We conclude our history of the last Grand Prix race staged in Ireland.
As we rejoin the story of the 1938 Cork Grand Prix, the drivers come to terms with the circuit, the unprecedented levels of public interest and the task of setting a pole-setting time.
Wednesday practice saw French ace, Réne Dreyfus set a provisional fastest time of 4.4 minutes, despite his poorly-running Delahaye. At the time, teams concocted their own unique witches’ brew of hydrocarbons to fuel their racing engines. Most employed combinations of methanol and ethanol, acetone and even small amounts of water. Teams would often jealously guard its constitution from rivals. But having neglected to bring their own supply to Cork, both he and his Ecurie Bleu teammate, Gianfranco Comotti were unhappy with their cars’ performance.
Fog shrouded the Lee Fields as the vast crowds returned the following morning. Despite the adverse conditions, Dreyfus recorded a top speed of 146 mph on a timed kilometre run, before once again setting a fastest lap of 91.7 mph. Meanwhile compatriot, Louis Gerard was unhurt after he abruptly left the circuit close to where there had been a fatal accident during the 1937 event.
By Friday, the entire city was in thrall to the spectacle, avidly discussing “the greatest race the country had ever seen”; the bars and street corners alive with speculation as to the possible victor – would it be the French fellow, Dreyfus, or that Siamese lad, Bira?
Friday also saw Jean Pierre Wimille enter the fray in the previously unraced Bugatti, but despite showing some early promise, Molshiem’s finest failed to run on all eight cylinders, Wimille quickly disappearing down the rankings. With fastest time again, Dreyfus took pole, with Bira second. The scene was set for an epic battle – Delahaye versus Maserati.
But first there was the matter of the light car race, the second of the three events on the Saturday. Having retired from the earlier event when his car failed at Gravel Pit Bend, Prince Bira, who had quickly become a favourite of the Irish crowds, was offered tea by the owners of a nearby home. The Prince, it is alleged, had his ‘man’ first taste the brew, in case of any skullduggery.
Driving with terrific verve however, the Thai nobleman proved victorious in the second Voiturette-class event, driving the White Mouse racing team’s E.R.A with which he was synonymous. Further drama saw the Maserati of D.P. Wakefield depart the road in dramatic fashion at the notorious Hell Hole Bend, coming to rest some distance below the roadway in decidedly secondhand condition. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
But it was the ‘big cars’ – the Grand Prix machines that the people of Cork really wanted to see. Owing to a variety of maladies, only eight of the original ninteen starters lined up on the Carrigrohane Straight that day. As the flag fell, the air was filled with the roar of eight and twelve cylinder engines, the smell of tortured tyres, Castrol R and unburnt fuel as the fastest cars ever seen in Ireland, led by Bira’s Maserati hurled themselves Eastward towards the Victoria Cross Hairpin, up towards Dennehy’s Cross, then a hard right along the expanse of the Model Farm Road, where a high average speed could be maintained.
The more technical section at the Western end however required a more deft hand; crossing the narrow Curraheen river bridge and accelerating again out through Church Cross, before shedding speed once more for the Poulavone Hairpin. Once the treacherous Hell Hole Bend was negotiated, it was fast as you dared as the drivers catapulted back onto the ‘straight road‘ and foot-to-the-floor once more.
It was Wimille’s Bugatti who recorded the fastest terminal speed at 147 mph, but le Pur Sang des Automobiles still wasn’t running properly; the Frenchman retiring with engine failure on lap 22. Comotti too suffered mechanical maladies, while Vial’s clutch expired. Bira put up a spirited performance in the Maserati, but having recovered from his poor start, Dreyfus’ V12 Delahaye proved faster and the Frenchman was driving beautifully. Once past, he stretched out an unassailable lead, with Gerard a very distant third, ten minutes behind. Everyone else was making up the numbers.
Bira continued to push, but it would be Dreyfus’ day, the Irish Times’ correspondent at the scene breathlessly describing the finish in the following terms; “The crowd, on the grandstand rose to its feet; a chequered flag waved in the bright sunshine. The strains of the Marseillaise broke upon the air, mingling with the exhaust notes of cars still on the course”.
As the band played the French national anthem, Bira’s Maserati stopped at his pit, the diminutive pilot leaping from his car. Dreyfus, gaunt looking, dust streaked but triumphant, smiled amiably and waved to the excited 70,000-strong crowd as the winner’s garland was draped round his shoulders and the spectators “again and again broke into cheer for France, and Siam.”
“A spectacle of speed and excitement which Ireland may not have the opportunity to see again,” is how the Cork Motor Derby was billed at the time; a statement which would prove to be prophetic. The following year, the championship was curtailed by the outbreak of war, and by the close of hostilities, Ireland, despite its officially neutral stance, had paid a heavy price, with food shortages and biting austerity.
The Grand Prix Circus would not return, the Carrigrohane road reverting to its original, more sedate purpose. Over the years, the occasional speed trial took place and in 1978, Irish racing driver, Rosemary Smith broke the Irish Land Speed record in a modified Jaguar XJ-C, closely followed by Danny Keany who pipped her time on a specially prepared Yamaha motorcycle. In 1979, this was further extended by Vivian Candy in a Shadow Formula One car – a feat witnessed in person by this author.
And that broadly speaking was it, until 2013 at least, when a commemorative event, featuring a number of the very pre-war racing machines which once raced in anger, celebrated a time when mention of Cork and Grand Prix motorsport didn’t merely elicit a derisive snort.
82 years on, and while the surroundings have changed considerably, the course is largely intact; the Carrigrohane bridge and its tight downhill S-bend having been widened, the Poulavone hairpin replaced by a roundabout, and Hell Hole Bend is no more, but the Carrigrohane road is as arrow-straight as ever.
Now populated by various vehicle dealerships, a large (and unfortunately sited) hotel and the County Hall (once Ireland’s tallest building). The Lee Fields flanking the Northern side of the roadway adjacent to the river remain a local amenity, enjoyed by walkers and fitness aficionados alike.
Yet when the road is quiet, one can sometimes hear a ghostly echo of racing engines, of faded monochrome memories of another, more romantic era; one where racing green took on a somewhat different meaning.
Sources: Motor Sport Magazine/ Irish Examiner/ Irish Times/Made By History (Michael Dwyer)/UCC.ie/corkgrandprix.com
For those who are interested to see more of the Cork Grand Prix, there are a number of Pathé clips on YouTube.