Decades before the days of John Watson and Eddie Irvine, Northern Ireland had another motor racing hero and grand prix winner. His name was Hugh Hamilton, a Tyrone native who blazed a pioneering path across European races in the 1930s.
He is long forgotten at home now. So little remembered, in fact, that Watson only became aware of his achievements when he came across the name while reading 'A Race of Love and Death', a new biography of Richard Seaman, one of Britain's most celebrated drivers of 90 years ago.
"I only really became aware of Hugh Hamilton when I read he was team-mate of Seaman - and discovered he was a fellow Ulsterman. We even went to the same school," said five-time Formula One winner Watson.
"Afterwards I started to research a bit about him and learned from a forum that you had written a book about him," he telephoned to tell me.
Not true, sadly, although I did write an in-depth article about Hamilton for this paper as part of a series called 'Ireland's Four Wheel Wizards' in conjunction with automobile historian Michael Wylie back in the early Eighties.
It featured local heroes of the past such as Leslie Porter, Desmond Titterington, Bobby Baird as well as Monte Carlo Rally winners Ronnie Adams and Paddy Hopkirk. But Hamilton proved to be one of the most fascinating, a man who went head-to-head with racing giants of the time like Nuvolari, Campari, Ascari, Howe and Seaman before dying at the wheel of a Maserati in Switzerland.
His body lay in state in Bern Cathedral for two days afterwards as the great and the good of motor racing paid tribute.
"A new light needs to be shone on this man," said former British Grand Prix winner Watson, who recently celebrated his 74th birthday during lockdown at his home in Oxfordshire. "Hugh was obviously a brave and hugely talented driver and, from what I've read, a remarkable character, too."
He was all of these things, a car-mad youngster who grew up in Omagh and went on to race across Europe at a time when the life expectancy of drivers was measured in a handful of years. He was only 29 when he died.
The youngest son of Hugh Caulfield Hamilton, a solicitor and secretary of Omagh County Council, he was born on July 18, 1905 and was raised in a large house on Hospital Road in the town. That he could drive from an early age was confirmed by a neighbour who agreed to let eight-year-old Hugh - or Hammy as he was known - wash his car and then caught him driving it. Hammy explained he was only taking it to his house because they had a hose!
He and his elder brother Arthur were educated at Rockport Preparatory School in Co Down - remarkably the same school attended by Watson some 65 years later - and afterwards at Portora Royal School in Fermanagh.
But after the death of his father they moved to England along with their mother and by 1930, Arthur had departed for India to manage a tea plantation. Hammy stayed in London and went to work for University Motors, the world concessionaires for MG cars, and so began his racing career, initially in trials and events like the Double 12 - two races held over a 24-hour period.
He finished third in 1930 sharing Cyril Whitecroft's Riley Nine and a year later drove the entire 24 hours alone in an MG Midget to finish third again despite a lengthy pit stop to have a broken valve spring replaced.
With the RAC Tourist Trophy races around the Ards circuit now a major feature of the motorsport calendar, attracting the biggest names from around Europe and drawing crowds approaching half a million, Hamilton couldn't resist the opportunity to come home to take part in 1931.
Climbing as high as second, breaking the class lap record before he was forced to retire, his supercharged MG broke a rocker arm - a performance which saw him headlined as the "Wild Man of Ards".
It helped to launch Hamilton's international career and in 1932 he made his continental debut in the French Grand Prix at Reims, sharing a Bugatti with Earl Howe. He drove the latter stages of the race to finish ninth.
A few weeks later Hamilton was at the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix to drive a new MG Midget which had been transported from England by rail. Unknown to Hamilton, the buffeting the car had taken on the journey loosened the shock absorbers and on his first lap in practice he was almost killed when the car was pitched off the track.
Undeterred, he returned for the race and broke the class record on his first flying lap and, ignoring instructions from his crew to slow down, went on to record MG's first European victory.
Hamilton came home again for the 1932 Ards TT, this time as a fully-fledged member of Major Goldie Gardner's MG team, and broke his own class lap record, raising it to over 74mph from a standing start during practice. He later crashed into the garden of a cottage, suffering two broken ribs and facial injuries.
