Teams1952 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Johnny Claes first experienced the motor racing scene when he served as a translator and general guide for British teams at the 1947 French Grand Prix. This ignited a passion and a desire for motor racing that burned brightly. Only a handful of years after the end of World War II, national pride was strong. Therefore, Claes didn't merely just start racing, he would do so under his own name, a strong national name—Ecurie Belge. Literally, the name means 'stable of Belgium'.
Claes, and Ecurie Belge, were present for the very first year of the Formula One World Championship. While he managed a number of top-ten results, Claes failed to score even a single point in the first season. The results were even worse in 1951. Then, in 1952, many changes happened.
The World Championship's governing-body needed to make some changes. Alfa Romeo had left Formula One due to the out-of-control costs. This left only Scuderia Ferrari as the main threat for the World Championship. This threatened to kill the still rather new series. It needed to increase competition and lower costs at the same time.
The governing-body needed time to come up with new regulations for Formula One in order to address the main issues. As a stop-gap measure, it would be decided the World Championship, in 1952 and 1953, would be run according to Formula 2 specifications. Formula 2 cost less than Formula One, and therefore, also offered more competition.
Due to the late decision to switch to Formula 2 regulations, there were a number of non-championship races that still allowed the Formula One cars to compete. Therefore, Ecurie Belge would have options. It would also open the door to other drivers to use Ecurie Belge's cars at races. This became even more of a reality when Claes was approached by Equipe Gordini to drive for its factory effort through a number of the first events of the season. However, since the World Championship would be run according to Formula 2 specifications, the team's Talbot-Lago T26C was placed to the side and a Simca-Gordini T15 was purchased for the World Championship and non-world championship Formula 2 events, which there would be many.
The first event of the 1952 season in which Ecurie Belge would take part would be the 6th Gran Premio del Valentino on the 6th of April. This was one of a number of races that still allowed the Formula One cars, namely those with engines greater than 2.0-liters, and or, those with supercharged engines, to compete. The reason for this was quite reasonable. This race was in early April and many of the teams hadn't had the time to make the necessary changes to run according to Formula 2 regulations.
Valentino Park is located in downtown Torino, Italy and features the Italian Alps off in the distance. The circuit itself took place along the city's streets and around Valentino Park and Castle Valentino. The main straight for the 2.60 mile street course ran along the Corso Massimo d'Azeglio and would wind through the Valentino Park, which was situated along the Po river.
Johnny Claes appeared for the race with his Talbot-Lago T26C. He would end up facing a gaggle of Ferrari chassis, including the dominant 375 and the new 500, but also a 125 and 212. The competition Claes had to face was impressive. Scuderia Ferrari had a four car effort present at the race. They had brought three 375s and one of the new 500s to the race. The 500 chassis was driven by Piero Taruffi. The 375 was a powerhouse in anybody's hands, but the three drivers who Ferrari had driving the cars were powerful in and of themselves. With Alfa Romeo's departure from Formula One, the 1950 World Champion, Giuseppe Farina, needed a ride. Ferrari opened their arms to the former champion. The team still had in their employment the runner-up to the World Championship for the 1951 season—Alberto Ascari. The team also still had Ascari's friend; and not a bad driver himself, Luigi Villoresi, as well. This was a strong lineup to face. Thankfully for Claes and his team, the BRM P15s didn't come to the race with Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio as the expected drivers.
In practice, Scuderia Ferrari's pilots dominated. Farina, switching sides; in essence, for 1952 found the 375 quite pleasing to drive and would turn in the fastest lap time during practice. As a result, Farina would start the race from the pole. The other two 375s, driven by Ascari and Villoresi, would also post quick times and would start 2nd and 3rd respectively. Piero Taruffi, in the small 2.0-liter Ferrari 500 would turn in the fourth-fastest time and would also start from the front row.
Claes would prove the T26C still had a little left in its legs. He couldn't keep up with the pace of the Ferrari chassis, but he wouldn't get blown off the map either. Claes' best lap time would enable the Belgian to start the race from the second row in 7th position.
The race was 60 laps, and it would get underway with a crash. Three competitors would be out of the race on the very first lap due to crashes. Only a few laps later, another car would be out of the running due to an engine failure. Just like that, four of the thirteen starters were out of the race.
The three Ferrari 375s of Farina, Ascari and Villoresi pulled away at the front of the field. Each one was fast. Giuseppe Farina would prove to be the fastest when he turned in a lap of two minutes and one second around the 2.60 mile street course. He would; perhaps, push too hard as on the 31st lap of the race he would crash out of the race. This left Ascari and Villoresi to take control at the front.
Claes was outpaced by the Ferraris. He just could not get it up to the pace of the 375s and the 500. Therefore, he would try and settle-in; hopeful of a good result. Meanwhile, Ascari seemed on track to better than to just have a good result.
Ascari was pushing hard and looking untouchable. But then, with only four laps remaining in the race, trouble struck. Ascari's fuel tank had begun to have problems, which would cause Alberto to retire from the race. The powerful 375s were dropping out of the race, but Ferrari still had one left running at the front.
Villoresi would benefit from the troubles other drivers, even his teammates, had experienced. Villoresi would end up going on to take the victory by more than a minute in front of Piero Taruffi in the Ferrari 500. Rudolf Fischer, driving his own Ferrari 500, would end up finishing the race two laps down, but in 3rd.
The days of the Talbot-Lago T26C had definitely passed into history. Claes, despite his best efforts, could do nothing to match the pace of the front-runners. Claes would focus on scoring a good result and would. He would end up finishing the race 6th. However, he would end up five laps down by the end.
