Page 1From the smooth jazz sound to the epic roar of grand prix racing engines, Octave John 'Johnny' Claes' move from his early career as a jazz musician to a motor racing driver appeared about as far on opposite ends as one could get from each other. However, spending a majority of his time in England while being a jazz trumpeter and bandleader led Claes to fall in love with motor racing. As with music, there was a sense of pace and of rhythm to motor racing that attracted Claes and led him to abandon his music career, and instead, take up a music instrument of a different sort—the wailing banshee of a grand prix car. If the decision to stop playing music and go and race seemed directly opposed then his lineage would help to clear up the apparent dichotomy. Claes was about as mixed as could be. Like mixing scotch and ale, Claes was the son of a Scottish mother, but his father was Belgian. And while he would spends years in England playing with such musicians as Max Jones, Billy Mason, Valaida Snow and others, Claes was never one to forget his paternal heritage and would come to race after the end of World War II under the Ecurie Belge name. Under the Ecurie Belge banner, Claes would be present at the first round of the inaugural season of the Formula One World Championship. And in 1953, Claes and Ecurie Belge would again be present to take part in the final season for the World Championship conforming to Formula 2 regulations. Seeing that things were about to change the following year, Claes needed a competitive car but was well aware that the regulations the following season would change, and therefore, would cause many of the Formula 2 cars to become uncompetitive and obsolete almost overnight. Claes had been with Equipe Gordini throughout much of the 1952. And while the new Gordini T16 appeared promising, its rear axle problems, and other ailments, would cause its reliability to become suspect. Unfortunately, there were few other cars that could promise to offer any kind of performance near that of the Ferrari 500 and the resurgent Maserati and its A6GCM. The decision would be tough.Claes had been at Chimay, Belgium in 1952 and had seen Ken Downing finish 2nd in a Connaught A-Type after leading most of the race and only being surprisingly past at the very end for the victory. This performance, as well as others later on in the season, would lead the Belgian to go British and he would end up garnering one to use for the 1953 season. The 1953 season would actually start rather early and it wouldn't be with one of the normal non-championship races that set the stage for the coming spring season. No, the first race of the new year would be a World Championship race, the Argentine Grand Prix. This race would take place in mid-January and would represent the first time in which the World Championship would truly go global. While the Indianapolis 500 counted toward the World Championship, the Argentine Grand Prix would be the first time in which the majority of the major players in the championship would head away from Europe to go compete in a race.While the World Championship season would start early, Claes' season wouldn't actually start for another few months. Instead of heading to Argentina, Claes would stay put in Europe and would wait until early April to take part in his first race.Unlike the grand prix season, Claes' season would start out with one of the many non-championship grand prix. Ecurie Belge would make its way to southwestern France in order to take part in the 14th Grand Prix de Pau on the 6th of April.While the French Formula 2 Championship would not run during the 1953 season, the Grand Prix de Pau would represent a throwback to that championship. Instead of a certain number of laps, the race would be a three-hour timed event taking place on the 1.75 mile tight street circuit.Dominated by the Chateau de Pau, a large castle in the center of the city, Pau had been a place of sanctuary throughout its history. The birthplace of Henry IV of France and a place that Marie Antoinette spent her summers, Pau had remained something of a playground and haven for the wealthy and influential.Straddling the Gave de Pau, and with the Pyrenees looming large on the horizon, the city has something of an exotic location. And while the city rests on the side of a hill and causes its streets to be tight and twisty, it would become a popular site for exotic motor racing cars.The three-hour race would present Ecurie Belge its first opportunity to take on the might of Scuderia Ferrari. The field would also include Claes' old Equipe Gordini team.Despite racing on some very tight and twisty streets the Ferrari 500 would prove more than capable in the hands of Ferrari's drivers as they would go on to sweep the three-wide front row. Ascari would be on pole after setting a time of one minute and thirty-nine seconds. Only one-tenth of a second would separate Ascari and Farina in 2nd place. Only a second would then separate Hawthorn in 3rd place and Ascari.Claes would end up a little more than five seconds slower around the circuit and would start the race in his Connaught from the third row of the grid in 8th place overall.
Page 2The race would see Ascari jump out to a lead with the rest of the Ferrari drivers taking up the chase. Claes would make it through the first couple of laps without incident, which was more than could be said for Equipe Gordini's Jean Behra. Despite the slow nature of the circuit, the tight and twisty nature of the circuit made mistakes unforgiving. Behra would find this out. After completing 6 laps, Behra would make a mistake and would end up being penalized for the small mistake by crashing heavily enough to end his race, and after just ten and a half minutes of racing. It seemed hard to believe that the slow nature of the circuit, especially with its numerous tight hairpin turns could make mistakes so easy to come by but even Giuseppe Farina would throw away his day after 33 laps for making a mistake and crashing out of the event.While Ascari continued to lead with Hawthorn falling further and further behind, Claes continued to run well in his Connaught. He had been running smartly and carefully and was looking good. Unfortunately, it would all unravel just a short ways past halfway in the race.Claes had been running well. He was circulating the circuit without incident and seemed on course for a good result. However, after completing his 65th lap, Claes would suffer a spin. Unfortunately, the engine would stall and the race would come to an end as a result.While Claes would throw away what seemed quite certain to be a strong result, Ascari would do anything but throw his race away. In fact, the only thing he would throw away would be the competition. Over the course of the race, Ascari would turn in the fastest lap of the race with a time faster than his qualifying effort and would end up lapping the entire field before it would be over.Averaging about 60 mph, Ascari would complete 106 laps in the three hours and would finish up by a lap over Hawthorn in 2nd place. Harry Schell would manage to bring home the only remaining Equipe Gordini T16 in 3rd.Claes seemed destined to bring home a grand resuls. It would end up being that Claes would only leave with a retirement. In spite of the bitter disappointment, the Ecurie Belge team would pack up and would head home. It would be almost another month before the team's next race.In early may the Ecurie Belge team would again be in southwestern France. This time the destination was the wine capital Bordeaux. On the 3rd of May the city streets of Bordeaux would host the 3rd Grand Prix de Bordeaux. It would be a 120 lap affair around the 1.52 mile Bordeaux-Quinconces circuit.The Quinconces circuit received its name for the Place des Quinconces, a large city square at the heart of the circuit and the city. A constant site of upheaval and warfare, Bordeaux would have the large square built and dotted with many splendid works of art representing the city's involvement in such dark moments in the country's history as the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and the German occupation during World War II.The circuit itself ran along the Quai Louis XVIII, which followed along on the banks of the Garonne River. In 1953, the circuit would run clockwise along the river and then would, in essence, double-back on itself before heading out and round the Place des Quinconces. The nature of the circuit made it a slow circuit, but it still wouldn't take very long for the cars to complete a mile and a half; something that would be proven during qualifying. Luigi Villoresi would end up clipping his teammate and friend Ascari by just one-tenth of a second to take the pole. Maurice Trintignant would give the French crowd something to celebrate as he would manage to beat out Giuseppe Farina by the smallest of margins to take the 3rd, and final, spot on the front row in his Gordini T16.Claes would struggle mightily in his Connaught around the circuit. The best he could do with the 2.0-liter six-cylinder Bristol engine was to set a time of one minute and thirty-four seconds. This time would be more than eleven seconds slower than Villoresi and would garner a 16th place starting spot on the grid. All of his competition would be in front of him as he would start the race dead-last all by himself on the seventh row.The field would make it through the first few laps without incident. Ascari would take over the lead while Villoresi and Trintignant gave chase. Juan Manuel Fangio would make a great start and would be right up there with the leaders throughout the early going of the race. Claes early concern was staying out of trouble and letting the race come to him. Soon, it would.The field continued to circulate without incident through the first 20 laps. While it seemed possible the field would go on without a problem, everyone knew that was very wishful thinking. Sure enough the first couple of retirements would hit the field. Peter Whitehead and Yves Giraud-Cabantous would both exit the race with clutch-related issues.Giuseppe Farina was pushing the lead group hard. He would turn in what would end up being the fastest lap of the race. But it would end up taking too much out of his Ferrari. Just 57 laps into his race, the gear selector would fail and would cause him to drop out.
