Dundrod

Our new series of track tests begins in Ulster. Paul Fearnley visits a circuit deemed too dangerous even for the fearless '50s yes is still in regular use

Get it stopped. Stuff it in to the apex. Nail it on the way out. Medium-speed, highdovvnforce is the current Formula One way. Flat out is flat out is flat out — always has been, always will be. It's the 'float' that's almost sunk without trace; the ability of a Moss, Clark, or Schumacher (it still distinguishes the best from the rest) to pick up a car and skim it across the surface, shedding not a jot of speed, aiming not driving, visibly quicker. Flat in top is the catalyst That's why we rave about Eau Rouge, Suzuka's 130R, the opening sequence of Becketts, for such corners are few and far between these days.

Not at Dundrod they're not Beyond that 'maybe flat' sweeper lies another, and another, often as not just over a crest. Picture yourself in a D-type on rock-hard Dunlops, live rear axle shimmying from 130mph bump to 130mph bump, on a narrow, seven-mile circuit complete with its own microclimate (slap bang in a Belfast water catchment area) and the mere thought makes your throat parch, heart race, palms moisten.

Stone walls, trees, bathed wire fences, grass banks, blind bends, curious cambers, surface changes, innumerable nooks, crannies and nuances — the bulk of them in that top-gear corridor of uncertainty. Woe betide those whose bravery overstepped their talent here. Yet the talented needed to be brave to succeed at Dundrod. This is a place to be navigated via your fingertips rather than forearms, synapse rather than sinew. A serious place. A downright scary place. The euphemism of the day? 'A real driver's circuit'.

And yet, wait for it, this track's still in use. Twice a year. The cars baled out in 1955 after three fatalities in the RAC Tourist Trophy, in the immediate aftermath of the Le Mans disaster; the biker boys ploughed on — different breed, different attitude. This visit, therefore, is not about crumbling grandstands and pit buildings — they exist at Dundrod, but are still used (very Irish) — or about flaking paint and fading graffiti; it's about a living, breathing place. Park at the bottom-gear hairpin, this drum brakefriendly track's only big 'stop' — downhill approach, rippled surface — and you are swarmed by every 'rigid eight' truck in Ulster. You are high above and west of Belfast, the vast cranes of the Harland & Wolff shipyard clearly visible (now the clouds have lifted), but you are at a hub. This place is full of busy. The B38 to Glenavy and B154 to Dundrod, divergent at this point, are pulsing arteries. And then some trotting rigs clip by: Ulster is nothing if not oddly juxtaposed. Which is why a 126mph lap record is deemed still acceptable here as the rest of the UK snuggles into its Nanny State way of life. Ireland has always been different: open minds to closed roads. It was even so in the days of Empire: the Gordon Bennett race of 1903 was based at Athy in the Republic, while the RAC TT was run at Ards, sited on the opposite side of Belfast to Dundrod, from 1928-36. Soon after the cessation of WWII, Ulster Automobile Club decided they wanted the IT back. For this they needed a new track. Dundrod was first mooted in '47 and rumours firmed up when in '48 Ulster AC cancelled their Trophy race on the Ballyclare circuit, stating that they preferred to wait until the new circuit was ready. By late '48 the secret was out; JW Haughton, PB Webb and W Grigor, surveyor to Antrim County Council, were the movers and shakers, and the track was ready by 1950. That August saw Peter Whitehead's Ferrari 125 win the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod, averaging 84.32mph over 111 miles to beat the ERA of Bob Gerard.

The following month the TT returned, and on 16 September, the eve of his 21st birthday, 'wonder kid' Stirling Moss came of age. He'd been in touch with the major manufacturers in a bid to land a sportscar drive, to no avail. They knew he was quick, too quick for his own good perhaps, and politely declined. Tommy Wisdom knew better, took a calculated gamble (they were to go Dutch on any prize money) and offered Stirling the wheel of JIATK988, his aluminium-bodied XK120 — the car of every schoolboy's dreams. Stirling had his arm off. He might have thought better of it, though, after setting a slow time in first practice. It was only a glitch, however. He was fastest the next day and led the race from the second lap to the last, averaging 75.15mph for 224.45 miles to win on the road and on a handicap. His feat the first of seven IT wins was made all the more meritorious because it tippled down throughout, the press tent falling (literally) victim to the accompanying howling wind. He'd shed his 500 specialist tag and nobody that day would have guessed his first GP victory would be still five years away.

Moss won the TT again in 1951, dominating proceedings in the new C-type Jag, averaging 83.55mph to beat team-mate Peter Walker. He was upstaged that year, however, by the performance of world champion Dr Giuseppe Farina in June's Ulster Trophy.

