TeamsEcurie Belgique: 1951 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
It is important to remain open to new things in life; not to be so set in one direction that turns in the road are missed. Such is the lesson to be learned from the team Ecurie Belgique. Had its founder continued in the direction in life he had been going the team would have never come into existence. Jacques Swaters abandoned the track he was heading down and began a wholly new and exciting career in auto racing. In the end, Swaters' choice to switch careers brought about an impact he may otherwise not have had.
In the late '40s, Jacques had been studying law when he would meet a man he would become friends with by the name of Paul Frere. Frere was a racing driver that extended his reach into journalism. Soon, the two became good friends and started talking about establishing a race team together. Then, in 1948, another friend, by the name of Charles de Tornaco, bought an MG to compete in the 24 Hours of SpA. Charles lent the car to Paul and Jacques to drive. Surprisingly, the pairing was able to go on to a 4th place finish. From that moment on, Swaters was hooked on racing, and especially, Ferraris (he had plenty of opportunities to see them go by him as he was piloting the MG during the race).
Immediately after the 24 hour race, Jacques established the racing team Ecurie Belgique. Almost immediately, Paul Frere and other good friends, Andre Pilette and Roger Laurent, came on board with the team. The group then went out in 1950 and purchased a Talbot-Lago T26C to take part in some grand prix races. Out of pure love for the sport, the men of Ecurie Belgique had an interesting way of approaching the question of who would drive the single-seater Talbot-Lago chassis the team owned. In essence, they would all throw their names into a hat before the upcoming race, and whosever's name was picked would end up being the driver.
Coming into their first season in grand prix racing and Formula One, Ecurie Belgique would need to be more prepared than just leaving elements to chance and simple election. The team would get some help at the beginning; however, as experienced racer Guy Mairesse was signed on to race in the team's first event of the '51 grand prix season.
Belgique's first foray into grand prix racing came rather early on in the season at the Grand Prix of San Remo. The grand prix took place toward the end of April, in Ospedaletti, Italy, on a 2.0 mile road course near the town. The total race distance was rather long at 90 laps, or, a total of 187 miles.
Guy struggled in qualifying and was only able to set the 17th fastest time. Ferrari teammates Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi occupied the first-two spots on the grid. Even though he struggled in qualifying, Mairesse would have 90 laps to try and come to grips with the car in order to finish with a good result. Mairesse would take advantage of the time and equipment given him so as to give himself the best chances.
Guy's race was aided by high attrition amongst some of the top qualifiers. Mairesse drove a steady, consistent race. He would end up many laps down by the end, but, he was still running. Because he kept his car out of trouble, Guy was able to climb up through the field to finish the race 6th. This was a wonderful result considering the fact he started 17th. It was also a good result for Ecurie Belgique's first grand prix.
The team's next race was the first Formula One race it would ever enter. Not surprisingly, the race was the Belgian Grand Prix. The randomly chosen driver who would have the honor of racing on the 8.77 mile Spa-Francorchamps circuit was Andre Pilette. Spa was familiar territory with everybody on the team. It was the place that actually inspired the birth of the team. And so, it would have been something special if the team could have pulled out a good result before their home crowd. Andre would do his best not to let them down.
The old road course at Spa was long and fast; not ideal for the Talbot-Lago T26C (see Talbot-Lago T26C article). The deficiencies were apparent right away during qualifying. Fangio's pole time was 4:25. Pilette couldn't come anywhere near the time and would have to settle for starting 12th on the grid. However, the race that year was a long one. In total, the race winner would end up covering over 315 miles during the 36 laps. Therefore, Andre had time to get into a rhythm.
The weather on the day of the race would only help Andre get comfortable as it was a sunny and warm day. Despite starting almost dead-last, Andre's pace during the race was very respectable. The Alfas and Ferraris were gone in the distance, except when they came back around to put another lap on Pilette, but Andre was running a good race on his own. With the help of some key retirements and steady driving, the Belgian came forward.
Although he was over three laps down at the end of the race, Pilette had missed the last points-paying position by only one spot. Andre finished the race 6th. He had just missed out on two points. This was an impressive result for the team considering it was only the team's second grand prix race ever. Add to all of it the fact it was a Formula One championship event, and the result was even more impressive. The team left without having scored any points. It left, however, almost as victors.
Ecurie Belgique was present for the next Formula One grand prix, the European Grand Prix. The European Grand Prix, in 1951, was held in Reims, France on the very fast public roads extending between Reims and Gueux.
The Belgique team didn't arrive with its yellow-painted Talbot-Lago. Instead, Guy Mairesse brought his own Talbot and drove for Ecurie Belgique. He should have had the team bring their own car during qualifying in order to find out whether or not he could have done better than his 19th starting spot on the grid. The starting spot, however, was of least concern the day of the race. The air temperatures were high that day and that meant the 4.85 mile public road course was obviously going to be punishing on cars and drivers. Engine overheating was to be of more concern for Mairesse than where he started the race. This fact was obviously on his mind. Only 11 of the 23 starters would still be running at the end of the race.