Page 3The troubles kept coming for many of those running near the front. Trintignant, Rosier and de Graffenried would all end up out of the race, along with a few others that had started on the grid ahead of Claes. What these retirements meant was that Claes was moving up without having to really battle. But he would do that too.Claes' pace, while nothing compared to those at the very front, would still be rather impressive. He would manage to leave Prince Bira and Roberto Mieres behind. These were all small accomplishments but were nevertheless important for his march up the running order.Over the course of the 120 lap race Ascari absolutely came to dominate the proceedings. He would eventually leave behind Villoresi. And he would blow away perhaps his biggest rival, Juan Manuel Fangio. Ascari would go on to finish the race just a half of a second shy of two hours and fifty-nine minutes. Luigi Villoresi would end up finishing nearly fifty seconds behind in 2nd place. The real surprise was the gap Ascari pulled out over Fangio. At the end the gap would be more than four laps!At Pau, Claes had an opportunity for a good result in his hand but threw it away when he spun and stalled. However, Claes would start Bordeaux dead-last and would end up holding on to earn a truly impressive result. Although he would be a little more than eight laps behind by the end he would still manage to finish 6th. This would be a tremendous result for the team considering where they had started the day. Undoubtedly things looked rather bleak at the start, but it would all work out to the team's benefit in the end and it was a good thing too as the team packed up and headed toward France's northern coast.The Ecurie Belge team would travel across the 'Channel' to a place Claes had spent a number of years. Only one week after the Bordeaux Grand Prix, Ecurie Belge found itself in Silverstone, England preparing for what was the 5th BRDC International Trophy race. Taking place on the 9th of May in 1953, the International Trophy race consisted of two heat races and a final and would feature some of the best talent the British Isles and that Europe had to offer.Besides being home to Claes for a number of years while the bandleader of his Clay Pigeons, the team's Connaught was certain a British made car, and therefore, offered Claes, and the team, coming to Silverstone. The small village of Silverstone first makes its appearance during the Middle Ages when it was primarily an area of timber trade. However, the rolling countryside would come to play and even more vital role during the 20th century when a Royal Air Force bomber base would be built and become known as RAF Silverstone. Of course, little did anyone really know the place Silverstone would come to play in England's motor racing scene. In 1948, Silverstone would come to enter perhaps its most prominent role in English history when the abandoned bomber base would be purchased by the Royal Automobile Club. That same year, the former airbase would come to host the first British Grand Prix since after the end of the war. Then, the following year, the circuit, now using the 2.88 miles of perimeter road, would come to host the first BRDC International Trophy race.As hinted to, the BRDC International Trophy race followed the format of having two 15 laps heats whereby the entire field would be split up, and then, a 35 lap final. During this final, competitors from both heats race against each other to determine the other.Claes would be listed in the first heat. His 15 lap heat would see Stirling Moss, Emmanuel de Graffenried, Tony Rolt and others all taking the start from on the grid. Baron de Graffenried had the pole and certainly would be counted on to be in their fighting for the overall win. However, the Swiss Baron would be joined on the front row by a much of British drivers including Bob Gerard in 2nd, Tony Rolt in 3rd and Kenneth McAlpine in 4th.Claes, although six seconds slower than de Graffenried, would enjoy one of the best starting spots of the season so far when he managed to put his Connaught on the grid in 7th place, which was on the second row of the grid right behind Rolt and McAlpine.The start of the race would see Gerard get a head start on the rest of the field, for which he would later be penalized some 60 seconds and would drop down in the results because of it. De Graffenried would make a good start and would hold the lead but would find a Stirling Moss, who came from nowhere, to be right behind him almost from the very first moments of the heat.While Moss and de Graffenried would become locked in a tight duel, Claes would make a not so great start and would only continue to slip backward as the heat rolled on. In spite of putting together one strong performance in practice, it would be his competitors that would show their strength during the heat. Prince Bira, Louis Rosier, Duncan Hamilton, Jacques Swaters, Eric Brandon and James Scott-Douglas would all manage to get by before the end of the heat.
Page 4The battle between Moss and de Graffenried would be rather tight. Each would set the same fastest lap time of the heat. However, it would be de Graffenried that would cross the line in 1st. Averaging about 90 mph, it would take de Graffenried just twenty-eight minutes and fifty-nine seconds to complete the 15 laps. He would end up holding off Moss by some five seconds. Prince Bira would come from 6th place to finish twenty-two seconds down in 3rd place.Claes had a rather terrible heat. In spite of setting a qualifying time just six seconds slower than de Graffenried, he would find his pace during the race absolutely mundane and it would lead to him giving up at least five places and coming in a lap down in 12th place.The second heat included such big names as Mike Hawthorn, Ken Wharton, Roy Salvadori and Maurice Trintignant. Mike Hawthorn was in his first year with Scuderia Ferrari, and yet, arrived at the race all by himself.In practice, it would be Wharton that would take the pole. His best time would be a little less than a second faster than Hawthorn starting on the front row in 2nd. The old 'Silver Arrows' pilot Louis Chiron would surprise many as he would start 3rd. Maurice Trintignant would round-out the front row in 4th.As the second heat race roared away, immediately a battle commenced between the first two in the field. Hawthorn and Wharton were at each other's throats battling for the lead and the victory in the second heat. Behind them, Roy Salvadori would make a good start from the second row and would be soon heading up the chase of the Wharton and Hawthorn that saw the pace of the race increase and increase.Hawthorn was intent on taking the victory. He would use a fastest lap time of one minute and fifty-one seconds, nearly two seconds faster than his own qualifying effort, to help his cause. After just twenty-eight minutes and twenty-three seconds, Hawthorn would cross the line to take the victory. He would only beat Wharton by around a second. However, the two men would enjoy a fifty second lead over Salvadori in 3rd place.Both heat races had finished. It was time to set the grid for the 35 lap final. The starting grid for the final would be determined by finishing time. Therefore, the torrid pace of Hawthorn and Wharton would earn them the first two positions on the front row. Baron de Graffenried and Stirling Moss would make up the remainder of the four-wide front row. Claes' abysmal appearance in the first heat would net him a starting position on the seventh row in 22nd place overall.Those in the first heat were well aware of the pace set by Hawthorn and Wharton in the second. Therefore, to throttle the pace, it would be important to get out in front early and frustrate the rest of the front-runners. This would be de Graffenried's plan, and it would work, but only for a little while.Baron de Graffenried and Hawthorn were out fast. Fighting to hold off Hawthorn, de Graffenried would turn in the fastest lap of the race quite early on. Roy Salvadori would again make a great start and would right up there with the front-runners.The pace would end up being too much for Stirling Moss and some others. Despite hanging around up near the front early on, Moss would begin to slip down the order and would even come under threat of going a lap down before the race would be over.Given the first heat experience, Claes knew he just didn't quite have the pace of the front-runners. Of course saving his car just to get to the final was of greatest importance to him. As a result, once in the final, he would let go a little bit and would certainly look a bit better. Not only would he manage to take the fight to a couple of those that started the final ahead of him on the grid, but his progress forward would be helped by the retirements of some of the better drivers. In fact, before the race would be over, six entries would retire from the race. Drivers like Trintignant and Chiron had all started further up on the grid, and therefore, were big opportunities to Claes.Claes would get some more help about halfway through the race. The advantage de Graffenried had managed to gain at the start had already evaporated. However, after 16 laps it would disappear from all existence. The stewards would decide that he had jumped the start of the race. Knowing there was no chance, de Graffenried would just go ahead and withdraw from the race. This helped Claes move up and Hawthorn to check out.Matching de Graffenried's best lap time, Hawthorn managed to pull out a lead over the rest of the field. After one hour, six minutes and thirty-six seconds Hawthorn would cross the line to take the victory ahead of Salvadori by some twelve seconds. Tony Rolt would end up coming from 8th place at the start to finish in 3rd around a minute and forty-five seconds behind.Claes certainly looked better in the final. Having made it to the final he knew he could push the Connaught a little bit. Helped by the attrition, Claes pace would help him to not only make it to the finish but to finish 15th, just two laps down. While not as great as some of the results he had managed to earn in the past, the result was still rather good considering what his heat race had been like.
Page 5After one race in one of his homes, Claes and Ecurie Belge would be on their way to take part in another race in their other home.Ecurie Belge would have a couple of weeks to pack everything up and make its way back across the channel. The latest destination would be one of the Low Countries. In fact, it would be Claes' and the team's native Belgium. They were on their way to take part in what was the 23rd Grand Prix des Frontieres and it took place on the 24th of May at the famous rural circuit known as Chimay.Named for the small town located just to the southeast, Chimay happened to be just one of a great many circuits that took place on public roads traversing the European countryside. A technically demanding circuit with just about everything thrown in, Chimay also required one other very important element which was absolutely necessary in order to go fast—courage. Featuring such elements as the hairpin turn at La Bouchere; the fast sweeping esses of Spikins, Vidal and Chapelle de l'Arbrsseau and the long fast straight of Ligne Droite de Salles, the Chimay circuit presented drivers with just about everything. And at 6.75 miles in length, the circuit offered plenty of opportunities for drivers to get things wrong or to be absolutely heroic.One year ago, Claes had been prepared to start the Grand Prix des Frontieres from the pole in a Gordini T15. Unfortunately, a coming together with Roger Laurent's Ferrari 500 would bring an end to any lofty goals even before the first lap had come to be completed. One year later, Claes would be back looking for retribution.Qualifying would end up rather similar to the previous season. Claes would turn in the best performance of the season to that point as he would end up starting the race from the front row. His time of four minutes and fifteen seconds wouldn't be good enough for the pole, however. That honor would go to Maurice Trintignant driving for the team Claes had been with the previous season. Laurent, the one in whom Claes had the run-in the previous season would end up starting right behind Claes on the second row in 4th.The start of the race would see Claes actually make it through without incident, but that wouldn't be the case for all of the entries. Three entries, including Rodney Nuckey, Jacques Pollet and Georges Mulnard, would all fall out before the end of the first lap. Two more would end up falling out before three laps had been over and done with.Claes continued to be in the running throughout the 20 lap race. However, Claes wouldn't look as good as Maurice Trintignant, who would go on to set the fastest lap of the race and pull out an advantage on the rest of the field.Trintignant's pace would end up being a killer for the field. Mechanical problem after mechanical problem would come to strike the field. Even to the very end, mechanical woes continued to reduce the field. The attrition rate would be such that by the time the race was over only five would still be actually running out on the circuit.Trintignant continued to keep the pressure on the rest of the field. Consistent fast laps would cause him to enjoy a good size advantage coming down to the last lap of the race. While Claes had managed to make it through the beginning of the race it would end up being that he again wouldn't have the joy of looking to the finish. Just three laps from the end of the race he would make a mistake once again and would crash out of the event. It was a truly bitter disappointment being in front of his home crowd.It wasn't as though he would have been fighting for the victory, however. There was no way Trintignant was going to part with that prize unless he had a mechanical problem. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, he would be one of the few that wouldn't.Taking just an hour and twenty-six minutes, and averaging a little less than 94 mph, Trintignant would go on to take the win by more than a minute and ten seconds over Roger Laurent in his Ferrari 500. Fred Wacker would bring a second Gordini T16 home in 3rd place. Wacker would end up a little less than two minutes and thirty seconds behind at the finish but at least would be the last car still on the lead lap.As with the year before, so much promise would go to waste. In fact, the only race that had really gone well for Ecurie Belge and Claes to that point in the 1953 season had been the one in which he started dead-last. For his next race, Claes would need the qualifying and the race to come together if he even wanted to have a shot.
