Teams Ecurie Belge
|By Jeremy McMullen|
In 1950, there were many independent teams that took part in Formula One's inaugural season. These teams were comprised more of one driver and his own car, more than anything else. Often times, gentleman of society would form teams to go race. One of those teams was the Ecurie Belge team.
Octave John 'Johnny' Claes was born of a Scottish mother and Belgian father and was educated in England. After World War II, Johnny decided to get involved in grand prix racing. This desire, however, didn't start on a whim. In 1947 Claes served as an interpreter for British drivers at the French Grand Prix. This exposure to grand prix racing birthed a passion within Claes. The very next year Johnny made his debut.
Johnny bought his own Talbot-Lago T26C (see article on the Talbot-Lago T26C) and raced under the Ecurie Belge name that Johnny himself founded. After competing throughout 1948 and 1949, Claes never scored a victory, but Johnny remained very active in grand prix racing. Despite his lack of success, Claes competed in every event of Formula One's first season.
At Formula One's first race, the British Grand Prix, Claes qualified dead last for the race at Silverstone. Johnny would end up the race finishing 11th, 6 laps behind the winner Farina. Claes was the last car in the field still running.
The Monaco Grand Prix was the next race. Johnny ended up qualifying in the 19th spot. This was an improvement, but little consolation since the other two drivers that started worse did not have a qualifying time. Johnny made it through the melee on the first lap that claimed many of the other teams. Once again, Johnny would be the last car still running. But that consistency netted Johnny a 7th place finish at the prestigious race.
After the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One season moved on to Switzerland for the Swiss Grand Prix held at the 4.5 miles course in Bremgarten. Claes made an improvement in qualifying. Claes would end up starting the race from 14th on the grid, almost 17 seconds off of Juan Manuel Fangio's pace. In the race, Johnny would not be the last car still running. Claes drove a steady race, showing improvement as a racer. Johnny would end up finishing 10th, only four laps behind winner Farina.
Claes headed home for the next race in Spa, Belgium. The Grand Prix of Belgium touted a small entry of cars. Only 14 cars made the trip for the race, but to be sure, Johnny was not going to miss his home grand prix. Claes would end up not posting a time during qualifying, so he ended up starting the race from the last position on the grid. Johnny had experience starting from the back and coming up through the field, and this race would end up being no exception. Despite starting last, Johnny climbed all the way up to finish the race in 8th place, and only 3 laps behind the leader. Up to this point, despite qualifying rather poorly at each race, Johnny drove steady, controlled races and always finished higher than where he had qualified. Claes tried to keep this going into the last two races of the Formula One season.
The French Grand Prix was next on Formula One's calendar. During qualifying there were a slew of cars that didn't post a qualifying time, Claes being one of them. As a result, Johnny was relegated to starting the race from the 15th starting spot. It ended up that despite not posting a time Claes would end up starting the race from a far better spot than for most of the races he actually posted a time. The Belgian's race didn't fair well though. Throughout the season, Claes drove steady races to finish well, but not much can be done when it is the car that fails, not the driver. The engine on Johnny's Talbot-Lago started to overheat and, finally on lap 11 of the race, Claes parked his T26C…his race was done. Despite this bad result, Claes continued his streak of finishing better than where he started. Though he did not finish the race, unofficially, Claes finished 11th.
Johnny was hoping to end the first season of Formula One on a high note as it travelled to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. The race would be contested by a large number of drivers. Johnny would qualify 22nd, beating out five other drivers. The race was one of attrition, breaking cars left and right. Many cars would end up suffering engine, gearbox and overheating issues. Claes would end up being one of those that suffered from car troubles. Claes' engine began to overheat again, just like during the French Grand Prix. Finally, on the 22nd lap, the car was brought to a stop. However, due to the problems suffered by many of the other drivers, Claes would end up finishing, though retired, better than he had started. Unofficially, Johnny would end up finishing the race 16th.
Due to having only been racing for two years previously, it could be said the inaugural Formula One season was more of a time for learning and improving for Claes. Johnny ended up proving to be a quick learner and very adept. This point is only further reinforced by the fact Claes would end up winning the 1950 Grand Prix of Frontieres, a non-Formula One race. Although Claes showed great improvement throughout the Formula One season, he would end up without a championship point in the six starts he made.
There were perhaps more famous 'gentleman' racers during the period, like Prince Bira, Johnny Claes, however, proved a competent and competitive racer. He proved he wasn't just there because he had the means. He wanted to race, and he wanted to win. Though relatively obscure and unknown in Formula One history, Ecurie Belge was just another one of those small, privateer teams that helped shaped and flavor the early years of Formula One's history.Sources:
'Johnny Claes.' Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Dec 2008, 12:41 UTC. 22 Feb 2009 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Johnny_Claes&oldid=257040884.