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The Cork Grand Prix 1938

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CorkGrandPrix AttendanceSome of the 70,000 attendees at the Cork Grand Prix 1938. Source: www.examiner.com

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Cork Motor Darby held over the weekend of 22-23 April 1938 in Cork city. The two-day event hosted the Cork International Light Car Race, and the Cork National Motor Handicap, but the main attraction was the ‘super motor racing car event’, the Cork Grand Prix.

The international event offered a prize of £1000 and attracted nineteen world-famous drivers from eight nations, featuring; Italians Tazio Nuvolari and Giuseppe Farina (Alfa-Romeo); Hans Ruesh from Switzerland (Alfa-Romeo); Flight-Lieutenant C. S. Staniland, A. F. Ashby, Kenneth Evans, John Snow, and Mrs. Jill Thomas of Great Britain (Alfa-Romeo); Prince Birabongse of Siam (Maserati), Herbert Berg of Germany (Maserati); and the French entrants, Gianfranco Comotti, Rene Dreyfus, Laury Schell, Joseph Paul, and Louis Gerard (Delahaye).

The race, billed as ‘the first real Grand Prix race to be run in the British Isles’ featured cars ‘faster than anything previously seen in this island’ and promised to provide ‘a spectacle of speed and excitement which Ireland may not have the opportunity to see again’. The Continental abandonment of the Monaco Grand Prix due to financial difficulties meant that the Cork event was set to become the world’s premier street race of 1938.

One week before the race, a dramatic turn events led to the withdrawal of the Italian drivers Nuvolari and Farina. Nuvolari’s car had exploded into a fireball during a practice run for the French Pau Grand Prix and Farina’s car, also an Alfa-Romeo was withdrawn immediately suggesting that the trouble leading to Nuvolari’s accident was common to Farina’s machine. Nuvolari had competed in previous races with a broken leg, and the Italians had given the race organisers an assurance that the burns he sustained at Pau were unlikely to prevent him from travelling to Ireland. However safety concerns relating to the Alfa-Romeos, and Nuvolari’s subsequent declaration that he would never drive again, led to a withdrawal.

The Italians had been favourites to win the Cork event. It was expected that they would have led throughout the race, and that the most exciting part would have been ‘the scrap for third place’. However the Italian withdrawal injected even more excitement into proceedings as the battle between the remaining Alfa-Romeos, Maserati, Delahaye, and Bugatti would now be for first place.
On Tuesday 19 April, the specially chartered vessel Kenmare made the crossing between Fishguard and Cork with a cargo of thirty racing cars, most of the continental drivers, and ‘representative personnel of the various racing stables’. The arrival of the drivers and their entourage stirred up a great deal of excitement in the city, and a shortwave radio system ‘superior to anything of its kind ever set up in the British Isles’ was installed at a number of points around the course in order that the crowds at all parts of the circuit may be kept informed of what was happening elsewhere.

Rene Dreyfus, winner of the 1938 Pau Grand Prix discussing his prospects with the Irish Times Motoring Correspondent stated that even in the absence of Nuvolari and Farina, he regarded the opposition of the Alfa-Romeos as important, but he expected his chief rivals to be Jean Pierre Wimille the Bugatti driver, and Prince Birabongse of Siam, and his Masserati.

Rene DreyfusThe French Delahaye driver, Rene Dreyfus. Source: www.wikif1.org

On Wednesday morning, a series of practice laps were undertaken on the Carrigrohane circuit. Dreyfus, who had started with a slow lap, steadily increased his speed to 89.82 m.p.h, and registered a fastest lap time of 4 mins. 4 secs. The second fastest time was set by Comotti, a stable mate of Dreyfus at Monaco’s Ecurie Bleue, who posted a fastest lap of 4 min. 13 secs. Both drivers complained that they were having difficulty with their fuel. They had neglected to bring the ‘special dope’ used to power the Delahaye at Pau, and the nearest they could obtain to their particular brand ‘did not either look or smell the same’.