During the race, a car for each Alfa Romeo and Ferrari failed. If Mairesse's car failed, that would spell the end of Ecurie Belgique's day. The team had no extra car it could utilize. Guy kept this in mind as he completed lap-after-lap. He needed to be consistent and not be foolish. If he did, he would give himself a fighting chance of finishing and, perhaps, have a good result. Fangio and Gonzalez dominated the field. They would finish the 77 lap race with a three lap lead over everybody but themselves. Fangio, sharing Fagioli's car, would end up winning the race in about three and a half hours. Mairesse was able to hold onto his car to come all the way from 19th up to 9th by the end of the race, although it was some 11 laps down to Fangio.
Two Formula One races, and two good results. Even if the team didn't have any points to show for themselves, it was still impressive how the team was able to perform despite being brand-new.
On the 22nd of July, Ecurie Belgique travelled to Zandvoort, Netherlands for its next race, the Grand Prix of the Netherlands. Coming into the Netherlands Grand Prix at Zandvoort, the driver to be providentially chosen from amongst the gentleman's club was Andre Pilette, yet again. Andre would have a rather long race on his hands. Totaling 90 laps of the 2.6 mile road course, the race was 234 miles long. The Formula One championship challengers did not show for the race, but a number of smaller single, or, double car teams did enter the race. Considering the race took place in the Netherlands, it wasn't too surprising the team decided to compete in the race. The distance to get to the race wasn't that far, and, it provided a good opportunity for a good result with Alfa and Ferrari absent.
It seemed things were looking really good for the team to score a splendid result, perhaps top-five, or better, even. Qualifying confirmed the apparent sense when Pilette was able to guide his T26C to a 3rd place starting spot on the grid. A total of only 12 drivers qualified for the race. The competition would be tight even without Ferrari or Alfa. Though the competition was tight, attrition was the more formidable foe. With only 12 cars starting the race, even just two mechanical failures or mistakes would dramatically reduce the number of the field. By the end of the race, it seemed only a couple of cars were still out there on the track. Only a few actually were. By the end of the race, only five cars were still running.
Andre's race was going rather well right from the beginning. He kept himself, and the car, out of trouble throughout the majority of the race. It seemed he was, for sure, in route for a top-five finish, that is, until lap 84. Whether he merely made a mistake, or, was trying to push a little too hard, no matter what the cause was, the result was that on lap 84 Pilette had an accident, which brought his day to an end. Though a few laps down to eventual race winner Louis Rosier, Pilette's crash happened with only 6 laps left in the race. A shameful ending to what was looking to be a very good day. The attrition rate was such though that Andre was still listed in the 7th spot at the end of the race.
Although the race was rather disappointing, given the fact a top-five finish was within grasp, it was still encouraging to the team to know that its car was capable of such a good result. The team's results, even with this did not finish (DNF), were encouraging. The team of gentlemen undoubtedly hoped it would continue. The last thing these men wanted to see happen was that this DNF kicked off a string of DNFs.
The next race in which the team would find out whether their fears would come to fruition or not would be in one week and just a little further east. The team packed up and headed to Nurburg, and the famous Nordschleife, for the German Grand Prix.
To even the passing racing enthusiast, to drive the famous, and infamous, 14 mile long Nordschleife was something desired and dreaded at the same time. Just one lap of the track was physically and psychologically draining. The concentration levels had to remain high just to complete a single lap. It was psychologically draining to endure such physical strain for so long and have done so only to complete a single lap. Well, providence had it be that the founder of the team, Jacques Swaters, would have the honor of enduring such physical and mental demands. Not only did Swaters have the honor of driving on such a historic road course, but he did so while driving in an official Formula One race. Both of these were firsts for Jacques in grand prix racing.
Perhaps he was so overcome by the emotion of the event, or, the track beat him up more than he expected? Whatever the cause was, Jacques had a truly poor qualifying performance. Though he would not start last, he would start right next to it. Jacques best time would only be good enough to start him from 22nd on the grid. Facing 20 laps of the circuit was hard enough. Doing so from the rear of the field could have been even more difficult. The only real option Swaters had in preparation for the race was to stay calm and stay out of trouble. He needed to let the race come to him.
As Ascari, Gonzalez and Fangio led the field away, it was important for Swaters to get into a flow and a rhythm right away. And he did. Jacques didn't set the track on fire or anything, but he drove consistently and, more importantly, he stayed out of trouble. Battling the presence of four Alfas and four Ferraris for the five points-paying positions was almost an impossible task. Plus, there were many other drivers at the race besides the eight split up amongst Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Considering where Jacques started the race, to make it to the end and, possibly, have a top-ten finish were attainable goals in which to strive. The in-experienced Belgian would achieve both.
While Ascari cruised home to 20+ second victory, Swaters cruised home in the 10th spot. He was the second-to-last car still running at the end of the race. He had endured the twists and turns of the Nordschleife and, for all intents and purposes, had won his race. The team had returned to their ways of surprising finishes and seemed to have averted disaster coming and knocking at their door.