After the rather mundane Gran Premio del Valentino, Claes would take part in the Pau Grand Prix, which was the first round of the French F2 Championship, but on behalf of Equipe Gordini. He would use his own Gordini T15, but it would end up being prepared and entered by Equipe Gordini for the three hour race. The same would be true for the second round of the French F2 Championship, which was the 10th Grand Prix of Marseille.
Throughout the month of May, Claes would drive for Equipe Gordini. Ecurie Belge never made it to an event during this time due to having only the Talbot-Lago T26C during this time. Claes would stay with Equipe Gordini throughout the first round of the World Championship, and even through the third round of the championship, which was Claes' home grand prix, the Belgian Grand Prix.
On the 1st of June, Ecurie Belge was preparing its T26C for the 14th Grand Prix de l'Albigeois. However, it was Andre Pilette who was preparing to take to the wheel. Claes wasn't present at the race as he was at Chimay preparing for the 22nd Grand Prix des Frontieres the same day.
Ecurie Belge had entered two races separated by about nine hours driving time. Pilette was at Albi, France preparing to take part in the 34 lap race around the 5.55 mile circuit that was made up of city streets and country roads. The circuit was fast. Triangular in its shape, only one of the three straights had sweeping turns in the road. The rest were almost straight, which meant flat-out. In addition to being relatively straight, the roads were pretty flat as well. Without many undulations and blind corners, the drivers had the confidence to stand on it. It was a regular sight to see cars averaging over 100 mph around the circuit.
Unfortunately for Pilette, he would be taking part in the race with an obsolete T26C chassis. Though it had been improved in performance, it was still lacking greatly against other cars like the Ferrari 375. Pilette would end up facing two of them. But he would also end up facing two of the troubled BRM P15s. These would be driven by the two Argentineans Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzalez.
It would become apparent in practice the tough road Pilette had before him. Fangio would take the fragile screamer, the P15, and would turn in the fastest lap in practice. He would cover the more than five and a half miles in two minutes and fifty-five seconds. This time would end up being more than seven seconds faster than Gonzalez's best time in the other P15. However, Gonzalez would also start from the front row in 2nd. Louis Rosier, driving a Ferrari 375, would complete the front row by turning in the third-fastest practice time. His fastest time was over ten seconds slower than Fangio's best.
Pilette would end up not setting a time during practice. Given the age of the car, and its lacking performance, the fewer miles that could be put on the car was most likely the better. Setting no time, Pilette would start the race from the sixth row in 15th position overall. Seventeen cars and drivers would start the 34 lap race.
It was widely known the bark of the BRM P15 was much worse than its bite, even with Fangio behind the wheel. Gonzalez would try and do his best to instill fear into the hearts and minds of the competitors when he would turn in the fastest lap of the race. However, the car could achieve the speed, just not the endurance. After setting what would end up being the fastest lap of the race, the 16-cylinder engine developed troubles and ended up dropping the Argentinean out of the race. Almost the same exact problem would end up striking Fangio on the 15th lap of the race.
Of course, this was little concern to Pilette for a couple of reasons: for one thing, he couldn't get the same kind of performance out of the T26C to need to worry about it anyway. Also, he didn't need to worry about taking advantage when he couldn't because of being out of the race himself.
Pilette was going to push the T26C hard since he was at the back of the pack. He would push in order to find a way forward in the running order. He would end up pushing too hard and would suffer a crash after only 2 laps.
Riding the wave of the BRM failures, Louis Rosier would cruise to victory. He would end up defeating Chico Landi, who was also driving a Ferrari 375. The winning margin was seventeen seconds. Over a minute and ten seconds later, Yves Giraud-Cabantous would end up finishing 3rd with a T26C.
Pilette's race came to an end just about the same time as the Grand Prix des Frontieres was beginning. For Ecurie Belge's sake, hopefully Claes would have a better day. It would end up being worse…or…about the same. At Chimay, Ecurie Belge would prove how much it did things as a team.
Chimay was another circuit similar to Albi. At a little over a mile longer in length, Chimay also featured something of a triangular shape, but it featured a greater number of slower corners. In spite of this, average speeds around the circuit ran in excess of 90 mph.
Chimay also consisted of some city streets and country roads. The circuit was wide open and featured a couple of blind corners, fast sweeping bends and hairpin turns. Some of its more memorable features included the La Bouchere hairpin turn near the center of Chimay and the small stone church located along the sweeping left turn between Salles and Mairesse. Unfortunately today, the original timing hut and other buildings have since been torn down.
Ecurie Belge's race weekend on the 1st of June in 1952 would end up being torn down as well.
While the race at Albi included Formula One cars in its starting field, the Grand Prix des Frontieres would be a Formula 2 race only. It would consist of a number of Belgian racers with some considerable talent. Among the Belgian grand prix drivers, Chimay had become a favorite venue; a not-to-be-missed race amongst the prideful Belgians.
Chimay was a particular favorite of Claes. He had grown to love and respect the circuit. And, he was usually fast there. In practice, Claes would prove just how much he enjoyed Chimay. Using his T15 chassis, Claes would end up turning in the fastest lap in practice and would take the pole for the 22 lap race. He was joined on the front row by Willi Heeks driving an AFM and Roger Laurent driving a Ferrari 500.
The race was set to begin. Just about the same time the Grand Prix of Albi was coming to an end for Pilette over 500 miles away, the Grand Prix des Frontieres would also come to an end for Claes.