Page 6Just one week after another disappointing result, Ecurie Belge pulled in to Albi, France. The team had headed back to France to take part in a very special race. On the 31st of May, Albi was set to host its 15th Grand Prix de l'Albigeois. This was another race following the format of a couple of heat races and a final. However, the race would be special not because of the formatting, but because it would be one of the last times the old Formula One cars would be able to come out and play.The race consisted of two, 10 lap heats and an 18 lap final. Unlike the BRDC International Trophy race, the heats would be broken down into classes. The first heat would include all of the Formula 2 cars entered in the field. The second heat would then involve all of the Formula One cars present. Then, in the final, the two classes would race together on the same 5.55 mile road and street circuit.First settled during the Bronze Age between 3000 and 600 BC, Albi would become a center in the southern region. Cut in half by the River Tarn, Albi itself has been a place of constant upheaval throughout its history. Starting out with the Romans and the Gauls, the area next became a hub of struggle between the Pope and French king and the Cathars. After a period of relative tranquility, then came World War II, at which time most of the city was inhabited and rather ragged. However, after the war, Albi would be reborn. And by the time of the non-championship race in 1953, the city had once again become a center for culture and of art.The center of Albi motor racing scene was its 5.55 mile road and street circuit situated to the east of the city. Besides the esses running along St. Antoine and the sharp hairpin turn at St. Juery, the rest of the circuit is pretty much flat out, and therefore, quite fast. Of course the hairpin turns at St. Juery and Montplaisir certainly did their bit to slow the pace. But mostly it was a flat-out circuit which perfectly suited the Formula One cars of old, especially the howling sixteen-cylinder BRM P15 machines.While Claes wouldn't face the Formula One cars just yet, he would still some tough competition in his heat including Louis Rosier, Peter Whitehead and Harry Schell. In practice, however, it would be Elie Bayol that would surprise everybody by taking the pole in his OSCA 20. The power the Maserati brothers were able to produce in their OSCA would enable Bayol to be two and a half seconds faster than Harry Schell in 2nd place. The rest of the front row would consist of Louis Rosier in his Ferrari 500.Compared to Bayol, Claes would be off the map when it came to performance deficiency. His best time in practice would be nearly thirteen seconds slower and would be only good enough to start 7th, or in the middle of the third row. While not sounding all that bad, there were only nine starters in the field total. The field would roar away starting the first heat race. Louis Rosier would make a good start and would be battling with Bayol for the lead. Initially Schell was right there with them, but as the race continued on he really began to fade.Claes would look incredibly consistent. Starting in 7th place, he would run right around there throughout the early and middle parts of the race. Meanwhile, up front, Rosier would begin to draw away from Bayol. One man, giving his all was Roberto Mieres. He would go on to set the fastest lap of the heat but could not consistently put together the lap times to really haul in Bayol and Rosier.The problem Schell had would manifest itself with just a couple of laps remaining. A misfire had developed in his engine, which meant the engine was down on power. This was the reason for him slipping back through the field and eventually dropping out after 8 laps.Rosier just cruised. Averaging 98 mph, he would go on to take the heat win by more than twenty-five seconds over Bayol. Peter Whitehead had made a good start and took advantage of Schell's ailments to come through and finish in the 3rd position nearly a minute behind Rosier.Claes was the absolute picture of consistency and sedated driving. Starting the race 7th, he would end up losing position to Charles de Tornaco. Therefore, when Schell retired from the race all he could manage to do was finish in 7th, but almost exactly three minutes behind Rosier.Now it was time for the Formula One heat. This heat would see some of the old machines of the World Championship have an encore performance. The field would only be ten deep but it would include BRMs, Ferraris, Maseratis and Talbot-Lagos; all of the cars that had started it all for the World Championship.Of course the one car that made the most noise on and off the track, but hardly ever in the results, had to be the BRM P15. Its sixteen-cylinder engines would roar back to life with Juan Manuel Fangio, Jose Froilan Gonzalez and Ken Wharton all back behind the wheel as well. They would duel it out with Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe Farina driving Ferrari 375s.Practice would see the power of the sixteen cylinder engine help the P15 hit speeds averaging around 115 mph around the 5.55 mile circuit. As a result, Fangio would start on the pole. His best lap was about three seconds better than Ascari's in the Ferrari 375. Nevertheless, Ascari would line up on the front row in 2nd. The last spot on the front row would go to another of the BRMs driven by Gonzalez.The BRMs were well known for their incredible fragility, and heading into the Formula One heat race, everyone else knew it. Therefore it wasn't entire necessary to go as fast as possible for it was quite likely each one of the cars would fail before the end anyway.
Page 7Right from the start, Fangio would be out to prove that notion wrong. He would lead away and would be immediately fast. His pace would put incredible strain on the rest of the field, as well as, his own car. And yet, while everybody was expecting to see the BRMs drop out one by one, it would be the powerful Ferrari 375s that would succumb to failure.Ascari's race would only last 3 laps before it would come to an end because of gearbox failure. Just two laps later, Scuderia Ferrari's only other entry, that of Giuseppe Farina, would also retire when his engine retired. And out front, Fangio would lead Wharton in another P15 and would just continue to pull away.Aided by a fast lap time faster than his own qualifying effort, Fangio would come across the line about eleven seconds ahead of Wharton to take the victory. After Wharton in 2nd place, Louis Rosier would bring home the only Ferrari left in the field when he finished 3rd. The gap from Wharton to Rosier would be nearly a minute.Heading into the final, the starting grid would have an interesting arrangement. The first four places on the grid would end up being reserved for the fastest Formula One finishers. However, there would be a change. Louis Rosier had a Ferrari 500 and a Ferrari 375. He had finished 3rd with the Ferrari 375 and would decide to take that result for his starting position. Therefore, Rosier would start 3rd; the final spot on the front row. After Trintignant completed the top four in Formula One it would be Bayol that would be the first qualifier in Formula 2 since Rosier gave up his spot.After the first four from each heat, it would go by twos after that. But there would only be twelve starters for the final. Luckily for Claes, he would be the second-to-last starter in the field and would start from the fifth row.Things looked quite bleak again for Claes. But the last time he had started right near the back of a starting grid it had turned out alright. And it would happen again.As the field roared away at the start of the 18 lap final, the troubles began almost immediately. Bayol would find his race over after just two laps because of clutch failure. A couple more, including Juan Manuel Fangio, would find their races over before it had reached 10 laps.The BRM was fragile enough as it was; it didn't need any help finding a reason as to why it shouldn't finish a race. But Wharton, who had taken over up at the front with Fangio's retirement, would provide his own reason why his race should come to an end. After setting a fastest lap time he would almost promptly go and crash the car knocking himself out of the race. Charles de Tornaco, another strong competitor in the field, would also drop out on the same lap because of engine failure. Just like that, with 7 laps still to go, the field had dropped five of its stronger competitors. But there were still more than enough to give Claes difficultly.Claes had made a good start and would be patient, waiting for the race to come to him. The race would certainly open up, but there were more than enough strong competitors to fill the gaps. Louis Rosier would take the gift of the retirements of Fangio and Wharton and would be leading the race in his Ferrari 375. Jose Froilan Gonzalez was the sole remaining BRM in the field but he too continued to look strong. Not far behind them was Trintignant driving an updated version of the T16, a version prepared for the new Formula One regulations. Therefore, with these three up at the front, Claes would find just staying on the lead lap almost impossible and the top three, therefore, well out of reach.Claes would settle in and would focus just on finishing the race, which was proving to be more difficult than even leading. Rosier, however, would have absolutely no problem with leading. Although he would average a little more than 5 mph slower pace than Fangio in the Formula One heat, Rosier would cruise to victory. No doubt unsure as to whether his car could make the distance or not, Gonzalez didn't appear in too much of a rush to try and chase down Rosier. And Rosier would go on then to win the race by a margin of more than thirty seconds over Gonzalez. It would be another minute and twenty seconds that would separate Gonzalez and Trintignant in 3rd place. Claes and Ecurie Belge would manage to do it again. Although he started the final all the way back on the final row of the grid, Claes didn't let the pressure go to his head. He would run a good clean and trouble-free race and would end up a lap down but would be rewarded with a 6th place result.It had been another incredible race for Claes in his Connaught. He had overcome to finish well. This was a good sign as his World Championship calendar was about to kick-off.Although the first round of the World Championship had taken place already, it had been all the way back in mid-January, months ago. Therefore, in many cases, the third round of the World Championship would be like the first. And while the Netherlands Grand Prix was actually the third round, it would be the first for Ecurie Belge.The Netherlands Grand Prix boasted of another first for Claes and Ecurie Belge. The first time the Grand Prix of the Netherlands had been part of the World Championship was back in 1952, the previous year. Claes did not take part in that race. Therefore, in 1953, the Grand Prix of the Netherlands would be the first time Claes would visit Zandvoort as part of a race having to do with the World Championship.