At the last minute his entry was changed from Maserati 4CLT to Alfa Romeo 159, a 400bhp device capable of almost 190mph a whole new ball game. He won, of course, and set a lap record of 4min 44sec (94mph) that was to stand for four years. But how much faster could he have gone had he been pressed harder?

The fastest lap at the daunting Bremgarten in Switzerland was 95mph, Silverstone's mark was 100, Pedralbes in Spain, 103. Dundrod was in the speed ballpark, albeit considerably slower than Reims (118) and Spa and Monza (121); it was also considerably more narrow and bumpy. The good Doctor would have needed his wits about him, no matter how routine the victory. The sight and sound of an Alfetta rifling up the tree-lined avenue between Cochranstown and Quarterland would have kept the local bars in a reminiscent buzz for years. BRM's Ulster Trophy effort the following season, however, would have been the object of ridicule. The noise was right, when all 16 thumb pots chimed in, and the drivers Moss and Fangio weren't too dusty, but the result bordered on farce. The Bourne team were at full stretch, nothing went right, and neither car reached the finish. The race was won by Piero Taruffi in a Ferrari from Mike Hawthorn's Cooper-Bristol, which led in the wet After this, Moss wrote a thanks-but-no-thanks letter to BRM's Raymond Mays.

The TT' returned in 1953, making it a full house, for Antrim County Council had switched its allegiances from Clady (poor facilities and too bumpy the mind boggles) to Dundrod, and the Ulster bike GP had a new home. Hawthorn won the '53 Ulster Trophy in a Ferrari 500, while Aston Martin, in the shape of Peter Collins/Pat Griffiths and Reg Parnell/Eric Thompson took the fog-bound TT spoils as the jaguars floundered on a wave of transmission troubles. This race was the sixth round of the inaugural world sportscar championship yet it was still an intrinsically British affair. That changed in 1954, round five this time, with entries from Lancia, Ferrari and Maserati as well as Jaguar and Aston Martin. The win was pinched from under their noses, however, by the tiny DB-Panhard of Frenchmen Paul Armagnac 714 and Gerard Laureau. Hawthorn was magnificent, replacing Froilan Gonzalez (injured in practice) and hurling the Ferrari 750 Monza around to win on the road and set a new sportscar lap record (4min 49sec, 92.378mph). But he fell 13sec short of an outright victory on handicap, despite completing 17 more laps than the 750cc DB. His anguish can be imagined.

Dundrod and the TT were taking shape and everyone turned up in 1955 — Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Porsche — but its zenith was also to prove its nadir. Even in an era when safety meant shellacked cloth caps and thinly-scattered hay bales, Dundrod was a cause of concern: narrow with high, funnelling banks, the quicker drivers often found an inexperienced straggler, running 70mph slower, over that crest Le Mans had just seen the worst crash in history, the sport was in turmoil, but the Dundrod organisers simply dug a ditch and raised a bank between the track and the stands opposite the pits and pressed on regardless. As did the drivers.

The fantastic Mercedes 300SLR was the car in which Moss felt he could beat team-mate Juan Fangio, and while the great Argentine driver was having yet another Homeric struggle with Hawthorn in the lone works D -type, Moss disappeared up the road. His serene progress was rudely broken by a 135mph blowout, the flailing rubber ripping at the bodywork. A long stop to repair the damage allowed the Jag, now with Belfast's Desmond Titterington at the wheel, into the lead, and his local knowledge and skill saw him pull easily away from Moss' co-driver John Fitch. Stirling was getting twitchy and allowed the American just seven laps before resuming — in the rain.

The De Dion Merc was bettered suited to the uneven surface and gained on traction; the D-type had the better brakes, but this was not a massive plus at Dundrod, especially in the wet. Moss began to close, and although Titterington handed over to Hawthorn still in the lead, six laps later Moss was through and away.

He lost the lead at his final pitstop, but had retaken it by the end of the same lap. It had been a brilliant effort by the Jaguar pairing — Hawthorn had dipped two seconds under Farina's lap record — but Moss was unstoppable that day. The race and track, though, had ventured up a cul-de-sac. A second-lap, seven-car pile-up caused the deaths ofJimmy Mayer (Cooper) and Bill Smith (Connaught), while Richard Mainwaring was killed when his Elva overturned and caught fire in the closing stages. Placing a man with a warning flag on the crest at Deer's Leap was helpful, but it wasn't enough — the RAC IT would never return. Closed roads. Closed book. For cars.