Claes was on the pole and looking good to score a really good result at Chimay. Alongside on the front row was Roger Laurent in a Ferrari 500. Although Willi Heeks had managed to turn in a truly fast lap and started 2nd in his AFM, it was obvious the T15 and the Ferrari 500 on the front row would be the best bet for the top result. That was, of course, dependent upon the two staying away from each other. Unfortunately, they wouldn't. On the very first lap of the race, Claes and Laurent would come together, thereby ending each other's race.
The accident would prove to be anything but an open door for Heeks, however. Heeks' race would come to an end after just one lap when he suffered an oil pump failure. Just like that, over the course of one and a half laps, the entire front row was out of the race.
Paul Frere, who started the race 8th, would be the one able to take advantage of the troubles and would go on to win the race by just one second over Kenneth Downing in a Connaught A-Type chassis. Despite running out of fuel on the last lap, Robin Montgomerie-Charrington would end up finishing the race 3rd, albeit one lap down.
The first weekend in June proved to be an incredibly disastrous time for Ecurie Belge. After the disastrous results Ecurie Belge would not take part in another race until the end of June at what was the fourth round of the French F2 Championship.
Johnny Claes would go on to take part in the Grand Prix of Monza for HWM a week after the double-debacle, but then would go back to Equipe Gordini in time to take part in the third round of the World Championship, which was the Belgian Grand Prix, the home grand prix for Claes. While Claes would take part in the race, but for Equipe Gordini, Claes' T15 chassis would end up being given to an American, Robert O'Brien, in order that he could take part in what was his only World Championship event in 1952. O'Brien; however, would end up racing the car under his own name, and therefore, the 'Stable of Belgium' would not officially take part in its home grand prix.
One week after the third round of the Formula One World Championship at Spa-Francorchamps, Johnny Claes; and Ecurie Belge, travelled to Reims, France for the fourth round of the French F2 Championship.
The 20th Grand Prix de la Marne was the fourth round of the French F2 Championship and it took place on another ultra-fast public road course—Reims.
Reims is located to the east of Paris and was home to many grand prix races throughout its existence. The circuit was located on stretches of road between Reims and Gueux. The circuit was 4.46 miles in length and consisted of mostly long straights. It had gone through some layout changes, but was always fast no matter what iteration was utilized.
Just like all of the previous rounds of the French F2 Championship, the field was filled with competitive teams and drivers. Alberto Ascari had returned from the United States and had looked dominant at the Belgian Grand Prix. He would again appear dominant during practice at Reims. He would average better than 108 mph during practice and would turn in the fast lap with a time of two minutes and twenty-two seconds. Giuseppe Farina would turn in the second-fastest lap time in practice but was almost two seconds slower. However, Farina would start in the middle of the front row in 2nd. Equipe Gordini's driver and former teammate of Claes, Robert Manzon, would achieve the third-fastest lap in practice. His best time was a little over two seconds slower, but still good enough to also start on the front row.
In all, twenty-three would start the race. Claes' best time in practice was a good deal slower than Ascari. Of course, a big concern at a place like Reims was being able to last the entire race distance, let alone being fast. Many teams and drivers would remove the grilles on their cars in search of every possible advantage to get more cooling air to the engine. Claes would push during practice but would not turn in a lap fast enough to be amongst the front-runners. His best lap was almost seventeen seconds slower. This put the Belgian driver all the way down on the eighth row of the grid. He would start 19th overall.
As with practice, it was important to remember that lasting was more important than where one started. Of course, with teams like Scuderia Ferrari, there was less concern about the car lasting if pushed during practice because the team had the resources to make changes and repairs and be ready for the race. In Claes' case, Ecurie Belge was himself. His racing budget wasn't nearly as large as Ferrari's. He needed to take car of his equipment.
This would be especially true of the French F2 events. Instead of being a certain mileage or laps, the French F2 races ran according to time. Similar to Le Mans, it was about who could drive the furthest over a given amount of time. In the case of the French F2 Championship, the time limit was three hours. Many of the World Championship rounds didn't even last three hours. Therefore, every round of the French F2 Championship was a real endurance test and as much about lasting as being fast.
Right from the start of the race, it was apparent Ascari had both endurance and speed as he began to pull away from the field. Reims has always been tough on cars and drivers. Even though it was a three hour event, four cars would be out of the race before 6 laps had even been completed. One of those early retirements was Luigi Villoresi, whose engine had expired on him.
Ascari had already earned a good number of points toward the championship. Therefore, in a kind gesture to his good friend, Ascari would pull over, after being at the front, and would hand his car over to Villoresi for the remainder of the race.
Cars kept dropping like flies. Out of the twenty-three that had started the race, there would only be eight that would end up classified by the end. Claes remained focused and used the retirements to his advantage. Very soon, Johnny found himself near the top-ten. He would end up getting more help when Stirling Moss fell well off the pace and Robert Manzon suffered an injury and had to retire from the race.
When Ascari pulled in to let Villoresi take over, Jean Behra took his Equipe Gordini to the lead and never looked back. He would go on to prove the Gordini T16 could battle with the mighty Ferrari 500. Behra would go on to take the victory at the end of the three hour race. He would average a little over 105 mph en route to the victory. He would end up completing 71 laps, one more than Farina in 2nd and Villoresi in 3rd.
Claes had many opportunities to marvel at his former teammate's performance, and that of the T16. Claes would end up seven laps behind by the end of the race. However, Claes had managed to look after his equipment and would finish 6th. This was a rather decent result for the small, single-car effort. It also ended up being a better result than what he had experienced at his home grand prix in the World Championship, and therefore, offered some vindication. However, even though he had managed to finish the race 6th, Claes was soundly beaten in pace. He needed to take part in a race better suited to the light T15 chassis, a race where handling and acceleration were of greater importance than out-right speed.