Page 8Zandvoort was proving to be quite difficult that year. Built amongst the sand dunes overlooking the North Sea, the Zandvoort circuit was known for blowing sand, but this particular year it would be really bad and would make finding grip incredibly difficult. But this was the nature of Zandvoort.Not only was its location on the sand dunes something of a concern for the 2.60 mile circuit, but it was only compounded upon by the fact a majority of the circuit was positioned down in amongst the dunes. So while the dunes would be natural grandstands, they would also act like tunnels trapping the sand down on the circuit surface. Amidst these difficult conditions, Claes would head out onto the circuit with his Connaught looking for a strong starting position on the grid. Not surprisingly, Claes wouldn't manage to handle the conditions of the circuit as well as the Ferraris. Actually, it would come to be seen he wasn't alone.Ascari would end up being the fastest in practice. His lap time of one minute and fifty-one seconds would earn him the pole for the 90 lap event. The conditions would end up favoring drivers with considerable talent in order to be fast. Therefore, it wouldn't be at all surprising when Ascari would lead the way for an all World Champions front row. Juan Manuel Fangio would end up a little more than a second and a half behind Ascari in time and would start 2nd while Farina would complete the front row starting 3rd.On a circuit with such fast, sweeping corners, a gap of just a couple of seconds meant a driver would start much further down in the order than it would seem possible. In the case of Claes, and his time of about ten seconds slower than just Farina, it wasn't at all surprising he would start the race well in the back of the grid. In fact, Claes would start the race from the seventh row of the grid in the 17th position.The day of the race would see dry weather, but once again the conditions would be treacherous. The blowing sand and other grit would make the circuit very difficult to handle. Heading into the very first turn, it would be the Ferraris that would again look most at home in the conditions. Ascari would lead going into the first turn. Right there would be Luigi Villoresi and Giuseppe Farina. Juan Manuel Fangio would get pushed back in his Maserati. He would have Mike Hawthorn all over his rear end.Bringing up the rear end of the grid would be Claes and a small number of others. The tactics were certainly going to be the same as they had been at Albi and at others. Perhaps by being careful and staying out of trouble the race would come to him.Very quickly it would become apparent that while he continued to stay out of trouble and settled into a very good rhythm, the actual race was leaving him behind. Ascari was out front and was on a tear, although it would be Villoresi that would set the fastest lap time.Of course Villoresi had reason for setting the fastest lap time. By the time the later-half of the race rolled around the field had been reduced dramatically. Fangio and Gonzalez would both have their cars fail on them. And while Gonzalez took over Felice Bonetto's Maserati and continued on in the race, he was a little too far behind to really challenge unless the absolutely unexpected happened. The challenge from Equipe Gordini hadn't materialized and there really wasn't any other competitors close enough to come up and challenge. Therefore, Villoresi would be free to run a little. Of course he needed to in order to try and stay with Ascari and Farina at the front.Such was the pace at the front that only Ascari and Farina remained on the same lap. Everybody else in the field was at least a lap down. In the case of Claes, it would be even a little more embarrassing than that. Troubles with the Connaught, the difficult conditions and just a sheer slower pace would lead to Claes being visited by Ascari and the rest of the front-runners just about every two or three laps. Over the course of the race, Claes wouldn't just be seconds behind, or even minutes, by the end he was pushing well past the hour mark.About the only two locked and running together on the circuit would be the two at the front. Ascari would hold the advantage and would lead every single one of the 90 laps en route to what was his second World Championship victory of the season. He would end up eleven seconds in front of Farina in 2nd place. The eleven seconds would be nothing compared to the lap and more that Gonzalez would be while finishing in 3rd.Claes would end up hanging on until the very end. But sure enough, the race had left him still in the station. Ascari ‘s pace was such that, by the end, Claes wouldn't just finish a few laps down. He would actually end up dozens of laps down. In all, Claes would finish the race but would not be classified as having finished because he would be 38 laps behind, or, about what amounted to a deficiency of around an hour and a half. This would have been not too bad if it had been the 24 Hours of Le Mans but the Grand Prix of the Netherlands certainly wasn't a 24 hour event.While Claes finished his first World Championship race of the season, he had gotten thoroughly destroyed in the process. Demoralizing or not, Claes wouldn't have too much time to dwell upon it. There was little time before the next race on his calendar.The next race on Ecurie Belge's calendar would be yet another World Championship race. There wouldn't be the opportunity to take part in a race against some marginal competition. No, the team would have to face the very same competitors that had destroyed them in Zandvoort. And this next race would be at an even faster circuit.Johnny Claes would be handed what literally amounted to an opportunity of a lifetime. He would be approached by Officine Alfieri Maserati, the factory Maserati team, to drive one of their new A6SSGs. Not only was the car full of potential, but he would have the opportunity to take advantage of the power advantage of the car at his home race. He would be able to take advantage of the Maserati's power at the ultra-fast Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Although Claes would get the ride of a lifetime with Maserati, Ecurie Belge would still field a car for its home grand prix.
Page 9On the 21st of June, two weeks after the debacle at Zandvoort, the team would be busy preparing its Connaught A-Type chassis for Andre Pilette. Pilette had made his World Championship debut back in 1951 for Ecurie Belgique and would go on to finish 6th in the Belgian Grand Prix. So while the team may have lost Claes to Maserati for the race, the replacement would be more than capable at the 8.77 mile ultra-fast circuit.Situated in the Ardennes, Spa found its fame, and its name, from the hot springs that apparently offered healing. As a result, these hot mineral springs would become famous the world over. As with many places throughout the Low Countries and Europe, Spa would be right in the middle of the First and Second World Wars. But one of its more famous residents would be famous for being a calming influence during one of the greatest disasters of the early 20th century. Georges Alexandre Krins had been a violinist aboard the RMS Titanic, which was famously remembered for playing and being a calming influence during the crisis.After the last round of the World Championship, Pilette had hoped Claes hadn't saddled him with a sinking ship while he took off to find voyage with another competitor. A bit of the answer would become clear during practice.The fastest around the circuit would be Juan Manuel Fangio. The new A6SSG would post an incredible average speed around the circuit of 117 mph. This average speed would garner Fangio a four minute and thirty second lap time and would help the Argentinean to take the pole by about two seconds over Alberto Ascari. Jose Froilan Gonzalez would also enjoy the power of the A6SSG and would start from the front row in 3rd. Johnny Claes was now behind the wheel of an A6SSG and would only manage a lap time of four minutes and fifty seconds, some twenty seconds slower than Fangio's best time. This was not good news for Ecurie Belge. Sure enough, reality would set in. Pilette's best time in practice would be a rather pedestrian five minutes and twenty-three seconds. Though the time was not quite a minute slower than Fangio it would cause Pilette to start the race from the seventh row of the grid, 18th overall.Twenty cars would roar away at the start of the 36 lap race. While the previous Belgian Grand Prix had been marred by rain, the 1953 edition looked to promise nothing but dry weather and some hot laps by the Maserati pilots. Sure enough, they would put on a demonstration. Heading to Eau Rouge for the first time, Fangio would give room to Gonzalez who would promptly take the lead of the race and disappear into the distance. On just the first lap, Gonzalez would come around and would average around 110 mph, and this after a standing start. After that first lap he would just get faster and faster. On the second lap of the race he would set what would become the fastest lap of the race. He would go on to match the time on the 3rd, 9th and 11th laps of the race, pulling out a comfortable margin over Fangio in the process.While Claes was enjoying his ride in the Maserati, Pilette was quickly becoming aware that the race would carry on much the same as it had at Zandvoort. The power of the Maseratis and Ferraris compared to the Connaught was certainly going to cost Pilette a number of laps. The only question was, 'How many?'Pilette had to be careful. While he certainly could go faster, he would run the risk of the car failing along the way. It was a hard balance. Pilette could go a little faster in order to look a little more respectable in the results. But if he went a little too fast he wouldn't even be listed in the results, except with the word 'Retired' next to his name.One who wasn't seemingly concerned with reliability was Gonzalez. By the time he matched his fastest lap time for the fourth time on the 11th lap of the race he was already enjoying a lead of about a minute over Fangio. He showed no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately for him, his car decided to slow him down, and permanently. Just one lap after tying his fastest lap time for the fourth time, the accelerator pedal had gotten so used to being pushed to the floor that it wouldn't come up off the floor. The accelerator pedal problem would lead to Gonzalez having to retire from the race after being in the lead since the very beginning.Fangio had given Gonzalez room at Eau Rouge. It was as if he knew Gonzalez wouldn't last. Whether he had that sense or not Fangio would not take over the lead of the race. Fangio enjoyed a nice advantage himself. He would have a lead of about thirty seconds when he would take over the lead.But while Fangio may have thought the lead and the win had been handed to him, he would find out otherwise just a couple of laps after Gonzalez retired from the race. The engine would let go in Fangio's Maserati. The engine letting go would cause Claes to have to let go of his ride. Fangio would take over Claes' Maserati for the remainder of the race. While this may not have been something Claes enjoyed it would offer him the best opportunity of his career for scoring some really good points. This was because if Fangio could finish in the points the points would be shared between the two. And with Fangio behind the wheel, a result that would net more than a point or two was entirely possible. Nevertheless, it was still a rather embarrassing situation since it took place in Claes' home grand prix.Armed with Claes' Maserati, Fangio was back in the race and was driving hard. Soon, he would overcome a number of competitors that had managed to get by while Fangio was waiting for Claes and his car. With just a couple of laps remaining in the race Fangio had managed to climb his way back up to 3rd overall.While not as fast as Gonzalez nor Fangio, Ascari would gladly take over the lead of the race and would be fast enough in his own right to leave the rest of the field behind. This included Pilette, who, while doing better than Claes at Zandvoort, was still well down behind the leaders, but was actually marching his way up the running order because of attrition.
