Bentley pitwork was advantageous and enabled Cmdr Glen Kidston to finish second in the blower 4.5, but it was the Russian in the two-litre Alfa Romeo who won again, 0.48sec ahead at 76.4mph. So a walkover for these delectable two types of Italian cars. The Bentleys were second, third (blower 4.5s), fourth and fifth, Benjy’s Alfa next, followed by two more 4.5-litre Bentleys, those of W B Scott and Bernard Rubin, Robin Jackson’s Lagonda and Higgin’s 19/100 Austro-Daimler. The results of both races gave Ivanowski overall victory. He took away six silver trophies; Lea-Francis won the Team Prize.

The Dublin event was even more convincing in 1930, when it attracted the support of Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz sending the great Caracciola with a 38/250hp SSK two-seater with which he drove a superb race in the rain, to win at 85.88mph from Campari’s Alfa Romeo and the Mercedes-Benz of Earl Howe. ‘Rainmaster’ indeed: the German racing champion was to do this again a month later, winning the Ulster TT.

Money, however, was running out, the RIAC having lost £3000 on the 1929 race and £1485 on the ’30 race, which had cost £75,000. That meant ’31 was the last year of the so-called grand prix in Phoenix Park.

Norman Black’s MG won at 64.76mph, from the MGs of Ron Horton and Major Goldie Gardner, the winners of each race being Black, from Birkin’s Alfa Romeo and Horton, and the Alfa of Birkin, from Campari’s Maserati and the Roesch Talbot driven by the Hon Brian Lewis. The overall result was again obtained from the average of the two races.

Though the park was now left in peace for the Governor General in his residence, the Private Secretary in his Lodge, and the public enjoying the zoo, the woods and the Apostolic Nunciature, it was not entirely over, because lesser race meetings were continued there from 1932 to 1939.

British drivers Ivan Waller (Alvis), Manby-Colgrave (MG), Chris Staniland (Multi-Union) and Michael May (Alvis) were winners, and in 1937 Raymond Mays’ ERA beat Prince Bira’s Maserati in the 100-mile scratch race, the Maserati having finished second to H W Furey’s MG over 200 miles in ’36 and in ’37 to D Yule’s CMY over 100 miles. Lou Fontes (Alfa Romeo), Major Tony Rolt (ERA), Ian Nichol (MG), Reggie Tongue (Aston Martin) and Wilson McComb (MG) were among those well placed in these races.