The next race on the Ecurie Belge calendar for 1952 was the fifth round of the French F2 Championship, and, the fourth round of the Formula One World Championship. It was the French Grand Prix and it was held at Rouen-Les-Essarts.
The Rouen-Les-Essarts circuit was situated almost directly south of Rouen in the Foret de Rouvray. Perhaps most famous for its brick covered Nouveau Monde hairpin turn, the circuit was a favorite for the teams and the drivers as it boasted more modern pits and winding turns. It was tucked down in a little valley. Its location and layout meant that handling and acceleration were important at the track in order to be fast. This fit the small, nimble Gordini chassis well. This would be made obvious during practice before the race.
Alberto Ascari would still prove to be the fastest as he would turn in a lap around the 3.10 mile road course of two minutes and fourteen seconds. As with the last round of the French F2 Championship, the gap between Ascari's best time and the next-fastest was right around two seconds. Just as with the race at Reims, it would be Farina that would post the second-fastest time and would start on the front row. Piero Taruffi would be the third-fastest in practice. His best time was two and a half seconds slower. The next four spots on the starting grid were all occupied by some model of a Simca-Gordini chassis. However, Claes was none of them.
Claes absolutely struggled during practice. He could get nowhere near the times of the front-running Ferraris, even the numerous Gordini chassis. Claes' best time around the circuit was only two minutes and thirty-nine seconds. This was a lap time twenty-five seconds slower than Ascari's best. As a result, Claes would start from dead-last on the starting grid, which was 20th.
Because the race counted toward the French F2 Championship, it would be run according to those regulations. Therefore, the race would be a timed event. It would not be any longer, or, any shorter than the other rounds. The race would be three hours in length.
Right from the start of the race, Ascari assumed control. Very soon, he was lapping the circuit with lap times close to his fastest from practice. Ferrari ran in lock-step at the front. Claes was trying to make his way up from the very tail end. He would push, but it was obvious there were issues.
While Ascari was settling into a comfortable pace to be able to make it to the end of the race, Claes' race was coming to an end. On the 14th lap, the engine in Claes' T15 let go, thereby ending his race. He hadn't even made it a third into the race at that time.
Ascari found a comfortable pace alright. He would end up setting the fastest lap of the race with a time just two and a half seconds slower than his pole time. Over the course of the three hour race, Ascari would complete 77 laps and would take the victory. The Ferrari drivers had spaced themselves neatly. Farina, who had started the race in 2nd, would finish in 2nd, but one lap down. Piero Taruffi started the race 3rd. He would end up two laps down, but would finish 3rd. The other Gordini chassis would fare much better than Claes'. Gordinis would finish the race 4th, 5th and 7th.
The fourth round of the World Championship could not have gone much worse for Johnny Claes and Ecurie Belge. Looking to rebound from the terrible experience, Claes would head off to Sables d'Olonne, which was located right along the Atlantic Ocean in western France.
The Les Sables street course was only 1.41 miles and utilized the Boulevard de l'Atlantique, which; as its name would imply, ran right along the beach and the ocean. The streets were tight and the straights were not all that long. Average speeds around the circuit ran a little over 65 mph.
The 2nd Grand Prix de Sables d'Olonne, on the 13th of July in 1952, was the sixth round of the French F2 Championship. Being that it was a French F2 Championship round, the race would be a three-hour timed event. This meant the race would be long. But it would feel long, not just because of the passage of time, but, because of the number of laps that would end up being completed before the end. It would just seem to go on forever.
Due to the circuit being short, Claes could worry a little less about the engine transpiring. However, concerns about the transmission rose tremendously given all of the gear changes that would take place over the course of the event. In spite of the concerns about the transmission, this was a track that suited the Gordini chassis well once again.
Unfortunately; for the rest of the teams, the circuit didn't seem to not suit the Ferrari 500 either. Ascari would go out during practice and would again prove to be the fastest driver on the course. His best lap around the 1.41 mile circuit was one minute and twelve seconds. He would only just beat out Farina this time. Farina's best time during practice was only a tenth slower. Robert Manzon would complete the front row when he turned in a time a second and a half slower than Ascari.
Over the last couple of races, Claes had struggled in practice. His pace was nowhere near what some others were able to do in the very same type of chassis. Well, at Les Sables, he would be off the pace again. Claes' best time would be just under ten seconds slower than the time set by Asari. Once again, Claes was dead-last on the starting grid.
Where Claes started the race wouldn't be as important as where he finished. And the way the race would pan out, if he drove fast, but consistent, he would have a chance at a very good result.
The race started without too much trouble. All of the fifteen starters made it through the first few laps without incident. Soon, each driver got into his pace and the real race began. No problems struck any of the competitors until at least 40 laps had been completed. However, when trouble struck, it would strike hard and fast.
Harry Schell, who was driving for Enrico Plate, had the engine let go in his Plate-Maserati. Amidst the engine failing, Schell would also crash out of the race. It was suspected that oil was laid down on the circuit due to Schell's failure. This was suspected because one-by-one competitors crashed out of the race. Heitel Cantony and Maurice Trintignant would crash out after having completed 42 laps. The front-runners weren't immune either. And in the case of Ascari and Farina, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ascari had just lapped Farina. However, both of them would crash out of the race at about the same time. This left the door open to a number of other competitors, including Rudolf Fischer.
Rudolf Fischer, who drove his own Ferrari 500 for Ecurie Espadon, was running well, but when he had completed 102 laps he suffered a mechanical problem and was retired from the race. Fischer's retirement, and that of Ascari and Farina, allowed Villoresi to pull away into the distance. Claes had been driving a fast, steady pace. He managed to not put a foot wrong throughout the majority of the race and was making his way forward from his 15th starting position.
