Death, fire and Stirling Moss - the end of car racing at Dundrod

By Andy GrayBBC Sport NI
The start of the 1955 RAC Trophy at Dundrod
Stirling Moss leads the pack away at the start of the race

With high-speed and undulating roads, the Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland is known as the playground for some of the bravest motorcycle racers in the world.

However in the 1950s, it was some of Formula 1's biggest stars - such as Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Juan Manuel Fangio - who were the draw in the hills above Belfast in the World Sportscar Championship.

In today's context, it is like Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel racing on the course today, which is unimaginable in any sense, and that is before you throw in the demands on modern machinery.

The Ulster Grand Prix may not have taken place in 2020 and the future of the famous event is uncertain, but Peter Hickman's lap around Dundrod last year made him the fastest road racer in the world.

There are similarities between the warriors at the 1950s and the gladiators of today - with everything on the line with speeds of 130mph plus, almost completely unprotected, as every corner and bump is a life or death scenario.

If you watch Peter Hickman's record-breaking lap below, it is hard to imagine three-litre, four-wheeled cars going side-by-side around the narrow County Antrim roads in a World Championship race.

Going back to 17 September 1955, a day filled with tragedy in an already devastating year, Stirling Moss won the RAC Tourist Trophy as three drivers lost their lives in a race which marked the end of four-wheeled ventures at Dundrod.

136.415mph! Ride on board for Hickman's Ulster GP lap record

In the shadow of tragedy

To put the 1955 RAC Trophy in context, Dundrod was the first championship race after the Le Mans disaster that June, which claimed the lives of 80 spectators after the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh crashed and flew into the unprotected crowd.

The aftermath was comparable to a war zone, with the bodies covered by sheets near Levegh's smouldering wreckage, which had come off the road after clipping the Austin Healy of Lance Macklin at 150mph - yet the race continued.

Mercedes withdrew out of respect for the dead, however Jaguar raced on and won through Hawthorn, who was also involved in the build-up to the fatal accident, and Ivor Bueb.

The aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans disaster
The race goes on around aftermath of the 1955 Le Mans disaster

Just shy of three months later, all eyes were on the Dundrod Circuit for the next round of the World Sportscar Championship and in preparation for the race, a ditch had been dug between spectators and the circuit in a late bid to improve safety.

Despite the stars on show, a titanic race at the front and victory for Moss and Mercedes team-mate John Fitch - that was only a part of the story as tragedy hit the sport once again.

Early in the race, William Smith and Jim Meyers were killed in a multi-car crash at Deer's Leap. Macklin was again involved in the accident, and promptly retired from the sport after emerging unscathed.

Like Le Mans, the race continued, and a third fatality was to follow when Richard Mainwaring crashed at Tornagrough and perished in the flames, which had spectators scrambling for cover as the lack of safety was the focus once more.

A Moss masterclass

The race itself, 84 laps around the 7.4-mile circuit (an almost identical layout to today), was gruelling and Formula 1 legend Moss, aided by Fitch, won despite a mid-race puncture at 130mph.

The Jaguar of Hawthorn and local hero Desmond Titterington, which was clocked at doing 147mph down the Flying Kilo, looked set for victory after Moss' puncture, but an engine issue in the dying moments ruled them out of contention.

In drying conditions after treacherous mid-race downpours, Moss, on his 26th birthday, took the chequered flag.

Five-time Formula 1 champion Fangio was second and Wolfgang von Trips, who was killed in an accident in 1961 with 15 spectators during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, completed the podium in the third Mercedes.

Safety in motorsport, especially in car racing, has come a long way, and the fatalities only highlighted the looming danger and feeling at the time.

In the aftermath of the Le Mans tragedy, motor racing was banned in France, Germany and Switzerland until circuits could be made safer.

In fact, the deaths of Smith, Meyers and Mainwaring were the final straw and car racing was swiftly halted around Dundrod as the RAC Tourist Trophy returned to England.

Oliver Gendebien's crashed Ferrari
Sportscar legend Oliver Gendebien escaped injury when his Ferrari came off the road

The emotional wounds from the accident at Le Mans were so deep, Mercedes pulled out of Motorsport at the end of the year and didn't return as a manufacturer in Formula 1 until 2010.

The fatalities that sparked new safety measures around circuits, a crusade carried out by Jackie Stewart amongst others, throughout the 1960s and 70s, and future improvements are even implemented in the present day.

Motorsport will always be dangerous, that's the bottom line, but improvements can always be made to make circuits and machines safer.

Fatal accidents still occur around Dundrod, such is the risk that comes with road racing, and just like in 1955, question marks linger over the future of racing around the famous circuit.

No matter what happens with the Ulster Grand Prix in the future, the admiration for the bravery and talent of these racing gladiators at Dundrod, both then and now, is something to behold.

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