TeamsRobert La Caze: 1958 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
Robert La Caze is one of those men that came and went in grand prix history. However, this lesser-known driver would be a very important figure in North Africa. In fact, were it not for his family, people and countries would find its much more difficult to come and go altogether.
Robert La Caze would be born in Paris toward the end of February in 1917 during the last couple of years of a very bloody First World War. La Caze, however, wouldn't be some urchin born of gypsy parents. Instead, La Caze's grandfather would be none other than French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man chiefly responsible for the impetus behind the Suez Canal.
Being that Morocco was a French colony, and, given the fact his grandfather was a diplomat and a regular in the Middle East, it would be of little surprise that La Caze would end up living most of his life in the North African country of Morocco. In fact, in many ways, La Caze was as much Moroccan as he was French.
Living near Morocco's largest city of Casablanca, La Caze was firmly aware of grand prix racing, which would be held at the Anfa Circuit just outside of Casablanca throughout the first half of the 1930s.
Being around such tough terrain and sandy conditions, Robert would turn his interests in motor sports toward rallying early on, and, after the Second World War, would take part in a number of rallies throughout North Africa.
He would be successful in rallying but he would also become the nation's skiing champion as well. Unfortunately for him, remaining in North Africa meant there were few opportunities to race in 'international' events. Therefore, he would have to take part in more local races, or, would have to look toward the Grand Prix of Agadir.
A grand prix would not return to Morocco after World War II until 1954. These first few events would actually be sportscar races and would take place in Agadir, another of Morocco's coastal cities.
Located more than 300 miles to the south of Casablanca, Agadir would still be quite a trip for La Caze, but it would be the sacrifice he would have to make in order to take part. Robert would make the sacrifice in 1956, but that would be it. However, events were beginning to take shape that would enable him to take his place in Formula One history.
The Royal Moroccan Car Club, which was chaired by Mohammed Elzizi, would have a very important and influential supporter. Raymond 'Toto' Roche was a well known figure within European motor racing circles. The Frenchman would work with Elzizi to get Formula One to come to Morocco.
Harkening back to the days of when Morocco first held grand prix racing, Casablanca would be seen as the choice location in which to host the premier racing series. Furthermore, the organizers would come across a new circuit to use that would serve as the home of the grand prix. Literally right beside the old Anfa Circuit, and, in fact, using a small portion of it, the new Ain-Diab Circuit would be born.
Measuring 4.72 miles in length, the Casablanca circuit at Ain-Diab was anything but docile. Literally within yards of the Atlantic Ocean, the circuit would often be swept up in blustery winds. This meant sand blew all over the circuit and made it very treacherous, especially when there was very little of the circuit that actually went straight for any distance. Constantly changing directions back and forth in a series of kinks, the circuit preyed upon those who would lose their focus. Quick, short elevation changes would unsettle cars and make it very difficult for drivers to ever feel relaxed.
The very first Moroccan Grand Prix would take place in 1957, but would be a non-championship affair. The race would merely set the stage for the actual championship race coming the following year. King Mohammed V would be on hand to inaugurate the circuit. Juan Manuel Fangio, the king of Formula One for five out of eight seasons would also be on hand. Robert La Caze, on the other hand, would not.
The non-championship race in '57 would be a rather limiting affair. Though it was a non-championship race, it was still mainly a Formula One event. Privateers could enter Formula 2 cars but there was really very little incentive without there being a separate Formula 2 race running concurrently, or separately. La Caze was a racer, but he certainly didn't have the money to buy his way into the race. But, there would be good news in 1958.
La Caze would not leave Morocco, even to take part in Formula 2 events throughout the European mainland. However, the organizers would make the decision that the Moroccan Grand Prix, to be held in October of '58, would include a Formula 2 race to run concurrently with the final round of the Formula One World Championship. This meant the unknown La Caze would have his opportunity to get his name in the Formula One history books.
The whole of the '58 season would pass by without Robert taking part in even a single Formula One or Formula 2 race. However, heading into the Moroccan Grand Prix on the 19th of October, the well-known local driver would find himself the recipient of an entry with the Cooper Car Company. Inexperienced in single-seater grand prix cars, at least throughout the European continent, Robert would be given a Cooper-Climax T45 for what was truly his home grand prix. The car had been driven before by a future famous name within Formula One—Ken Tyrrell.
Not surprisingly, the weather around Casablance in the middle of October would be fantastic. The temperatures would be warm and there would be plenty of sunshine as the teams began to unload their cars and prep them for practice around the 4.72 mile circuit.
While the temperatures would be quite warm, the battle for the Formula One Drivers' World Championship could not have been any hotter. Mike Hawthorn led the way, but Stirling Moss would be right there. If Moss could win the race and set fastest lap, all while Hawthorn finished 3rd or lower, the Vanwall driver would end up champion. All Hawthorn needed to do was ensure that he finished 2nd to beat Moss. With this in mind, the two combatants would take to the circuit to determine grid positions.
In spite of the constant twists and turns, the Ain-Diab circuit would be fast. This played into the hands of the Formula One cars obviously, but it also made it of paramount importance to keep one's momentum up for a fast lap time, this was especially the same in the 1.5-liter Formula 2 cars, like that which La Caze would be piloting.
Proving formidable all season long, the Ferrari Dino 246 would carry Hawthorn to the pole with a lap time of 2:23.1. Hawthorn would be on pole, but only just as Moss would be just a tenth slower in the Vanwall. This was what everyone hoped for, the two combatants starting out side-by-side. Stuart Lewis-Evans, who would complete the front row, could end up playing an important role in the race. Sadly, his effort would be much more tragic.