Having the majority of his competition fall out of the race allowed Villoresi to absolutely dominate the rest of the field. At the conclusion of the three-hour race, Villoresi had managed to complete 136 laps and averaged a little over 66 mph en route to the victory. More importantly, he would enjoy a three lap advantage over the 2nd place finisher Peter Collins. Proving starting position wasn't as important as finishing position, Claes had managed to make his way from all the way down in 15th to finish the race 3rd. En route to the podium finish, Claes would complete 131 laps, five less than Villoresi, but he would manage to beat his old Equipe Gordini teammate Robert Manzon by two laps.
The 3rd place result at Les Sables was the good result for which Claes had been looking. Now that he had managed to find it, he needed to keep them coming. In the competitive Formula 2 class this would not be an easy task given the strong presence of Ferrari. His next opportunity to keep the good results rolling his way would come just one week later across the English Channel.
Immediately after the surprise 3rd at Les Sables, Ecurie Belge packed up and headed across the English Channel in order to take part in the fifth round of the Formula One World Championship.
The fifth round of the World Championship took place at Silverstone in England and it was the British Grand Prix. The grand prix took place around the 2.88 mile road course known as Silverstone. Silverstone had been a World War II airbase and was leased for a race back during the later 1940s. Very quickly, Silverstone would take over Brooklands as Britain's home for motor racing. Being that it formerly had been an airbase, the circuit was relatively flat and wide open. The circuit consisted of the surrounding roads and taxiways that formed the perimeter of the base. The runways in between the circuit remained active and many motor racing patrons would fly in to either just watch the races, or, take part.
Silverstone, and the British Grand Prix, had been a part of the World Championship from the very beginning. It was the first round of the World Championship in 1950, the year in which Giuseppe Farina had won the title. In both of the previous years, Farina had come to Silverstone with Alfa Romeo. In 1952, circumstances were different, but yet, not.
Scuderia Ferrari had proven to be dominant throughout the first four races of the World Championship. However, Silverstone was a venue familiar to just about everyone in the field. Besides familiarity, the circuit also catered to other makes of chassis quite well. It was believed the competition would be fierce. It was, for everyone but Ferrari it seemed.
Right from the very start of practice, Ferrari was proving to be the class of the field. Farina had seemingly found his World Championship groove and was as fast as Ascari throughout practice. Sure enough, the two would end up setting the same fastest lap time during practice. Farina would end up being awarded the pole and Ascari demoted to 2nd on the starting grid. Piero Taruffi would make it a Ferrari one-two-three on the grid when he managed to turn in a lap of one minute and fifty-three seconds, which was three seconds slower than Farina and Ascari.
Thirty-two entries would line up on the grid for the start of the race. Claes had arrived with his Gordini T15 and was hopeful to build upon his good result just one week prior. During practice, he would again struggle. Claes would push but just could not turn in lap times anywhere close to those of the Ferrari teammates. Claes' best time was twelve seconds slower than Farina's pole time. Thankfully for Claes, there were a large number of entries for the race. This surely meant there had to be other entries that would turn in slower lap times, right? Helping to build Claes' confidence a little bit, there would be nine others that would start worse than he. Claes would start the race 23rd out of 32.
Using the same strategy as a week before, if Claes could stay out of trouble; and the other competitors in front have trouble, then he could be in a position for a good result at the end. This would end up being his only hope as the field tore away at the start of the 85 lap race.
Farina perhaps was too excited about being on the pole as he would end up spinning his tires too much when the green flag was shown to start the race. Ascari appeared as if shot out of a cannon and would sprint into the lead before the field even reached the first turn. Farina would end up getting shuffled all the way back to around 5th place. Claes was trying to carefully position himself in order to move forward in the running.
Once Ascari had the lead he took control of the race and absolutely left the field behind. His pace around the 2.88 circuit was absolutely furious. Very quickly, he was lapping the circuit with an average speed well in excess of 90 mph. To the rest of the field, the pace was too much. In quickly turned into an Ascari exhibition and a supporting race well behind him.
In order to even come close to keeping up, the rest of the field had to push extra hard. This would take a toll on the engine and the drum brakes of the period. This was dangerous as the drum brakes had a tendency to fade badly and lose their braking ability. Soon, competitors would face these realities. Nine runners would end up dropping out of the race before the end. Of those eight, six would suffer from either brake or engine failures.
Claes was using the same strategy he had just one week prior and it was working. He was managing to move forward as those who started around him suffered from failures. However, unlike the week before, the Ferraris at the front were running like precision watches. And, some of the other competitors, like Mike Hawthorn, were putting in some truly amazing performances. Claes needed some more help. But it wouldn't come.
Ascari absolutely demolished the field en route to the victory. He would lead every single lap of the race and would end up lapping the entire field before the end of the race. Piero Taruffi would finish a very quiet 2nd. Mike Hawthorn had brought the British crowd to its feet as the young driver managed to earn Britain a spot on the last step of the podium. Hawthorn was not in contention for 2nd or 1st, however. Hawthorn would end up finishing up two laps down.
Claes would run his strategy from the week before perfectly, but he just wouldn't get the help he needed. Claes would finish the race, but if Ascari had managed to lap Hawthorn twice before the end, then it wouldn't be too surprising that Claes ended up being many laps down. At the end of the race, Claes would finish 14th, but six laps down to Ascari. He would appear as if he were crawling in comparison to Ascari's pace.
This was the third round of the World Championship in which Claes had competed. He had managed to finish two of them, but only came close to the points at his home grand prix, the Belgian Grand Prix, back in June.
