On April 23rd, 1938, eight cars lined up on the grid for the start of the first and only grand prix race to be held in Ireland. They were primed for 33 laps of a circuit that began and ended on the Carrigrohane Straight on the outskirts of Cork. In between, they went around Victoria Cross up to Dennehy’s Cross and out Model Farm Road as far as the Poulavone Hairpin. There, they veered right by Hellhole Bend, under the shadow of Carrigrohane Castle and back into the home straight.
More than a decade before Formula One as we know it today was established, Alfa Romeo, Delahaye, Maserati and Bugatti had entered a race to be run to the International Formula, then the highest grade in the sport. First prize was (pounds)1000. Pole postion was taken by Rene Dreyfus, a Frenchman in a Delahaye with a Monaco Grand Prix win on his CV. Alongside him in the front row were 23 year old Prince Bira – a member of the royal family of Siam – in the Maserati, and another Delahaye driver Franco Comotti.
The notion that Cork could host a Grand Prix had been born just three years earlier. Although a motorcycle race was held on the Carrigrohane Straight in 1929, it was following the success of a motor race in Limerick that a group of enthusiasts in Cork – among them Lord Mayor Sean French – came together in 1935 with the aim of putting together a similar event. They realised the city had one remarkable natural asset that lent itself to just such a contest. With the two and a half miles of the Carrigrohane Straight as the centre-piece there was an impressive, pre-existing road circuit of six miles within walking distance of the city centre.
The inaugural Cork Car Race of 1936 went so well that the County Council decided to widen the Carrigrohane Straight by nine feet. Once they’d further enhanced that stretch of the circuit, the Royal Irish Automobile Club (RIAC) were able to appeal to the international governing body of the sport to grant the event an elevated status for its next running. Despite inclement weather conditions, the 1937 Cork International Motor Race went off without a hitch too. The foundations for a proper Grand Prix had been laid.
“In January, 1938, it was announced that the Irish Motor Racing Club, in co-operation with the Cork and District Motor Club, would promote the Cork International Car Races meeting on Saturday, April 23rd,” wrote Wilford J. Fitzsimmon in an evocative pamphlet about that brief, golden era. “It was further announced that thanks to the generous sponsorship of Joseph McGrath of the Irish Hospitals’ Trust, who would present the entire prize fund together with a substantial contribution towards the organisation (the balance being locally subscribed in Cork), the 1938 event would take on an increased significance.”
Once the time came for the cars to arrive, Fords cleared an entire bay at their plant on the Marina to give the teams and their mechanics a proper facility in which they could work on their cars. Despite the late arrival of the Bugatti car and a troublesome Friday practice that required mechanics to pull an all-nighter to get her ready, great things were still expected from France’s Jean-Pierre Wimille on the back of the grid.
Wimille never figured. The race belonged to Dreyfus. Although he had to give best at the start to the audacious driving of Prince Bira, the Frenchman needed only one lap to regain the lead. When winning the Grand Prix de Pau two weeks earlier, he’d finished over two minutes clear of the nearest challenger and although Bira gave bold chase in his old Maserati and fully deserved second place, Dreyfus was a comfortable winner in the end.
The extant photographs convey the wonder of the day. One shows Dreyfus, goggles strapped to his head, straining to guide his Number 14 car around a hairpin from the Carrigrohane Straight into Victoria Cross. In another, it looks like his front wheels are buckling as he negotiates Inchigaggin Bridge. At the finish, there are flecks of oil from a cracked gearbox all over his jumpsuit.
“Dreyfus and the Delahaye won Ireland’s first formula Grand Prix with great ease, and in the most convincing manner, at the new record speed of 92.95 mph, making a new lap record of 95.71 mph in the process,” wrote Athol Harrison in The Irish Motor Sport News. “It seems probable that he could have gone even faster if he had been pressed. Dreyfus is one of France’s best drivers and a good fellow too. Laury Schell, who entered the cars, and is of Irish descent, has a charming personality and altogether the victory was a popular one.”
There would be no reprise of the event. Joe McGrath withdrew his crucial funding and the local racing fraternity was always going to struggle to find financial backing on the scale required. In any case, within 18 months, the world was at war and Dreyfus enlisted in the French Army. Dispatched on a goodwill mission to drive at the Indianapolis 500 in America, he was stranded there when Paris was over-run, and gained fame later in life as the owner of Le Chanteclair, a restaurant in New York.