Page 10Fangio had made it all the way back up to 3rd place. But with just one lap remaining in the race, the final morale blow would take place to Claes. Fangio would push so hard that he would make a rare mistake. He would crash the car and would bend the steering. He would do everything he could but the car would be out because of broken steering. The seemingly certain World Championship points would slip away.This left Ascari and Ferrari free to pick up the pieces of the race and cruise its way to yet another race victory. En route to the victory, Ascari would average over 112 mph and would defeat Luigi Villoresi by a margin of about two and a half minutes. Onofre Marimon would end up a lap down in Maserati but would finish 3rd. Pilette would pretty much copy Claes. He would start toward the rear of the field and would let the race come to him, and it would. In the end, Pilette had started the race 18th and would eventually be running in 12th place by the time the race would draw to a close. However, because he was so far behind he too would cause Ecurie Belge to be listed 'Not Classified' in the results. While Pilette's result would be an improvement upon the result from the Dutch Grand Prix it would still be a margin of more than thirty minutes in which he trailed by the end. Ecurie Belge needed to turn things around. Otherwise, it would end up getting to the point of wondering why the team would even consider taking part in another World Championship. Thankfully for the team, it would have a non-championship race for its next event. It would be an opportunity for the team to estimate its chances for the rest of the season.During the week after the Belgian Grand Prix the Ecurie Belge team travelled about 250 miles to the west and arrived in Rouen, France for its next race. While the Rouen-les-Essarts would not serve as the site for the French Grand Prix in 1953 it would serve as host for a race bearing its name. Ecurie Belge had pulled in to the small town of Grand-Couronne in preparation of the 3rd Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts. The Foret de Rouvray had been the site of the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit, which was part of the larger Seine Valley as it wound its way from Paris to the English Channel. While situated in a valley, the circuit itself was anything but flat. In fact, the run from the start/finish line down to the famous cobblestoned Nouveau Monde hairpin would feature a generous downward slope. Coming out of the Nouveau Monde hairpin turn the circuit then continually rises, presenting drivers a number of blind-entries and sharp uphill corners that were very easy to get wrong and ruin a lap.The Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts was yet another of just a few races in which the old Formula One cars were allowed to compete. At Albi, Claes didn't fare all that bad. He would be back behind the wheel of the Connaught preparing to battle the Formula One cars in the 60 lap race.As with Albi, and a number of other races throughout the 1953 season, Claes would be staring at the start of a race from the very back of the starting grid. Giuseppe Farina had taken the new Ferrari 625 and put it on the pole with a time of two minutes and twelve seconds. Mike Hawthorn would start alongside in 2nd having set a time a little more than a second slower than Farina. Maurice Trintignant would take the revised T16, which would conform to the coming new Formula One rules, and would start 3rd. Johnny Claes would find his best lap against these evolved Formula 2 cars to be more than twenty seconds slower. Therefore, he would start the race dead-last on the grid. Staring from 15th, which was the sixth row of the grid, Claes knew he had a lot of work to do. This was especially true since Louis Rosier would bring his Ferrari 375 and there would be a number of Talbot-Lagos in the field as well. It seemed the race would be filled with attrition. This assumption was promoted by Elie Bayol's retirement before having completed a single lap. His gearbox would break bringing about a very early end to his race. Just four laps later, Yves Giraud-Cabantous would also retire from the race in his Talbot-Lago T26C when his transmission failed. However, things would settle down after that and the proper race would begin.Right from the very start Farina and Hawthorn led the way in the new 625. Maurice Trintignant and a couple of others would be close giving chase, but never really close enough to challenge the authority of the two Ferraris at the head of the field.Claes was busy doing his usual. He had started well and was settling into a pace that would help him move forward when opportunities presented themselves, but also, that would not break the car. Unfortunately, what little pace Claes did have would prove to be too much for the Connaught. After 27 laps, the rear axle on Claes' car would fail and would bring about the end of his race.At the halfway point of the race, the final retiree would pull to the side of the road. Trintignant would have the pesky rear axle problems reemerge in his Gordini T16 thereby ending his race and his chase of the Ferraris at the front of the field.The last half of the race would be more of the same from the first half. Farina and Hawthorn were up front and were absolutely dominating the rest of the field. By the time the two were headed around on the final lap, they had destroyed the rest of the field.