After the rather blah result at the British Grand Prix, Ecurie Belge would not take part in any race for a little while. Claes would end up taking part in the sixth round of the World Championship, the German Grand Prix at the Nordschleife, with HWM. The next time one of the Ecurie Belge cars would be in action would be on the 10th of August, one week after the German Grand Prix. Johnny Claes had taken the Gordini T15 to St. Gaudens in preparation for the 16th Grand Prix de Comminges, which was the seventh round of the French F2 Championship.
Like so many other circuits throughout Europe at the time, the St. Gaudens circuit was comprised of some city streets and country roads. Also, like many circuits of the time period, the circuit used for the 1952 race was only a 2.73 mile shorter version of a course that actually measured just over 17 miles in length.
The grand prix season was beginning to wind down. The equipment had gone through a lot of abuse. Keeping a chassis strong, especially over the course of three hours would not be an easy task for a team the size of Ecurie Belge, even Scuderia Ferrari had to be extra careful by this point in the season.
Having the support of a team like Scuderia Ferrari behind him enabled Ascari to stand on the gas no matter what point of the season, or, the circuit. At St. Gaudens, Ascari would prove he wasn't going to slow down at all. He would go out and record the fastest lap of all the entrants. He would circulate the 2.73 mile circuit in one minute and fifty-one seconds. Equipe Gordini's drivers were proving more than up to the task as two of its drivers would occupy the front row with Ascari. Maurice Trintignant would start 2nd after recording a best lap three seconds slower than Ascari. Robert Manzon would start 3rd. His best time was two tenths slower than Trintignant's. Ferrari's other two drivers struggled slightly. Farina would start the race 4th, while Andre Simon would start all the way down in 10th.
Johnny Claes had grown accustomed to seeing the starts of races from the tail-end of the grid. At St. Gaudens he would have another opportunity to do the same. His best time was way off Ascari's pace. The difference was almost forty seconds. This firmly positioned Claes in the 19th, and dead-last position on the starting grid. It was obvious his T15 was struggling. The question was whether Claes could hold it together to make it to the finish or not.
Much of the race would be in question right from the start. On the 2nd lap of the race, Ascari would suffer troubles with the steering of his Ferrari 500. He would retire, at least momentarily, from the race. Andre Simon would come in and turn over his ride to Ascari for the rest of the race. This was the second time during the season Simon was forced to give up his ride to someone else.
There was still hope for Ascari for two reasons: his pace had been superior to the rest of the field, but also, because Robert Manzon would fall out of the race after just 16 laps due to valve problems.
Thankfully for Ascari, the troubles happened early enough that he had time to overcome any lost advantage. While Ascari was fighting to get back to the front of the entire field, Claes was fighting just to keep his car in one piece.
Two hours of the race had been completed and still Claes was running. Unfortunately, he wouldn't get much further. On what was the Claes' 67th lap, the gear selector began to fail. This forced Claes to retire from the race.
Meanwhile, Ascari had managed to prove fast in anybody's car as he was able to take Simon's Ferrari 500 and retake the lead of the race. He wouldn't just take the lead. He would absolutely pull away with it.
Helped by Maurice Trintignant's retirement on the 67th lap of the race, Ascari only had to hold everything together and he would be able to take the win yet again. He would end up doing just that.
Ascari would complete 95 laps and would average over 85 mph as he would cruise to victory by a lap over Giuseppe Farina. Jean Behra was totally out of the running for the lead of the race at over six laps down to Ascari. However, he would end up taking 3rd.
The season had been frustrating for Claes and Ecurie Belge. Whether good or bad, the season was winding down. However, there were still a couple of World Championship rounds left on the season. The seventh, and next-to-last, round of the World Championship would take place just one week after the failure of St. Gaudens. Claes needed a break. He also needed a good result.
Paul Frere had managed to step into a one-off situation with HWM at the Belgian Grand Prix and had been able to score a 5th place finish. This would be a good opportunity for Claes. He would approach Frere about taking part in what was the seventh round of the World Championship, the Dutch Grand Prix. Frere agreed and Ecurie Belge was on its way to Zandvoort to take part in the grand prix scheduled for the 17th of August.
The Circuit Zandvoort is located right along the Netherland coast and overlooks the North Sea. The circuit, in 1952, measured 2.60 miles in length. The race distance would be 90 laps for a total of 234 miles.
The season was really beginning to take its toll on the smaller teams. Meanwhile, bigger teams like Ferrari seemed to either get stronger, or, were just holding steady. Throughout practice, Ferrari's drivers would prove to be the fastest of the field. Not surprising, Ascari would prove to be the fastest of everyone. He would complete a lap of Zandvoort in one minute and forty-six seconds and would; therefore, take the pole for the race. As usual, Farina would start on the front row as well in 2nd. While some of smaller teams that had been racing from when the season started had begun to wane, there were other individual efforts that were getting stronger because of not having taken part in every race from when the season kicked off. One of those apparently getting stronger was Mike Hawthorn. Hawthorn was driving for a team his father had built around his son. They hadn't really started taking part in World Championship races until the third round at Spa-Francorchamps. As a result, the team was a bit fresher. Hawthorn would prove his ability, and the freshness of his team, as he would end up being able to start the race 3rd.
In all, eighteen would qualify to start the race. Paul Frere would prove capable of taking the T15 and having it start better than dead-last. Frere would end up being able to circulate Zandvoort fast enough to be positioned 11th on the grid. This was the best starting position Ecurie Belge had enjoyed throughout the entire season. Frere hoped that the good starting position only meant a better finishing position. Unfortunately, the hope would not be upheld by providence.