At 6.00 a.m. the following morning, drivers arrived on a fog wreathed Carrigrohane circuit to resume practice sessions. Although visibility did not extend beyond sixty yards, Dreyfus again registered the fastest lap speed of 91.69 m.p.h. just one second slower than the record set by Charles Martin in 1937. The heavy fog failed to put off spectators who had gathered in their thousands from early morning. For their perseverance they were treated to the spectacle of Dreyfus reaching a top speed of 146 m.p.h on a straight kilometre run, and the spectacle of a high-speed impact with a bird or fowl where ‘all that remained were feathers’. In a separate pre-race thrill, Gerard escaped unhurt after crashing his Delahaye on the same stretch where a British driver Mervyn White had perished in a fatal accident the previous year.

Cork Grand Prix 1938Hair-pin bend on the Carrigrohane circuit. Source: www.corkindependent.com

For three days the zooming of high-powered cars at practice woke Cork city from its slumber, ‘and all day long the thronged streets resounded to the names of those who would battle over the Carrigrohane circuit in the greatest race this country has ever seen’. The practice laps and time trials continued on Friday, and witnessed the arrival of Jean Pierre Wimille and the much-anticipated ‘new and striking’ Bugatti. Wimille had previously won the Pau Grand Prix and the Grand Prix d’Endurannce 24-hour race at Le Mans, and his newly designed Bugatti which had never been raced previously, became the subject of much speculation. Unfortunately for Wimille, and Bugatti, the car began to give engine trouble after just two practice laps, and registered the slowest lap time.
Dreyfus was fastest for the third consecutive practice period, followed closely by Bira and his Maserati, who also set a lap record for light cars in his E. R. A. The starting positions for the Grand Prix were determined by practice times, and competitors striving to achieve fast speeds in order to be in an early row of starters, ensured a day full of ‘fast, thrilling, and record-breaking motoring’.

On the morning of Saturday 23 April, just eight of the nineteen original entrants lined up on the Carrigrohane Road, starting point of the 200 mile Cork Grand Prix circuit. In an explosion of noise, the fastest machines in the world tore down the Carrigrohane straight towards Victoria Cross. Bira led, but close on his tail were Dreyfus, Evans, Comotti, Vial, Gerard, Paul, and Wimille. Wimille registered a faster all-out speed of 147 m.p.h. as compared with Dreyfus’s 145 m.p.h. and Bira’s 140 m.p.h. One second separated the race leaders but when Dreyfus passed Bira he began to gain four or five seconds with each successive lap. Vial retired with clutch trouble, Comotti retired with ‘excess of oil’ and in the 22nd lap and at a speed of 94.05 m.p.h. Wimille’s engine ‘revolted’. From here on in it was all Dreyfus and Bira; Gerard in third place was ten minutes behind the leader and the rest of the field were nowhere.

An Irish Times Motoring Correspondent capturing the final moments of the race exclaimed: ‘A low, powerful car sped like a comet, at over 140 m.p.h. down the straight, flat concrete of the Carrigrohane road. The crowd, on the grandstand rose to its feet; a chequered flag waved in the bright sun-shine. The strains of the Marseillaise broke upon the air, mingling with the exhaust notes of cars still on the course’.[1]

Finish Line Cork Grand Prix 1938Finishing line on the Carrigrohane Road. Source: www.eveningecho.com

Rene Dreyfus, small, grey-haired, friendly, smiling, in a Delahaye car, had won ‘the first real Grand Prix race ever held in the British Isles’. While the French national anthem played, the second car finished. Diminutive Prince Birabongse of Siam ‘sprang from the seat as his Maserati stopped at its pit’. The 70,000 strong crowd ‘again and again broke into cheer for France, and Siam’.

Rene Dreyfus winner of the Cork Grand Prix 1938

Rene Dreyfus, winner of the Cork Grand Prix 1938. Source: www.prewarcar.com

British Pathe footage of the 1938 Cork Grand Prix


[1] ‘The Cork car races’, Irish Times, 25 April, 1938. Unless otherwise stated, this piece was compiled from a series of articles which appeared in the Irish Times during April 1938.

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