The fastest of the Formula 2 cars would be Jack Brabham in a Cooper T44. His best lap around the circuit would be 2:36.6 and would leave him on the eighth row of the grid in the 19th position overall. The ninth row of the grid would be all Formula 2 cars starting with Bruce McLaren lining up in 21st position. Tommy Bridger would be in the middle of the row while La Caze would impress as he started from the outside of the ninth row, 23rd overall. It would be an impressive performance by Robert in practice. His best lap of 2:43.1 would be just under two seconds slower than McLaren's best and six and a half second slower than that of Brabham.
Brilliant sunshine bore down upon the circuit leading up to the start of the 53 lap race. Great pomp would surround the build-up to the start and would culminate in the appearance of King Mohammed just before the start. More than 50,000 would be apparently on hand to witness the first Formula One World Championship round on the African continent.
At the drop of the flag, Hawthorn would get away poorly while Moss would spring to the front, chased by his teammate Lewis-Evans. By the time the cars made it through the first turn however, Moss would be in the lead, but, he would have a young Ferrari driver by the name of Phil Hill chasing him closely in 2nd place. Further back, La Caze would lose out a bit at the start but would still be in the running at the end of the first lap.
At the completion of the first lap it would be Moss in the lead, but he would be under heavy assault from Hill, who would be taking his role as teammate very seriously. Hill's intentions were clear. Pressing Moss at every turn, it was his intention to try and cause the Vanwall to break, thereby allowing Hawthorn to relax on his run toward the championship. However, Moss would repel Hill at every turn, and, would break free when Phil loss control of his Ferrari on the 3rd lap of the race. Hill's loss would be Hawthorn's gain. He would be up to 2nd place, right where he needed to be if Moss achieved all of his feats.
The front of the field would stabilize over the next few laps, even as Hill recovered and slid back into 2nd place in his pursuit of Moss. The rear of the field would also be rather stable with Seidel struggling in last place and La Caze cruising along in second-to-last. Robert would not be fighting for position with those ahead of him, but he was still going well despite his inexperience.
Though La Caze's pace wasn't exactly setting the Formula 2 field on fire, the race itself was coming to him. Nearly a dozen laps into the race, the first attrition victim, that of Maurice Trintignant, would make his exit. This would be followed by two others before the 20 lap mark. Then Tony Brooks would lose the engine in his Vanwall and it was likely some oil had been laid down as a result of the failure for Tommy Bridger and Olivier Gendebien would both suffer accidents that would take them out of the running. The result is that, by the midway point of the race, La Caze was running in 16th place, despite the fact he was running second-to-last overall.
Moss was doing everything right. He was in the lead and he was setting an absolutely blistering pace. His best lap was likely not to be touched as it would be better than Hawthorn's lap from practice. Moss' efforts would be cause for some alarm within Scuderia Ferrari and they would respond by indicating to Hill to give up 2nd place to Hawthorn, which the American would promptly do. It was the last push to the checkered flag, the only question that remained was who was going to break first. Sadly, it would be Lewis-Evans that would break, and it couldn't have been more tragic.
Familiar with the area, La Caze began to push in the final moments of the race. He had been gaining ground on Andre Guelfi in another Cooper T45 and was within striking distance of his position. Just as the French-Moroccan prepared to attempt a pass on Guelfi, Lewis-Evans' engine in the Vanwall would seize causing the car to be thrown off the track. Emerging from the wrecked car Lewis-Evans didn't appear to be injured except for the fact he was alit from the burning fuel. Through his own efforts he would put out the flames, but he would be badly burned. He would be taken straight to the airport and would be flown to London, where he would die some six days later. It would be the third major death of the season and would be a dark cloud that would hang over the conclusion of the race. Though he would not die for a few more days it seemed as though everyone knew he would not make it.
La Caze would make the pass on Guelfi and would be the beneficiary of Lewis-Evans' tragic accident. Within the Formula 2 ranks, a podium finish was in order for Robert if he could hang on through the final few laps of the race.
At the front, Moss was hanging on for dear life and praying hard the Ferrari following would suffer ill. However, between the two, it was likely the Vanwall that was going to retire, especially given how hard Moss had pushed it over the course of the race.
It would be a dominant performance by Moss in the Vanwall. He would take the victory by nearly a minute and 25 seconds, but it wouldn't be enough. Trailed by Hill less than a second behind, Hawthorn had been in command nearly the entire race. He would finish right where he needed to. The 2nd place and the 6 points that came with it gave him the championship by a single point.
The first of the Formula 2 finishers would be Jack Brabham. Finishing four laps behind and 11th in the overall standings, Brabham would take the victory by a lap over Bruce McLaren. Robert would be most impressive in his one and only effort. Staying on the same lap as McLaren, La Caze would finish 14th overall and 3rd within Formula 2! The man that had made Morocco his home for the majority of his life had done the nation proud with his effort.
Though his first appearance in a Formula One World Championship race would go extremely well it would be Robert's one and only effort. Following the death of Lewis-Evans the Moroccan Grand Prix would be no more. La Caze had not left his adopted nation before and would not start. Putting his racing aspirations aside, he would run a garage in Marrakech. In addition to the garage, Robert would start a youth sports association within the city.
Unlike many of his peers from the period, La Caze remains alive, though in poor health. It would be remarkable that the oldest living grand prix driver would be one of a handful that would have one of the shortest careers. Nonetheless, La Caze remains an interesting character within Formula One history.