Alberto Ascari would sprint into the lead from his pole position. He would have his Ferrari teammates in tow. Frere was also looking to move forward early from his 11th place starting position.
Ten laps into the race, Jean Behra would end up retiring from the race due to electrical problems. Behra had started the race from 6th. It was obvious the attrition was going to take its toll throughout the course of the race. Unfortunately for Ecurie Belge, its car was the next victim.
While Ascari was pulling away with his Ferrari teammates following closely behind, the transmission troubles that proved to undo Cales race at St. Gaudens had seemingly returned to haunt Frere. Frere had managed to make it only 15 laps before the clutch troubles ruined the rest of the race for the Belgian. Ecurie Belge would suffer yet another retirement.
Having his Ferrari teammates between himself and the rest of the competition, the newly crowned World Champion would cruise to the victory. Ascari would not slow down after securing the World Championship. It was obvious he was going for the record books, and, the money. Ascari would finish 40 seconds in front of Farina. Ascari's friend, Luigi Villoresi, would barely hold on to the lead lap before the end of the race. He would finish one minute and thirty-four seconds behind in 3rd.
In spite of taking part in a number of World Championship races, Eurie Belge was still without a point on the season. This was proving very frustrating as Claes had taken part in the World Championship since its inception and still had yet to score a single point. Claes, still had one more chance before the end of the season. However, before the final round of the World Championship, there was still one more race to go in the French F2 Championship. And, unlike the World Championship, Claes had managed to score points in that championship, albeit mostly with Equipe Gordini.
The later part of the 1952 season was a difficult stretch. Races followed each other on almost a weekly basis. In order to earn prize money, teams had to compete. However, the teams also risked the wear and tear that prohibited finishing and earning prize money. It was a difficult balance to strike. It was proving too difficult for Ecurie Belge. Racing was costing more than what it had been earning.
Claes had earned some points in the French F2 Championship, and so, not to race would cost even more. Therefore, Claes would head off with his T15 chassis to La Baule. Johnny would use the early part of the week to repair the car in time to take part in the 6th Grand Prix de la Baule on the 24th of August, which was the eighth, and final, round of the French F2 Championship.
La Baule is situated about an hour, in a straight line, north of Sables d'Olonne. The circuit was located at the Montoir airfield located just a little east of the city center. Similar to Silverstone, the circuit consisted of the taxiways and the roads that ran around the perimeter of the airfield. All told, the circuit's distance was 2.66 miles and was a rather slow circuit in spite of one notable straight.
The slower nature of the circuit played into Claes' hands if he could get the transmission troubles sorted. If he could, Claes could use the slow nature of the track to block and hold the other competitors behind.
Ascari continued to look unbeatable throughout practice. He would end up setting the fastest lap among all of the competitors and would; therefore, start from the pole. The Equipe Gordini T16 had suffered from some teething problems throughout the season. However, Manzon, Behra and Trintignant had proven the car was fast. Manzon would again show its speed during practice as he would end up the second-fastest qualifier and would be the only other driver on the front row with Ascari. The second row consisted entirely of Scuderia Ferrari drivers. Farina would start 3rd and Villoresi 4th.
In what was one of his better practice efforts of the entire season, Claes would post a time just under ten seconds behind Ascari. But, it would be good enough to start the race from the sixth row in 11th position overall.
Starting the race from a much better position would only help Claes if there were troubles amongst the other competitors. And there would be trouble; right from the very start of the race.
One car dropped out of the race before the completion of the first lap due to mechanical issues. However, two of the front-runners would end up out of the race before the 2nd lap had been completed.
Ascari was out front, but closely followed by Manzon and Farina. Then, on the 2nd lap of the race, Manzon and Farina would collide and crash out of the race. Just like that, the 2nd and 3rd place starters were out of the race. It would only get worse for Equipe Gordini from that point on.
The entire third row, which consisted of Maurice Trintignant and Jean Behra, would be out of the race within 22 laps of each other. However, both suffered from rear axle problems. This was a problem that had plagued the T16 often throughout 1952.
Without Equipe Gordini, Ascari's main competition, at least from a team outside of his own, was gone. This allowed Ascari to set sail into the distance. All of these retirements amongst the front-runners also helped Claes to move up the order without having to push very hard.
With his good friend holding station in 2nd behind him, Ascari was free to take the victory. After three hours, Ascari would manage to complete 87 laps and would only have Villoresi anywhere close to him. Villoresi would finish down a lap in 2nd. However, Villoresi would earn the distinction of having turned the fastest lap of the race. The race's 3rd place finisher would be Louis Rosier in his own Ferrari 500. He would be well back of Ascari by the end. The margin between the two was four laps.
Claes would end up down eight laps to Ascari, but he would finish the race. He would manage to nurse the car throughout the course of the three-hour race and would finish the event in 8th place. He would be the last car actually classified as still running by the end of the race.
Even though he was sorely out-matched by the race winner, many others were as well. On top of everything, Claes needed to finish a race. He would not only manage to finish a race, he would end up inside the top-ten. This was a welcome reprieve for Ecurie Belge, which had suffered terribly throughout the course of the season.
Claes' good results with Equipe Gordini, and with his own team, over the course of the season enabled him to finish the French F2 Championship in a tie for 10th with 7 points. Alberto Ascari absolutely dominated the championship earning 43 points. Giuseppe Farina ended up 2nd having earned 22 points. Luigi Villoresi would make it a Ferrari clean sweep of the final championship podium in French F2 when he earned 17 points.
