TeamsEcurie Nationale Belge: 1955 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
By the mid-1950s, the return of large factory efforts meant the days of the privateers and small teams had become extinct. Mercedes-Benz dominant return in 1954 more than epitomized this shift. It was clear Europe had recovered from the lasting effects of the Second World War. Therefore, for the smaller teams and privateers to compete they would need to forge alliances that would allow the pooling of finances and talent. In this regard, it seemed perfect that two teams from the nation would join their forces. Enter Ecurie Nationale Belge.
Both sides of this union had something to offer. Ecurie Francorchamps had been established by the Belgian importer Jacques Swaters. Swaters always conducted a well disciplined privateer team and certainly would be helped by the fact that he was a Ferrari importer that could get his hands on some of the latest Ferrari had to offer.
The other half of the partnership was the small privateer effort known as Ecurie Belge. Established by the jazz musician and racer Johnny Claes, the Ecurie Belge effort offered the partnership the experience and consistency.
In reality, the deal to unite the two Belgian teams seemed inevitable. In 1954, Claes would become ill and would hardly race at all. Therefore, he would have all of his equipment and other tools and would not be taking part in any races. Additionally, the loss of Charles de Tornaco would sour the mood at Ecurie Francorchamps, at least when it came to single-seater grand prix racing. Instead, Ecurie Francorchamps would switch its focus and would mostly concentrate on sportscar racing. Therefore, both sides had grand prix cars and equipment it really wasn't using. This would not work to take on the might of the emerging factory teams, and those that already existed. What's more, it caused confusion to those Belgian race fans longing for its own national team to get behind. Enter Shell Belgium.
Shell Belgium recognized the need for the Belgian fans to be able to identify with one of its own national racing teams. Therefore, at the company's request, Swaters and Claes would join forces.
This move certainly suited Claes. Though Claes would continue to take part in some races they were becoming fewer and farther in between. Claes' condition was worsening. His health was becoming a serious issue by 1955 and it only made sense as it would allow Swaters and the rest of the team to take advantage of what resources Claes had available to him.
Although his health was failing him, Claes still couldn't be kept out of the driver's seat, a condition that erupted back during the late-1940s when his first and only exposure to motor racing came as a translator for British teams at the French Grand Prix in 1947. From that time on, keeping Claes out from behind the wheel of a racing car was a serious achievement. However, with Swater's switch of focus more so toward sportscar racing and Claes' health issues meant the single-seater grand prix team would make just a few appearances throughout the 1955 season.
Having a healthy driver and the means to compete was one thing. Having a competitive car was something else entirely. Having developed a close relationship with Enzo Ferrari himself, Jacques Swaters would be one of the first and one of the few to gain the use of the famed Ferrari 500 F2 during the Formula 2 era of the World Championship. However, a remarkable late arrival and the death of de Tornaco would hinder the team's effectiveness with the competitive car. And, by 1954, the Ferrari 500 was practically obsolete with the return of Formula One and the new regulations that allowed engines up to 2.5-liters.
Swaters would use his influence with the Ferrari factory and would have the 500 returned to be fitted with the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. Effectively a Ferrari 625, Ecurie Nationale Belge finally had a Formula One car to use. Unfortunately, it was now 1955 and the 625 was a rather ancient car, despite the fact the Ferrari factory team itself would continue to use the car during the season.
Speaking of the 1955 season, the sportscar season would begin rather early on with the Grand Prix Dakar being one of the first races. When it came to single-seater grand prix cars, Ecurie Nationale Belge's calendar would be rather empty until the 5th of June.
The best opportunity for the bright yellow Belgian livery to shine its brightest would certainly have to come at the Belgian Grand Prix. And, on the 5th of June, many of the Belgian racing fans were intently looking for the familiar bright yellow livery in order to put all of their patriotic pride behind the team in order to cheer them on to great success.
There was good reason to be excited. Though Claes was still taking part in the occasional race and was expected to take part in the Belgian Grand Prix driving for Stirling Moss, Ecurie Nationale Belge would have its Ferrari 625 entered in the race to be driven by a young talented driver by the name of Olivier Gendenbien. Even Jacques Swaters was expected to be in the race driving a Gordini T16. So, undoubtedly there were many a Belgian looking, expecting to see its national colors in the field. However, Ecurie Nationale Belge would not arrive for the race. Johnny Claes would practice in Moss' Maserati but would withdraw before the start of the race and Swaters would do the same with the Gordini T16.
Just like that, Shell Belgium's advice of merging to create a national racing team would become something of an embarrassment. At a race when most expected to see the Belgian national colors there would be just Paul Frere to uphold Belgian honor. Then, just a couple of weeks later, the motor racing world would be turned upside-down.
Neither Swaters nor Claes would take part in the Belgian Grand Prix on the 5th of June. In fact, their own team would not even make the short trip to the circuit in order to enter a single car. However, both men would be paired together driving a Jaguar D-Type in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans.
From the purist's position, the fact Ecurie Nationale Belge did not take part in its home grand prix certainly did not look good. However, after the tragic events that would unfold just a couple of hours into the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all of that would not matter.
The terrible accident that saw Pierre Levegh's Mercedes disintegrate and fly into the packed crowd along the front stretch would change the perspectives of many fans and people within the motor racing community. Jaguar would go on to win the race with Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb leading the way home. However, even Jaguar's triumph would be overshadowed, and rightly so, by the numerous tragic deaths that had occurred as a result of the accident. And if Jaguar's victory would become lost in the dark shadow of that terrible incident, then the fact that Swaters and Claes came through it all to finish 3rd overall would mean practically nothing. But given the short amount of time Claes had left, it would certainly be a highlight of the season and of his racing career.
