Life

Anne Hailes: Lewis Hamilton drives a car but Jonathan Rea is cut from the same cloth as Ards TT road-race heroes

Racing driver Hugh Hamilton (centre), from Omagh, with his mother, pit manager and top race-car driver Col Goldie Gardner (left) and unnamed mechanic

SO LEWIS Hamilton is to be dubbed by the queen. Apparently ‘Sir’ Lewis is considered by many to be the UK’s greatest living sportsman which is surely debatable.

This 35-year-old is worth £250 million, lives in Monaco and has saved on taxes by housing his £16.5 million private jet in the Isle of Man. Still, he pays huge taxes in the UK so fair enough.

My beef with this honour is fairly obvious – he just drives a car. Bet that makes me popular with enthusiasts!

Certainly he takes chances, approaches bends at speeds of around 164 miles an hour, he’s brilliant at managing complex computerised controls, which takes skill and courage, over and over again round tracks he knows and obviously can handle better than anyone else.

A skilled driver with a supersonic car is bound to do well and deserves credit but surely it’s the designers and technicians who deserve the glory.

However, is he “Britain's highest-achieving sportsman of his era, possibly of all time” as sports journalist Jonathan McEvoy claims? What are the bets he’ll be crowned Sports Personality of the Year in December?

Jonathan Rea gets my vote

Larne man Jonathan Rea is the first motorbike rider in 45 years to take six consecutive RIM road racing world championships. What a man, modest and dedicated to his sport and family.

When two of his training bikes were stolen earlier this month it was the fact they took his young son's bike too that seemed to upset him most. Jonathan's dad was a racer too and competed in the Isle of Man TT and his grandfather sponsored Joey Dunlop so there’s a lot of history there.

I think this man, who reaches speeds of 205 miles an hour, scraping the ground as he defies gravity taking corners with no protection round him except air bags inside his leathers, must be one of the highest achieving sportsmen.

He came second in the awards three years ago. If all is fair in love and war he’ll make the winner's podium this year.

World champion motorbike racer Jonathan Rea from Larne, Co Antrim. Picture by Pacemaker
 

We are a great sporting people and one of the greatest world-acclaimed sporting events was the annual Ards TT. This tourist trophy race ran from 1928 to finish in 1936 when local driver Jack Chambers lost control, skidded and crashed. Eight spectators were killed and 40 injured and that was the end of The Ards TT.

During its nine years this high-powered event drew every major car manufacturer and competitors from all over Europe and beyond, and half a million spectators lined the route, along public roads from the main Belfast to Newtownards roads close to the village of Dundonald and on through Comber.

The drivers and sponsors were legendary, colourful, wealthy and charming – Count Conelli in a Bugatti, Russian Boris Ivanovsky in an Alfa Romeo, the first winner Rudi Carraciola, Earl Howe sporting a blue umbrella, Malcolm Campbell whose car went on fire and Baron L d’Erlanger in his Lagonda.

In among these was local garage owner Jack Coulter with his Ford driven by Captain FN McDowell. ‘Scrap’ Thistlethwayte anchored his private yacht in Bangor Bay and confounded his playboy image by setting up the fastest lap of 74.39 mph. Glamorous Englishman ‘Flying’ Freddy Dixon was another legend reaching 100 miles per hour on the straights.

Cabbage patch doll

During the 1932 race he misjudged his speed at Quarry Corner, sailed over a high hedge and dived nose first into a cabbage patch. For over 14 miles and six hours the touring cars – straight from the showrooms; no adaptations allowed – battled it out round the Hairpin Bend, up Bradshaws Brae, through Horse Trough corner, past the butcher's shop and the Central bar...

On a sunny August day in 1929, 67 cars lined up for the ‘Le Mans’ start where drivers raced across the track to their machines, jumped in, gunned the engine and accelerated off to determine the first and best Ards year of them all. It was won by German driver Carraciola who was displeased that his wife wasn’t allowed into his pit area.

Initially women weren’t allowed into the pits which were hiving with male members of the public and of course there was no mission of a woman becoming a driver.

The start of the 1932 Ards Tourist Trophy race

Frau Carraciola dressed as a man in order to support her husband, was spotted and ‘ejected from the pit’.

This rule was relaxed in 1936, the final year of the Ards TT, when the only female driver, Mrs Elsie (Bill) Wisdom, took to the circuit in a Fiat but was ‘flagged off’ after 28 laps.

Even in photographs of the male dignitaries, Lord Craigavon, the Duke of Abercorn and the like were all credited but the elegant ladies in the group are not even mentioned.

How do I know all of this? Thanks to reorganising my library I came on the Ulster Vintage Car Club book of The Arts TT. Written by the members of the committee and John S Moore, printed by Blackstaff Press in 1978.

Each year is covered in detail: the history, lists of cars, drivers, with laps completed and results. Evocative black and white photos of individual cars, handsome drivers, crowded scenes and much more – you can smell the petrol and hear the roar of the engines and the shouts of the crowd.

I see copies are available on Amazon at £21.70 and to get a real whiff of the action with Campari, Nuvolari and Algernon Lee Guinness screeching down the straight and taking the bends, spectators jumping out of the way as wheels mounted the pavements and threatened their toes, Pathé News film is on YouTube – just call up RAC Tourist TT or RAC International Race. Watch the real thing and I think you’ll agree.

Such is the skill these drivers possessed, the derring-do, the spills and the thrills, that they are heroes – and Johnathan Rea is cut from the same cloth.

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