Page 11Although Hawthorn would go on to set the fastest lap of the race, Farina would come across the line in two hours, fifteen minutes and about six seconds to take the victory. He would come across the line just about a second ahead of Hawthorn in 2nd. Nearly two minutes later, Philippe Etancelin would come across the line to finish 3rd. But while he was just a couple of minutes behind on the road, in all actuality he was more than three laps behind the Ferrari duo.Claes and Ecurie Belge certainly would not sort out their performance issues at Rouen. The Connaught was still well off the pace. Then on top of it all was the failure of the rear axle. While replacing it offered some assurance of it not recurring again for some time there still was the doubt as to whether the car was going to remain strong over the course of the last half of the season. One of the pieces to solving that puzzle would come just one week later.The team would remain in France, for in just one week's time the French Grand Prix was set to be run. Therefore, from Rouen, the team would head east towards home but would instead stop in Reims for the fifth round of the World Championship.It was interesting the teams left Rouen to head to Reims for the French Grand Prix. The season before, Reims would lose its hosting rights to the French Grand Prix to Rouen and many teams had taken part in a non-championship race in Reims right before heading to Rouen for the grand prix. In 1953, Reims would regain its hosting rights to the French Grand Prix, and therefore, the trip from Rouen to Reims would be symbolic of the World Championship heading back to Reims as well.In the case of Ecurie Belge, the team was heading back into trouble. Located to the east of Reims amidst the rolling countryside heading toward the small village of Gueux, the public roads that comprised the Reims circuit were known to be ultra-fast. And in 1953, the circuit would be expected to be even faster. The circuit had been extended from its 1952 layout to include the Muizon hairpin and a longer run down the Route Nationale 31 toward the Thillois hairpin, the final turn before heading down the long start/finish straight. The circuit would be lengthened a considerable amount with these changes. In fact, the circuit would go from 4.44 miles to stretch to more than 5.15 miles in 1953.In practice, Claes would take his team's Connaught and would manage to turn in a fastest lap time of four minutes and six seconds. While it was obvious the time wasn't as good as what the team would like nor need, it wouldn't be until looking at the times posted by the Ferrari and Maserati pilots that real concern set in. Alberto Ascari would end up being the fastest around the 5.15 mile circuit. Hurtling around the track in his Ferrari 500, Ascari would post a time of two minutes, forty-one and two-tenths seconds. This time would be just three-tenths of a second faster than Felice Bonetto in 2nd place. Luigi Villoresi would complete the front row with a lap time just seven-tenths of a second slower. The entire front row, however, would be at least a minute and twenty-five seconds faster than Claes in his Connaught. If that kind of difference was maintained over the course of the 60 lap race, Claes would have expected to see the leaders come by to put him another lap down about every three laps or so.The day of the race would be sunny and warm. This, combined with the speeds, had the potential of doing a lot of damage to the field, especially Claes' Connaught, which like most every other British made grand prix car had great promise but a rather short time in which to exhibit it. The race would see the field roar away with Ascari up at the front. However, he soon would have to yield to Jose Froilan Gonzalez who had started the race on half full fuel tanks. Being lighter, Gonzalez was fast right away and would easily take over the lead. Behind Gonzalez, the Ferraris would quickly come together and would be seen running lap after lap in something of an echelon formation, never more than what seemed to be an arm's length away from each other. While this must have made everybody at Ferrari very anxious, the display of such driving put on by the elite drivers would certainly wow the crowd.But it wouldn't stop with the Ferrari drivers. Only a matter of feet separated the Ferraris from the rest of the factory Maserati team members. While not in any particular formation, they too were seen lap after lap coming down the long straights wheel-to-wheel.However, the real sight would come when the Ferraris and Maseratis became mixed together. Despite being competitors, every single one of them, they would race each other cleanly, and yet, were so close they could have reached into each other's cockpit. The spectacle was truly amazing, and even inspiring.Behind the front-runners, the rest of the field was being truly left behind. It seemed there weren't any mid-pack runners this day. It surely looked to be a case of those that 'had' and those that 'had not'. Of course there would be a number of those that had not precisely because there were out. The field of twenty-five would be reduced by four even before the race had reached 10 laps. If there was a mid-pack group that day it would end up losing a couple of its most promising drivers when Maurice Trintignant and Ken Wharton retired with mechanical problems.Compared to predictions before the start of the race, Claes was fairing much better than anticipated. He was pushing his Connaught hard and was managing not to lose as much time around the circuit. While he was still seeing Gonzalez and the other front-runners flashing back him more than once, it wasn't at the rate the team feared. This was rather impressive given the fact the pace of the race just seemed to increase with each and every lap.If the first half of the race had been truly awe-inspiring then the second half would be something supernatural. It would start off with Gonzalez coming into pit for another half tank of fuel. The rest of the front-runners had been running so close each and every lap that upon Gonzalez's return to the circuit he would find himself 5th. While the front-runners had spread out slightly, the fact they were still running this close at this point in the race was truly incredible. And yet, while some of the others would back it off just a little, Hawthorn and Fangio were just getting warmed up.Over the course of the final 30 laps, the top five would never be separated by more than eight seconds. But at the head of them all would be Hawthorn and Fangio. Lap after lap these two would race side-by-side. Every single lap these two would be never more than a couple of feet apart. They would even slow or give the other room when going by lapped traffic, like Claes, just so the battle could continue to rage on.
Page 12The sight over the course of the final 20 laps or so would be remarkable. Even lapped drivers like Claes would be seen slowing down the straights just so they could watch the sight of the best drivers in the world battling wheel-to-wheel each and every lap.Most battles between two drivers in motor racing usually last for brief moments and move on. This race had seen battles between two racers almost every single lap for 59 laps. And as the field headed around on what was the final lap, many, like Hawthorn and Fangio, were still going at it.The pace over the last 10 or so laps had increased to a feverish pace. The crowd knew and could sense that it was witnessing one of the greatest races in grand prix history. And while Claes was still running and was a part of the story, his role would be something more of an extra in an epic tale. Even before the final lap of the race, his race was over. He had more than a lap advantage on Peter Collins running behind him and he himself was more than a couple of laps behind Bob Gerard up ahead of him on the road. On top of it all, Claes was more than just a couple of laps behind the front-runners. He truly was race for the sake of finishing.Hawthorn and Fangio were battling for the sake of a victory. And heading into the final lap, Hawthorn had gotten the advantage in position but was still just about a half a car length ahead of Fangio. Fangio would be stuck like glue to the back end of Hawthorn's Ferrari all through Annie Bousquet and the sweeping Hovette left-hander. Coming through Muizon and heading down the long straight toward Thillois Fangio had pulled next to Hawthorn trying to power his way around him going into the last hairpin. The crowd would struggle to see down the long start/finish straight toward the hairpin. All wanted to see who would come through first.Then it would become clear. Fangio had made his move but was in a compromising position. Hawthorn would hold on and would cause Fangio to lose a lot of ground. In fact, as the cars powered their way down the long sloping start/finish straight, Fangio would come under threat from Gonzalez who had fought his way up from 5th place.Hawthorn's incredible performance would net him his first World Championship victory. He would go on to take the win exactly by a second. The question was, 'Who was going to be second?' Fangio had the advantage but had lost the momentum. He would push hard to stay in front of Gonzalez. The two Argentineans would fight all the way to the line. And at the line, it would be Fangio by just four-tenths of a second, or, about half a car length.The crowd would go wild. When it was discovered just how young the Briton was the crowd would be even more enthusiastic of its praise. Amidst all of the adulation, the rest of the cars still running in the race would be nearly forgotten about. They had taken part in one of the greatest races in grand prix history but they had played such bit roles that they were barely even worthy of remembrance in the minds of many present there that day. One of those that would be practically forgotten about would be Claes. Of course, Claes' effort wouldn't really be worthy of remembrance.Although Claes was still running when the race would come to an end he would end up all the way down in 12th place and would be more than seven laps behind Hawthorn. The seven laps would end up translating to about thirty minutes in which Claes was behind at the end.While the grand prix history books would recall Claes' participation in the 1953 French Grand Prix he certainly would not be in the forefront of anybody's memory that had actually been there and witnessed the event. Such was Claes' performance. However, compared to the last couple of races, the Connaught had performed rather well, especially considering the first nine finishers in the race were either Ferraris or Maseratis. On paper, it would look as though it had not been a great effort by the Ecurie Belge team. But considering how the race went, it surely had been a good effort and reason for the team to leave with its head held up high.Ecurie Belge had pushed out east from Rouen in order to take part in the French Grand Prix at Reims. The team would then continue to push eastward until arriving in a divided Berlin for the 9th Internationales Avusrennen on the 12th of July.The decision by the team to take part in the Avusrennen was a rather good decision. The Avusrennen was one of the biggest races in what was West Germany and it would obviously include a number of German drivers, cars and teams. Compared to the cars from the rest of western Europe, neither West or East Germany could really compete. In 1952, the big races had been dominated by teams outside of West or East Germany. Compared to the rest of the German entries it would seem a good decision to come all the way to Berlin to race. However, they wouldn't be the only foreign team to think so.Since its very beginnings in the 1920s, the Avus circuit had been all about speed. Essentially two drag races separated by two high-speed banked tear-drop turns, the old 12 mile long Avus circuit would see many speed records attempted along its nearly six mile long straights. Unfortunately, it would be the lose of Bernd Rosemeyer during a speed record that would lead to the old course being shortened. While the famous 'Wall of Death', or, Nordkurve would remain, the 5.14 mile circuit would instead feature a tight hairpin turn at the south end of the course instead of a banked tear-drop turn. Nonetheless, in 1953, average speeds around the circuit remained high. Often times average speeds of nearly 122 mph or more would be seen around the circuit.One of those foreign entries to come and take part in the Avusrennen would be another Belgian-based team. Ecurie Francorchamps would come with its Ferrari 500 and its founder Jacques Swaters would be behind the wheel. He would end up turning the fastest lap in practice and would start the race from the pole. He would be joined on the front row by fellow foreigners Alan Brown in 2nd place and Rodney Nuckey in 3rd. Claes would look good in practice and would be up towards the front of a starting grid for the first time in what had been a long time.The 25 lap race wouldn't be all that easy. The German cars, while they had problems with reliability, were still quite fast. Therefore, Claes would certainly have a battle on his hands throughout.