Encouraged by the success at Le Mans, and given the fact the two teams had joined together in order to take part in grand prix races as a more competitive entity, Ecurie Nationale Belge needed to enter a Formula One World Championship at some point. The problem was which one? Because of the terrible accident at Le Mans a number of races would be cancelled and removed from the calendar. On top of it all, the team had already given up its opportunity of taking part in its home grand prix.
One of those that would remain on the Formula One calendar, one that wasn't too far away from the team's base in Belgium, would be the Grand Prix of the Netherlands. One week after Le Mans, the shock and horror of the terrible accident would still be fresh in the minds of fans, drivers and teams. In many ways, the Grand Prix of the Netherlands would take place during a rather turbulent time in motor racing. Organizers would be making split decisions about cancelling events, manufacturers, like Mercedes-Benz, began taking stock as to whether all of it was truly worth it or not. Therefore, the fifth round of the Formula One World Championship would be both therapeutic, and yet, a terrible reminder.
If there were any spectators or teams looking for a circuit in which to try and forget the dangers of motor racing, then the 2.60 mile Zandvoort circuit would not have been a good choice. Located right along the coast of the North Sea, the circuit would constantly suffer from changing conditions as a result of sand blowing across the circuit. And then there was just the nature of the circuit itself. Though under three miles in length, the Zandvoort circuit was anything but slow and required a great deal of courage and bravery on behalf of the driver to be fast. This meant drivers pushed their cars to the absolute limits each and every lap and the potential for terrible results were always a very present reality.
A total of 16 entries would be registered for the 100 lap race set to take place on the 19th of June. Coming into the race, it was the pair of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss that were leading the way in the championship. However, Ecurie Nationale Belge would not be at all concerned with the title race, just with the race at end and trying to make it to the finish.
Despite his increasing illness, Johnny Claes would be entered as the driver of the Ecurie Nationale Belge's Ferrari 625. Never considered a top flight driver, but certainly a capable one when everything went right, it was clear Claes' illness was really beginning to get the better of him. Juan Manuel Fangio would set the pace around the circuit. He would take the pole with a lap time of 1:40.0. The other two Mercedes' of Moss and Karl Kling would join Fangio completing the Silver Arrows sweep of the front row. Johnny Claes, in constrast, would be on pole for the wrong end. A little more than thirteen seconds slower than Fangio, Claes would start from the seventh row of the grid in the 16th, and very last, place.
Honestly, Claes certainly couldn't have been too concerned with contending for the victory. He knew his time was drawing short. Therefore, just finishing one of his last World Championship races would be similar to earning a victory. And in the fast overcast conditions Zandvoort would find itself on the day of the race, this steady and consistent strategy certainly could pay handsome dividends should drivers push their cars too hard.
The Dutch flag would wave and Fangio would get a great start while Moss would be rather slow allowing Musso to slide in between the two Mercedes drivers. As the cars powered their way down the front straight completing the first lap, off in the distance, trailing along already well behind the field, would be the bright yellow livery of Claes in the Ferrari 625.
Fangio and Moss would link up in a now familiar sight and would set their sights on pulling away from the rest of the field leaving Claes even further behind. Halfway through the race, it would still be Fangio and Moss leading the field, but Claes would continue to be in the running circulating out on the track at a pace unable to contest with anybody else, just hoping for attrition to move him further forward in the order.
And, as the race wore on, that is exactly what would happen. Peter Walker would be out of the race after just 2 laps. Karl Kling would make it just 21 laps before he would spin ending his day. When Robert Manzon and Maurice Trintignant retired from the race Claes' slow and steady performance would have him lying just outside of the top ten. Unfortunately, his pace would be such that he would have to fight hard just to be classified at the end, especially when Fangio and Moss would continually break the lap record lap after lap in the overcast conditions.
Well ahead in the lead of the race, Fangio and Moss would be able to slow it down slightly in order to preserve their cars and focus on completing the race taking 1st and 2nd. Even with their slower pace, Claes continued to lose ground to the Silver Arrows and would be hard pressed just to be classified.
After 100 laps, Fangio would come across the line just three-tenths of a second ahead of Moss to take yet another victory on the season. Nearly a minute back would be Luigi Musso in a Maserati finishing in the 3rd position.
Despite his ailing condition, Claes would fight through the nearly three hours of racing and would complete the race. Though he would be some 12 laps, or 31 miles, behind, the simple fact of the matter would be that Claes would find himself still running when the checkered flag was shown to him. He had persevered. Ecurie Nationale Belge would complete its first Formula One World Championship as a team.
There would be very little to say about the team's effort at the end of the race. Yes, the team would finish the race miles behind but they had come to compete and they had beaten their greatest competitor—attrition. And in the case of Claes, who had to know his time was running short, it really would be one last victory for him, the man that grew to love motor racing at an older age.
Claes had missed 1954 because of a serious illness. Not long after the Grand Prix of the Netherlands, Claes would find himself in even worse shape. It would be found that he had tuberculosis and would have a very short amount of time to live. Just when most teams are making final preparations for the start of their racing season, Claes career as a musician and driver would come to an end when he would lose his final race—a battle with the tuberculosis on the 3rd of February in 1956.
With the passing of Claes, Swaters and the others involved with the team would entirely focus on endurance sportscar racing and would be quite successful in that pursuit. It wouldn't be until the end of the decade before the bright yellow livery and the Ecurie Nationale Belge name would be seen again in a grand prix race. Ecurie Belge