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Morning Qualifying – Danger at Dundrod edition

Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr. April 25, 2011 Morning Qualifying 7 Comments

Stirling Moss, in his damaged Mercedes Benz 300SLR, during the 1955 R.A.C. International Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, Northern Ireland

Beginning in 1950, the RAC held the annual Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, a 7.416 mile circuit on the rural public roads west of Belfast.   This narrow circuit, bordered by hedge rows, deep ditches and stone walls, rose 500 feet from Cochranstown on the west end of the circuit to Wheeler’s Corner in the east. As any of you who’ve watched clips of the modern Ulster GP motorcycle race know, Dundrod is no place for the unskilled or faint of heart.

Doug Whitehead's Cooper, about to be overtaken by the Jean Behra's Maserati 300S. Behra would lose his ear in a accident later in the race.

With the tragedy at Le Mans only 3 months prior, the works Mercedes-Benz team arrived in Northern Ireland with 3 of their mighty 300 SLR’s, to be piloted by Stirling Moss and John Fitch, Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling, and Andre Simon paired with a German newcomer, Wolfgang von Trips.  Contesting the 3 liter class would be a maximum effort from the works Aston Martin DB3S’s, with Peter Walker and Dennis Poore, Reg Parnell and Roy Salvadori, and Peter Collins and Tony Brooks.  A single works Jaguar D-type was entered, with Mike Hawthorn and Desmond Titterington, joined by a second privately entered D-type, piloted by Robert Berry and Ninian Sanderson.  The Italian teams were out in force as well, with a 3 car effort from Scuderia Ferrari’s powerful 857 Monza’s piloted by Masten Gregory and Olivier Gendebien, Eugenio Castellotti and Piero Taruffi, and Umberto Maglioli and Maurice Trintignant, plus a 750 Monza entered by Ecurie Francorchamps to be driven by Jacques Swaters and Johnny Claes; and a 2 car effort from Maserati with 300S’s in the hands of Luigi Musso and Franco Bordoni, and Jean Behra and Roberto Mieres.

The starting grid, with du Berry's Mercedes 300SL in the midst of the works entries. Photo from Autosport.com's Nostalgia Forum.

Rather than line the cars up by their respective practice times, the organizers chose to arrange the starting grid by engine capacity; This would prove to be disastrous decision.   Starting amidst the works 3 liter cars was a single entry by an amateur racer, the Vicomte Henri du Barry, in a standard, road going Mercedes 300 SL.  Du Barry acted as a rolling chicane among the front runners, causing an enormous bottle neck of traffic behind him.  On the 2nd lap, Jim Mayers lost control of his Cooper on the undulating downhill section of the circuit at Deer’s Leap while trying to pass the hopelessly overmatched du Barry, crashing into a stone gate post, killing him instantly. Bill Smyth’s Connaught crashed into the wreckage, and later died from his injuries. Flag marshals frantically warned the following drivers in vain, as six additional cars wrecked by trying to avoid the carnage. Shortly thereafter, Richard Mainwaring’s Elva overturned at Tornagrough, and the driver was killed, trapped beneath his burning car.  As for du Barry, he was black flagged by the marshals on lap 39 for “poor driving”; Apparently, a marshal spotted him smoking in his car during the race!

Hawthorn's Jaguar D-type, ahead of Peter Walker's Aston Martin DB3S and Behra's Maserati 300S

Meanwhile at the front of the race, Moss pulled into the pits to hand the 300SLR to John Fitch with the rear body work in shreds after a tire stripped its tread. Desmond Titterington took over the D-type for Hawthorn and raced into the lead. Fitch dogged Titterington around the circuit, keeping the D-type in his sights until rain began to fall, when he handed the car back to Moss. The 2 time TT winner would continue to press the leading Jaguar, constantly narrowing their advantage.

Hawthorn's Jaguar D-Type at the Hairpin Corner

On lap 50, Titterington and the D-type pitted for fuel and Hawthorn took the wheel again. 6 laps later, Moss’s 300SLR caught and passed Hawthorn. On lap 60, Moss pitted for fuel and tires, and Hawthorn retook the lead; seven miles later, just before the start/finish line, Moss slipstreamed Hawthorn’s D-type past the pits and shot back into the lead, as the field went out into the Irish countryside.   Hawthorn now found himself on the horns of a two pronged dilemma; trying to catch Moss, while at the same time holding off the charging 300SLR of Fangio and Kling. On the penultimate lap, the engine in Hawthorn’s D-type seized , spinning the car into a side road just up the hill from the start. In his typical devil may care fashion, Hawthorn strolled back to the pits as though nothing had happened and moments later Moss won his third Tourist Trophy race.  It would be the final automobile race at the Dundrod circuit.

John Fitch at the wheel of the winning Mercedes-Benz 300SLR

Stirling Moss wins the race ahead of the 300SLR driven by Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling

Rare color footage of the 1955 R.A.C. International Tourist Trophy, accompanied by Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.

The British Pathe newsreel account of the 1955 R.A.C. International Tourist Trophy Race at Dundrod.

  • Alff

    Such beauty, so much carnage.

    • dmilligan

      Agreed. It couldn't have been said better.

  • Lotte

    Kind of depressing how du Berry effectively killed people with his inadequacy. I know racing's inherently dangerous, and this serves to remind me how close to death one is when pushing the boundaries of car and road (even today, I guess). But I can't help but think he was a bit of an asshole; shouldn't he wave faster people by if he knew he was slower, or was he too busy smoking? Big ego? Sheesh…

    /takes off righteous hat and steps off soapbox

    • scroggzilla

      It's a six to one, 1/2 dozen to the other scenario. Yes, Henri du Barry had no business being in this race. In those days, a wealthy man could and frequently did buy their way onto the starting grid. But, why on earth did the race organizers arrange the starting grid according to engine displacement? There were 750 cc Deutsch-Bonnet's in the field that were much faster in practice than du Berry. Putting him toward the front of the grid only exponentially increased the likelyhood of what occurred.

  • fede6882

    i have a question, was the spare wheel required?

    this adds nothing but the d-type and 300 slr are just too beautiful, the world needs more of them.

  • Alan Railton

    I was at this race as an 8 year old and sat in the pits at the Le Mansstyle start . My Father saw the second terrible crash when the driver was burnt to death. It was real racing but the cars were far to fast for a track like Dundrod….very sad….I will always remember Hawthorn trying to push his car towards the finnish. Moss was magnificent and it was a great memory to see Fangio Kling etc close up………Alan R from Hong Kong

  • Patrick McKenna

    I was there as a stewart, on a bank on the pit side not far from the start as a 19 year old and only with the authority of an armband. I was required to keep spectators back a certain distance ( as I remember it it was about 30 feet) but they continuously kept creeping forward. I had my back to the road as the starting engine roar nearly caused me to lose my balance. After the race we (stewards being collected) were driven round the track and remember being astonished at the stone gate post damage. This was about 1 metre in diameter and was cleanly sheered off about 2 foot above its base.