Page 13Sure enough, Claes would find himself surrounded by German drivers throughout the first part of the race. Swaters would make a good start and would continue to lead the way. One of the favorites, Kurt Adolff, would end up crashing his Ferrari 500 on the very first lap of the race. Alan Brown would follow suit in his Cooper-Bristol T23. Another favorite, Prince Bira, would also find Avus rather unforgiving and would be out of the race early on. All of these retirements would open the door to anyone waiting to take advantage. Unfortunately, it would be the German drivers of Hans Klenk and Theo Helfrich that would take advantage of the opportunity.Claes' pace over the last few races had been hopelessly lacking. Unfortunately that meant his pace would be about equal to that of the German competitors he was facing while careening down the long straights at Avus. His only real hope left would be that the German competitors would be unlikely to make the entire race distance.This hope would be encouraged over the course of the event. Besides some of the foreign entries that would drop out within the first couple of laps, there would be a slew of German drivers that would also exit the race. By the time the race would be over there would be a total of twelve entries that would retire from the race. This really was Claes only hope and it had worked to a good degree.Swaters was untouchable. The only way the Ferrari driver was going to be beaten was if he beat himself. He wouldn't. And in just an hour and five minutes he would complete the 25 laps and would win the race. A trio of German drivers would delight the fans and would finish 2nd through 4th. Hans Klenk would take 2nd while it would be Theo Helfrich, who actually set the fastest lap of the race, that would claim 3rd place.Claes would find the going tough. He would find himself trapped and unable to move forward. While trapped he would find Swaters going right by him to put him a lap down. Nonetheless, the day would be profitable. Claes would turn around a couple of very poor showings and would finish the race in 6th place. Surprisingly, despite the presence of so many foreigners with stronger cars he would end up being one of just four that would still be running at the end.Ecurie Belge had used the Avusrennen as something of a warm-up before its next race. Unfortunately, it wouldn't take place for another three weeks. In early August the Ecurie Belge team would again be back in West Germany preparing for a race. They had come to take part in the sixth round of the World Championship, the German Grand Prix.The Avusrennen was almost literally straight-forward. The German Grand Prix would be almost anything but. It would be just 18 laps. But it would be 18 laps of the ultra-demanding and infamous Nurburgring and its 14 mile long Nordschleife.The Nurburgring had been built in the later part of the 1920s as a result of racing on the local roads become a little too dangerous. However, what would be created would be widely considered to be 14 miles of nothing but 'Green Hell'. Up and down about a thousand feet and filled with no less than at least 170 corners, the Nurburgring was anything but straight-forward. It was a never ending maze of twists and turns, blind corners and crests that caused the heart to become stuck in one's throat each and every lap.In just about every World Championship grand prix in which Ecurie Belge had taken part, the team had played a role of nothing more than an extra in the continuing saga of Alberto Ascari and his quest for a second World Drivers Championship title. At Reims, the team had played nothing more than an extra role in one of the greatest races in grand prix history. Coming to the Nuburgring, the team would again be nothing more than background scenery as Ascari was on the verge of taking the title for a second time.In practice, it would be apparent just how much the team would be background scenery. In 1952, the best times around the circuit pushed the ten minute mark but would not break it. This was deemed rather difficult to do considering the more powerful Formula One cars barely were under the ten minute mark. However, in practice, Ascari would show just what the Ferrari 500 was capable of doing in the right hands. He would take his car and would post the incredible time of nine minutes, fifty-nine and eight-tenths seconds. While only two-tenths under ten minutes it was still faster. What's more, it would end up being just a tenth slower than four seconds faster than Fangio's best time! Giuseppe Farina would end up four-tenths slower than Fangio and would start 3rd. Mike Hawthorn would make it three Ferraris on the front row when he would start 4th.The contrast in times between Ascari and Claes would be rather staggering. The gap would be such that it would seem more like a staged rally event than a grand prix race. At the end of practice it was realized Claes best time of eleven minutes and forty-five seconds would be pushing two minutes slower than Ascari. As a result, Claes would start the race down on the seventh row of the grid in the 25th position.At 14 miles in length, just one lap of the Nurburgring was an epic adventure it was fitting, therefore, there would be an epic number of starters for the 18 lap race. In all there would be thirty-four cars that would start the race.Although there would be a record number of starters for the race it didn't mean that all of them made it very far. In fact, as the field roared away at the start of the seventh round of the World Championship two cars would break right on the grid and would move no further.Fangio would get the best jump of anybody in the field and would actually lead the field through the first portion of the lap. However, with a practice time less than ten minutes it was obvious Ascari had a pace that just couldn't be stopped. Therefore, to really no one's surprise, Ascari would get by Fangio to take over the lead of the race. Once in the lead, he would begin to pull away.Each lap around the circuit was a tough test for both driver and car. Concentration needed to remain high for the driver and the car would have to endure constant shifting, braking and acceleration. Just one lap around the circuit, therefore, was like a couple of more at many other circuits. Therefore, it would be little surprise that each lap there would be at least one or two that would drop out of the running. And actually, by the time the race completed three laps, the field of thirty-four would be reduced by eight.
Page 14Ascari continued to run out front and looked en route to yet another win and another World Championship. However, the wear and tear of the circuit would come to take its toll. After completing about 8 laps, a wheel would come off his Ferrari. He would limp the car all the way back to the pits but would lose a lot of positions and time in the process. But he wouldn't be out of the race.Ascari would rejoin the race in Luigi Villoresi's car and would be on a torrent from that moment on. If his pace at the beginning of the race had been something to behold then his pace in Villoresi's car would be something not to be missed. Almost immediately he would be turning out laps at qualifying pace, which was incredible to behold. But it would become something on a whole different level when on the 12th lap of the race he would post the fastest lap time of the race. He wouldn't just match his qualifying effort. He would blow it out of the water. The time would be nine minutes and fifty-six seconds! It was obvious he going after the victory though he didn't necessarily need it.Just about the time Ascari was hitting his incredible stride in the Ferrari, Claes would find his stride would become too labored and difficult. As a result, he would retire from the race. This was the team's second retirement on the season in the World Championship, but would make little difference as his pace was such that he wasn't really in any position for a good result. The only loss on the day would be the rather substantial costs necessary to compete.Mike Hawthorn and Giuseppe Farina had taken over the lead of the race after Ascari's troubles. However, as Farina led the way, Ascari was fast on his way to try and unseat their control over the field.Ascari's attempted coup would run short of resources. The incredible pace had taken its toll. Just three laps away from the end the engine would expire in his Ferrari bringing about an end to his incredible charge. This left Farina free to just settle in and make it to the end of the race.Farina was out in front of Fangio and well on his way to victory. And after three hours and nearly two and a half minutes, he would cross the finish line to take the victory. A little more than a minute would pass before Fangio would cross the line to finish 2nd. Hawthorn had faded a bit over the course of the final few laps of the race and would finish the race in the 3rd position about a minute and forty-five seconds behind Farina.Despite falling foul to a broken wheel and an expired engine, Ascari would still take the World Championship title. Ecurie Belge was on the verge of taking the title for one of the most non-influential seasons. Claes had won a number of events throughout his career, but it certainly appeared those days were more than behind him. One other thing that was mostly behind the team was the grand prix season. And with their poor results, the team's season was just a couple of races away from being over.The rapid succession of races continued for Ecurie Belge. Just one week after the German Grand Prix the team head back into France and to the port city of Sables-d-Olonne for the 3rd Grand Prix de Sables d'Olonne non-championship grand prix.Named for the famous French pirate by the name of Francois l'Olonnais, the city of Sables-d'Olonne had a long history as an important fishing port. Throughout the French Revolution the city would be besieged numerous times. Then in World War II it would again become besieged by the occupying German army. However, in 1953 it would be besieged by the sights and sounds of some of the best grand prix cars and stars of the day.As with the majority of the other French Formula 2 races throughout the season, the Grand Prix de Sables d-Olonne would be a race consisting of heat races and aggregate scoring to determine the final results.The format of the race meant that every competitor took part in at least the first heat race. In practice for the first heat, it would be the Parisian-American Harry Schell that would be the fastest. He would sit on the pole with his Equipe Gordini teammates, Maurice Trintignant and Jean Behra, starting alongside on the front row. The field would consist of a number of other very competitive drivers, and therefore, Claes would be prohibited from starting inside the top five.Each of the heats would be 45 laps in length. The field would roar away at the start of the first heat. Though Schell had been fast during practice, he would not be the fastest during the heat race. However, his Gordini teammates would be more than fast enough. Both Trintignant and Behra would look very good. Schell would begin to slip down the order. Another that would drop off the pace would be Elie Bayol. All of this upheaval had the potential of helping move Claes forward.The race would continue on. Then things would get a real shake-up. Trintignant would be the first retiree from the race with transmission failure. Behra then took over the lead of the race and pulled away from the rest of the field. This would mean very little to Claes as his race would come to an end just six laps after Trintignant's retirement. Magneto failure would cause Claes to have to retire from the race in his Connaught.Behra took over the lead of the race and was more than capable of holding on to the end. Behra would earn the heat win. He would end up nearly thirty seconds ahead of Louis Chiron finishing in 2nd place. Louis Rosier would come from the 6th spot on the starting grid to finish the race 3rd.
