What an epic Ulster Grand Prix. I’m just so glad I was able to get there on Saturday to witness what turned out to be a day packed with thrilling races.
I was gutted to have missed out on being able to say I was there on the day Conor Cummins clocked that incredible 133mph lap in the Dundrod 150 but any disappointment soon disappeared once the roads dried out and the boys got down to serious business.
It was one of those days when the honours got shared around. No predictable Rossi, Spies or Camier domination. The Ulster provided some thrilling close-quarter action at incredible speeds with plenty of different faces on the top step of each race podium.
Before the roads were closed I was lucky enough to get a lap in the car with my good mate Stephen Davison, who just happens to be the world’s leading photographer or pure road racing events. I reckon he should branch out into giving guided tours of the major circuits too because the lap was just spellbinding.
To me, the Ulster is a very different circuit to say the North West or TT. The road seems much more claustrophobic all the way around the 7.4mile lap – the trees, telegraph poles, walls, bushes and fences are right up to the edge of the road just waiting to punish the slightest slip by a rider. Awe-inspiring when you think that you’ve got packs of riders storming into the corners, most of which are approached at well over 160mph.
I sat gob-smacked in the car at Davison trotted out the speed figures for each corner and explained some of the moves he’s seen pulled by riders in the past. And just how downright dangerous the place can be. But also how exciting: “Ach this is the corner with no name. It’s just a wee kink in the road but the riders are cranked over in top gear doing about 175-180mph, with the front wheel in the air and you can hear the rear tyre spinning. It’s awesome. I stand in the gate there (he points to a rusty metal gate supported by two concrete pillars on the left-hand side of the road – directly in the firing line should shit happen). It’s so scary I promise myself never to go back – but I do each time….”
When we did our lap it was about 8.30am, still raining, the racing surface hidden by puddles of standing water. Even worse, the mist was coming down but thankfully the rain abated and the sun broke through to ensure a great day’s racing.
I experienced a weird kind of deja vu weird when the first race formed up on the grid opposite the huge packed grandstand that bears the legend: “Joey Dunlop OBE MBE Ulster Grand Prix Grandstand, 24 Ulster Grand Prix victories, 48 Dundrod Circuit Victories.” Obviously a great tribute to Yer Maun, but I found myself imagining the old black and white photos I’ve seen when the Ulster was part of the World Championship. Pudding basics, black leathers, exotic multis, bread and butter British singles. The Ago and Hailwood, Read and Ivy rivalries.
It’s all too easy to forget the Ulster is steeped in history almost as rich as the TT.
But you know what, apart from the colour, the Ulster didn’t look that different. Still packed with fans. Still a full grid. Still a massed start. Still a scary-fast race track. And still so many memorable races.
The other thing that struck me was the sound. It didn’t happen often on Saturday because there were so many close races, but on the odd occasion a single bike, came into earshot at Dawsons (the final corner), you could stand there and hear it hurtle off down the Flying Kilo, the rpm only wavering as the rear tyre struggled for grip on the bumpy surface. There’s no other race track I’ve been too where you can hear a bike on full song, for so long. Unreal.
I’d not been to the Ulster since 1987 – a pretty terrible year. It was lashing down with rain pretty much all day and popular German Klaus Klein died instantly after crashing his Bimota early in the TT Formula One race. The meeting was abandoned.
But I’m so glad to have gone back. I love the laid-back atmosphere of a ‘roads’ paddock and, from where I’m sitting, it feels like this particular discipline is enjoying a resurgence.
I know the hard-core fans of ‘real road racing’ will say it never went away, and I agree with that sentiment, but there’s been a massive promotional effort to boost the major international road races.
We’ve seen the TT rebuilt thanks largely to vision of Paul Phillips – the TT Motorsport Manager – and his crew. The North West 200 has had Mervyn Whyte steering it’s fortunes. But both have local government support who suddenly realised how much the events bring to the local economy.
The Ulster is a bit different. It’s no real tourist hotspot so there’s not the incentive for government investment. So the club has to do it the hard way – with self-promotion.
It nearly went under last year when bad weather wrecked the meeting but this year the gods smiled on the event and not only did we have some incredible racing, it was generally safe racing, and everyone I spoke to felt that faith has now been restored in the event.
Hopefully, it’s future is now secure and they can build on this great year because, for sure, I want to go back next season – for the full festival – and I’d urge other fans to do the same.
Fantastic racing. Fantastic roads. Does it for me every time.