At the completion of the French F2 Championship, Johnny Claes was approached again by the American Robert O'Brien asking to use the T15 to take part in a race. Claes would agree. As a result, Ecurie Belge's T15 chassis, raced by Robert O'Brien, would take part in the 5th DMV Grenzlandringrennen on the 31st of August. As it often had for Claes and Frere, the car would break for O'Brien, thereby ruining any desire for a good result. Unfortunately, this meant Claes only had a couple of days to get the car repaired so he could take part in the final round of the World Championship.
In a change from the previous season, the Italian Grand Prix was the eighth, and final, round of the World Championship for 1952. As usual, the grand prix would take place around the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza and on the 7th of September.
Located in the Royal Villa of Monza, a park north of Monza, the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza was one of the first purpose-built race circuits in the world. Ultra-fast, drivers rarely touch any pedal other than the gas throughout the whole of a lap. It was the same in 1952.
The circuit consisted of a number of layouts and possibilities. In 1952, the course used was the 3.91 mile road course that did not include any portion of the banked oval. Considered the home of the 'Tifosi' the fans of Scuderia Ferrari, the first of these fans had special reason to celebrate when the World Championship arrived at Monza in 1952. Ascari had earned the team its first championship and did so in dominant fashion.
Energized by the Italian fans, Scuderia Ferrari would put on a show during practice. Ascari, not taking it easy, would set the fastest lap during practice and would take the pole, much to the delight of the Italian fans. Villoresi and Farina would further give the Italian fans something to cheer about when they managed to start 2nd and 3rd. Facing the challenge from Maserati, in its return to grand prix racing with its A6GCM, Ferrari would enter five cars in the final round. The other two cars were driven by Piero Taruffi and Andre Simon. Taruffi would start the race 6th. Simon would start 8th. This made it five Scuderia Ferrari 500s in the top-eight on the starting grid.
Given such a presence by Ferrari and Maserati, just qualifying for the race would be no easy task. This was made especially more difficult when the starting field was limited to 24 cars. Thiry-five entries had been turned in for the 24 starting positions. Therefore, Claes could not take it easy getting into the race in order to just focus on the race. He would have to race just to be able to race.
Unfortunately, the World Championship was not to end on a high point for Claes and Ecurie Belge. Claes struggled mightily during practice. He would end up being the slowest in practice and would; therefore, not even qualify for the race. He had travelled all that way to not even make it into the race.
In spite of a concerted effort by Jose Froilan Gonzalez to try and break up Ascari's streak in the World Championship, Ascari would end up taking the lead from Gonzalez and would pull away from the rest of the field.
Alberto would end up leading the last 44 of the 80 laps and would take the victory by more than a minute over Gonzalez. Gonzalez had fought valiantly to finish 2nd after his pit stop dropped him to 5th overall. Ascari would be joined on the podium by his good friend Luigi Villoresi. Villoresi, who had helped to get Ascari his ride with Ferrari, would finish over two minutes down in 3rd.
At the end of the World Championship season, Ecurie Belge had taken part in four rounds. Unfortunately for Claes and the team, there were no points-paying results earned at any one of the four rounds. The best result the team would earn at any of the rounds would 14th, which was earned at the British Grand Prix in July. This had made it three years the team had failed to score a point in the World Championship.
Although the World Championship season was over, Claes, and Ecurie Belge, would take part in just one more race in 1952. It would be back across the English Channel and all the way up near the hometown of a future World Champion.
In the early part of October, Johnny Claes travelled across the English Channel and up through to southern Scotland. His destination was Charterhall, near Duns in the Scottish Borders. Charterhall was a 1.99 mile circuit at Charterhall airfield. It served as the site of the 1st Newcastle Journal Trophy race on the 11th of October.
Located in the picturesque rolling hills of the Scottish Borders, Charterhall was surrounded by farming and beautiful countryside. Utilizing one of the runways as the main straight, the average speeds around the circuit pushed in excess of 80 mph. The race in 1952 was set to cover 40 laps for a total race distance of 80 miles.
Over the course of the season, Connaught's A-Type chassis and the Cooper-Bristol T20 had become strong competitors. The field at Charterhall was full of them. In fact, the only Gordini chassis in the field belonged to Claes.
Twenty-eight would start the race. As large as the field was for the race, Claes would have a difficult time moving forward without being consistent and remaining free of trouble. However, trouble would visit the entire field.
Out of the twenty-eight that would start the race, only seven would finish. An attrition rate being like it was Claes was definitely fighting an uphill battle after the season he had been experiencing.
Entrant-after-entrant would fall out of the running over the course of the 40 lap race. The attrition was terrible and it didn't matter who it was; all were flirting with it. Tony Gaze would turn in the fastest lap of the race, and then, would go on to retire from the race due to problems. Many other competitors would fall out of the event. Claes; However, would continue to press on, completing lap-after-lap. It seemed he would make it to the end of his last race of the season. But he wouldn't.
Only a few laps remained in the running of the race when Claes' T15 gave up on him. It had had a long and tiring season and it had decided it had had enough. Unfortunately, this would be how Claes and Ecurie Belge would finish the 1952 season.
Connaught A-Types would end up finishing in the top-three spots. Dennis Poore would win the race by more than thirty seconds over Kenneth McAlpine. Mike Oliver would finish in 3rd another five seconds further back.
In its third season of competing in the World Championship it was obvious Ecurie Belge's record was not getting any better. Claes was having more good fortune racing for other, bigger, teams than his very own. It was becoming clear that the 'stable of Belgium' was not producing too many good thoroughbreds throughout the last couple of years. To truly compete against the likes of Scuderia Ferrari, there would have to be a true stable of Belgium, one national team so to speak. It was just a matter of when that would happen. Ecurie Belge