His riding mechanic, the Marquis de Belleroche, was also injured and they were taken to hospital in Newtownards where, on race day, Hamilton persuaded staff to push their beds out to the road so they could watch his old friend Cyril Whitcroft take the victory.
Now an in-demand driver, Hamilton was recruited by Earl Howe to be part of his MG team for the notorious Mille Miglia in Italy, a 1,000-mile road race which was famously won by Stirling Moss in 1955. He and Howe finished second, helping MG win the team prize before Hamilton headed back to the Nurburgring for the Eifelrennan where he scored another runaway win.
It was all building up to his return to the Ards circuit for the 1933 TT and the greatest race of his career.
Perhaps remembering the mistakes of the previous year, Hamilton took a studious approach, getting in early qualifying laps and then touring the course to watch the opposition, which included the legendary Tazio Nuvolari, from various vantage points.
Nuvolari, who won the race in 1930, specifically asked to come to Ulster and, late in the day, was able to take over the entry of injured American Whitney Straight in an MG Magnette.
The handicap system saw the smaller engine cars like Hamilton's MG Midget away first and he set about putting as much distance as possible between himself and the more powerful cars behind. After four hours he was still in front, leading from Freddie Dixon and Nuvolari.
Then it all went wrong. Pitting for fuel, the filler cap was left undone and petrol spilled everywhere. A jack failed and another had to be found. The starter wouldn't engage and a mechanic, attempting to use a spanner as a switch, caused a spark which ignited his petrol-soaked gloves and overalls. Over seven minutes were lost and Hamilton, in a frenzy of rage, flew out of the pits in pursuit of Nuvolari who was now 22 seconds in front, breaking the lap record as he tried to close on the Italian.
And he did, moving ahead on handicap with half an hour of the six-hour race remaining. But the huge crowd's elation was short lived as the refuelling fiasco caught up with him and he had to pit again for more petrol.
Nuvolari regained the lead and although he also almost ran out of fuel, the Italian master took the chequered flag 40 seconds ahead of Hamilton.
Devastated as he was by the defeat, Hamilton stayed on in Ulster, taking his mother for a break at the Carlton Hotel in Belleek. The MG went, too - and he used it to transport her and her luggage back to the railway station when the holiday was over.
In typical Hamilton fashion he sped back to Belfast, stopping at bridges to wave to his mother as the train passed by.
But there was big trouble in store when he went to the Czech Grand Prix at Brno to publicise a new MG showroom opening in Prague. The race started in heavy rain and Hamilton wore a poncho to protect himself but it worked loose in the wind, obscured his vision and he lost control in a series of tight bends, the Midget colliding with a row of concrete posts.
He was rushed to hospital with broken ribs and internal injuries and was on the danger list - indeed, he was reported in some news outlets as having died - for several days. On his eventual release, Hamilton travelled to India to recuperate at his brother's tea plantation.
The accident did little to diminish his commitment to racing and on his return he quit his job with University Motors to join a new team being set up by Whitney Straight which included a new rising star, Richard Seaman.
They set up base in Milan and set about tackling some of the biggest races in Europe using Maseratis. The cars proved fast but not always reliable, although Hamilton still starred among the front runners in Tripoli, Casablanca and Montreux.
He still drove his MG in supporting races and won at the Coppa Acerbro in Italy and was challenging Caracciola and Nuvolari in the grand prix proper when his Maserati again broke down.
And as he headed for the Swiss Grand Prix at Bern he was in buoyant mood having signed a contract to drive a works Aston Martin in the 1934 Ards TT.
Team-mate Seaman won the junior race but in the grand prix itself, Hamilton crashed on the final lap, the Maserati smashing into a tree, apparently killing him instantly. It was only after a post mortem some time later it was established his heart had stopped BEFORE the crash, a legacy it is thought of the severe injuries he suffered at Brno the previous year.
The laying in state in the cathedral and his funeral was arranged by the British consul and Hamilton was buried in the Bremgartenfriedhof cemetery in Bern where a Celtic Cross memorial marks his grave.