One of the last races Ecurie Belgique would compete in 1951 was the l'Albi Grand Prix. On August 5th, it was Roger Laurent's turn behind the wheel of the T26C. He would take his spin on the Circuit des Planques in Albi, France. Though, not by any means as long as the Nordschleife, the circuit des Planques was still a long road course. The course's length was 5.5 miles. Being another triangular shaped course made up of public roads meant the average speeds would remain high. It was very much a series of long, long straights interrupted by tight hairpin turns.
Fifteen drivers would qualify for the race. Laurent's qualifying effort wasn't exactly stellar when considering Louis Rosier was able to start the race 2nd in another T26C. Roger's best lap was only good enough to be able to start the race from the 11th spot on the grid. His time was 24+ seconds slower than pole-sitter Maurice Trintignant and his Simca-Gordini T15. The one thing Laurent did have going for him was his starting position, strangely enough. The grid was arranged in a 3-2-3 configuration for the race. This meant Laurent's 11th was on the inside of the 5th row. He would be on the inside going to the first turn.
As the race got going, Trintignant and Rosier disappeared into the distance. By the end of the 34 laps, only Rosier, in 2nd place, remained on the lead lap. Trintignant roared to victory with a margin over Rosier of almost 2 minutes. Roger took advantage of the attrition that befell some of those who qualified in front of himself. Though he would be lapped three times by the race winner, Roger drove a consistent and smart race to finish 7th. This was yet another top-ten result for the team on the year.
Only one more race would end up on Ecurie Belgique's calendar, and it would be the second-to-last round of the Formula One drivers' championship in Monza, Italy. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza had always been a very popular race. Greater numbers of entrants would come to enter the Monza race than almost any other. But just as it had been a popular venue to race at, attrition had been the most common experience anyone had at the race. The speed, the heat, the distance, they all played a part in the destruction of many race cars throughout its racing history.
Jacques' name was pulled out of the hat again. And so, he had the honor of competing on another historic, and infamous, track.
Trouble was looming for Swaters right away. He could not get his Talbot-Lago to perform to the level of even some of the other teams using T26Cs. Very simply, the T26C was outclassed at Monza. Each team using one struggled. However, Jacques couldn't get it to give him even one lap during qualifying to get him out of the tail-end of the field. The best lap Swaters could get was good enough to start second-to-last in 22nd. He would end up getting a bit of help before the race, and, would actually start the race from 21st. Ken Richardson qualified for the race in 10th in one of BRM's P15s. However, before the start of the race it was discovered he had the wrong license and was prohibited to drive in the race. This meant those who qualified behind him got to move up one spot on the grid.
It was a sunny and hot day when the race started. This was going to add even more torture on the equipment. The wear-and-tear of the whole season, combined with the elements that are usually part of the race at Monza, began to reveal themselves from the very start. Three cars were out of the race after having completed just one lap. Chico Landi's Ferrari came to a halt with transmission problems. Immediately after Landi, Whitehead's race came to explode in his face when his Ferrari's engine let go. This was followed by compressor problems on de Graffenried's Alfa Romeo 159's supercharger. Nobody was immune. Out of the 23 cars that qualified for the race, six of them were out of the running before even the second lap of the scheduled 80. Four more cars and drivers would be out of the race before reaching even 10 laps. Unfortunately, Swaters was one of them.
The pace of the race, the heat and wear-and-tear of the season all began to take its toll on Ecurie Belgique's one chassis. After about 6 laps into the race, the 4.5 liter, inline 6-cylinder engine began to overheat. Then, on lap 7, the overheating became too much of a problem to continue on. The overheating caused Swaters to have to withdraw from the race for only the second time in the team's season.
The engine problems created an interesting dynamic for the team. The last championship race was in a month. It would have taken them a lot of time to get the engine fixed and fully ready for the last race of the season in Spain. Given this reality, the team decided not to travel to Spain at the end of October to take part in the race. Ecurie Belgique's debut season in Formula One was over. Despite being over and done, the team had put together some impressive performances. The team didn't score any world championship points, but it came very close.
A few times throughout history events had been determined by casting lots or the flip of a coin. Jonah was found out to be the cause of the storm, right before being swallowed by a whale. A flip of a coin determined Orville Wright would be at the controls of the first powered flight. But, rarely had any such practice been used to determine who would drive a grand prix car each and every race. Usually, the plan is to look for and employ experienced drivers to drive one car throughout the whole of the season to maximize a team's chances for good results. Of course, the previously mentioned events were left to providence and proved to be rather historic. Perhaps the Ecurie Belgique gentlemen's club was on to something. Although results were mixed, the fact the team finished close to the points showed a hand of providence upon them that more 'official' teams only longed after. This apparent blessing would remain on members of the team right up to present day. Oh, how important it is to be led by providence. Ecurie Belgique