Page 15Just like that, after 26 laps, the entire race would come to an end for Ecurie Belge. Often times drivers and teams out of the running would still enter the car in the second heat race just to get some more laps and hope and pray for the nearly impossible to happen. However, after the season the team had been having they would decide against this and the race would be over for them right there.The race wasn't over, however, for the rest of the field. There was still the second heat still to go. The finishing order from the first heat would determine the starting order for the second. As a result it would be Behra, Chiron and Rosier on the front row.The second heat would see two favorites from the first heat depart the race. Elie Bayol had started the first heat from the 4th place position on the starting grid. However, in the second heat it would all come to an end. Schell had started the first race from the pole. However, besides that bright spot the race itself had been nothing but frustration for him. But then in the second heat he would lose a wheel after 6 laps and would retire from the race on a whole.Behra was looking good up at the front of the field. He would have his Gordini teammate Trintignant coming on a charge from behind but he was more than a number of laps behind after retiring in the first heat race. Chiron and Rosier had started out the second heat in a battle as well. But as the race began to wear on, it was becoming obvious Rosier was wearing Chiron down.After the first heat race, all Behra had to do was keep the car on the circuit. However, this would prove to be too tough. Just 12 laps away from the end of the race, Behra would throw it all away. He would make a mistake heading around the 1.82 mile circuit. The crash would end the race for him and would hand the lead of the entire race over to Rosier, provided he too could keep it on the road.Maurice Trintignant would overcome his disappointing first heat result and would lead the race on to victory. Just six seconds behind Trintignant would come Rosier in his Ferrari. Rosier would take 2nd place over Chiron by a little more than thirty seconds.When the times were added together it was very clear that Rosier had taken the victory, much to the delight of the French crowd. Louis Chiron would show he still had the talent and the feel as he would finish 2nd. Third place would end up going to Stirling Moss. Moss didn't have the best of efforts but his fortitude would end up paying off.After an early exit, the only real blessing Ecurie Belge had would be the fact their season was almost over. The costs, and the little return on investment, were taking their toll on the team's season and ability to compete. Besides that, the grand prix season was drawing to a close anyway.Ecurie Belge would take some time off before its next race. Actually, the team would take off more than a month to prepare and take one last stab at the World Championship. The team would have only one more opportunity to improve upon its 12th place scored at the French Grand Prix. Therefore, on the 13th of September Ecurie Belge was busy readying its Connaught A-Type chassis for Johnny Claes to take part in the ninth, and final, round of the World Championship, which was the Italian Grand Prix.Claes had never really fared well at Monza while competing in the World Championship. The season before, he had been disqualified. In 1951, he retired from the race while at the wheel of a Talbot-Lago T26C. The same result would happen during the World Championship's inaugural season. Therefore, Claes was certainly looking and hoping for a better result.Unfortunately, Monza was another one of those circuits that fit within the mold in which the Connaught had not done well. Monza was yet another of the ultra-fast circuits where horsepower was of utmost importance. On top of it all, Monza was Italy's capital for motor racing and there were two Italian manufacturers playing the leading roles. This 'home court advantage' presented an even greater difficulty for Ecurie Belge. If the team had thought it played supporting or extra roles at the other World Championship races then at the Italian Grand Prix it would be as though they didn't even exist in the first place. The Tifosi only had one team really at heart. The rest of the crowd was interested in the other Modena-based car company.As usual, practice would be dominated by the Italian manufacturers from Maranello and Modena. Ascari would lead the way with a time of two minutes, two and seven-tenths seconds. Fangio would be 2nd on the grid with a time just half a second slower. Giuseppa Farina would make it two Ferraris on the front row when he ended up just seven-tenths slower than Fangio.Claes had gotten rather used to life at the head of the wrong end of a starting grid. At the Italian Grand Prix it would be no different. His time of two minutes and twenty-eight seconds would be only good enough for dead-last on the grid. He would end up having a long ahead of him starting from the 30th position overall and from the tenth row.The race would see Fangio make a poor start and fall back outside of the top five. Ascari would make a good start and would lead the way. However, he would be joined by Giuseppe Farina and Onofre Marimon. The Argentinean would actually come through and lead part of the first lap before being overtaken by Ascari while slipstreaming down one of the long straights.Claes was already having trouble right from the very start of the race. Something wasn't quite right. The engine was struggling to develop power and it was not running smoothly. However, Claes would continue on in hopes it would clear up.
Page 16Ecurie Belge had taken over a month to prepare the Connaught in order to take one more stab at the World Championship. Instead, what would happen would be the team would be stabbed right through the heart. After just 7 laps, a problem with a fuel line would end up causing Claes to retire from yet another Italian Grand Prix. At 80 laps in length, the team would have an opportunity to see the majority of the race while they packed up to leave.Similar in pace to Reims, what everyone would witness was a scaled-down version of the French Grand Prix. Fangio would make his way up to the front-runners again and a foursome that included Ascari, Farina, Fangio and Marimon, two Italians and two Argentineans, would hook up and would run wild and free around the circuit and through the rest of the field.The four cars at the front continued to run nose-to-tail lap after lap. They never were more than a car length or so away from each other every single time they crossed the start/finish line. It was yet another amazing sight to behold and it would be a sight that many of their fellow competitors would get to see a number of times before the end.About halfway through the foursome would lose one of its cars. Marimon would have radiator problems and would be forced to stay in the pits for a rather lengthy stop. The other three would continue to run together unabated. Lap after lap, Ascari, Farina and Fangio would run right with each other put on another amazing display of professional skill and respect for each other. It was with just about a couple of laps remaining that the three cars would come upon and lap the two other Ferrari pilots of Hawthorn and Villoresi. While Hawthorn decided to slow, Villoresi would do his best to try and stay with them and it would end up paying off in the end.Coming around to start the last lap of the race, the carnage had been terrible. The pace of the four, and then, three cars at the front had been such that there would be a number of cars still running at the end that were at least 15 laps behind. Another nine would drop out of the race because of mechanical problems. But going into the final lap of the race, the Italian crowd really only cared about what was happening at the front of the field. Two Italians driving Italian cars were on the verge of finishing 1st and 2nd. Behind them there was an Argentinean, but he too was driving an Italian car. So there was a lot of attention on these three men and the rest of the field would be forgotten about.A lot of pride was riding on the race. Ferrari's involvement in the World Championship the following year was in doubt, Farina would have certainly liked to have the opportunity to win just one more race as he was certainly getting up there in age, and then there was Ascari. Though already the first two-time World Champion he would have certainly liked to end the run of domination with one more victory.Heading into Vedano, the last two corners, Ascari's desire to win would be too strong to ignore. But Farina had position going through the corners. He only had one choice. He would have to try and go around the outside. Ascari would make the bold move going into the final corner. The car was dancing on the limits of adhesion. Then, all of a sudden, the car lost its balance and broke loose. Ascari, with lightning fast reflexes, tried to reign in the car. The car had actually broken loose right in front of Farina, which sent the first World Champion scrambling to avoid hitting his teammate. In the wake of the fall-out, Fangio, who had dropped back a couple of car lengths, was able to slip through and into the lead with just the start/finish straight left.It had all gone wrong for Ascari and it was about to get worse. Onofre Marimon had reentered the race and actually hooked back up with the same three he had been running with before his troubles arose. Unfortunately, while Fangio was able to sneak through, Marimon wouldn't. He was in the wrong place. He and Ascari would collide ending each other's day within sight of the finish line.Accepting his gift, Fangio would power his way down the straight, and in front of tens of thousands of shocked spectators and officials, would take the first victory for Maserati in the World Championship. Farina would manage to get by Ascari and would hold on to finish the race in 2nd place. It had been such a bitterly disappointing result given the fact he was well on his way to another victory. While it had been bitterly disappointing for Farina, the events ended up being a wonderful surprise for Villoresi. Though down a lap, because Ascari failed to complete the last lap, Villoresi was able to come through and take 3rd. Villoresi's attempt to keep pace had rewarded him with a surprise result.It had been a truly incredible and bewildering race. For Ecurie Belge it was straight-up demoralization. The season had gotten progressively worse. The team had spent a lot of money and had very little to show for it. The lack of pace out of the Connaught would make the frustrating time with Equipe Gordini, and the frustating Gordini T16 chassis seem like a vacation.Soon enough the team would be on 'vacation'. For the team, only one race would remain on the calendar before the disappointing 1953 season would come to an end. Thankfully for the team their final race would also be in Italy which meant they wouldn't have to travel very far.Ecurie Belge wouldn't have to travel very far to take part in what would be its final race of the 1953 season. However, where they would have to travel to would be right in the very soul of Maserati and Ferrari country. Their destination would be Modena and the 4th Gran Premio di Modena.The race took place on the 20th of September, just one week after the truly disappointing Italian Grand Prix. However, like Ecurie Belge's last half of the season, there would be a dark cloud of death and despair that would hang over Modena before the start of the race. Ecurie Belge wouldn't be the only Belgian-based team entered in the Grand Prix of Modena. Ecurie Francorchamps would also be at the race with Ferrari 500 and Charles de Tornaco as its driver. During practice, de Tornaco would lose control of the Ferrari. It would roll a number of times and, unfortunately, wouldn't throw the driver clear. As a result, de Tornaco would suffer numerous serious injuries and would late die as a result of them. This surely dampened the mood of the race even before it began.
Page 17The mood had already been dampened a fair degree when Ferrari boycotted the race and didn't enter even a single car in the race. This left Maserati really all alone and without much in the way of competition. This advantage would be evident at the end of practice.Juan Manuel Fangio would end up the fastest around the 1.46 mile circuit. His time would be one minute, six and two-tenths seconds. He would beat Marimon for the pole by just two-tenths of a second. The 3rd, and final, spot on the front row would then be taken by the privateer Maserati driver Emmanuel de Graffenried.As with the majority of the season, Claes would be looking at the field from the very back. His best time in practice would only be good enough for 13th on the starting grid, which was dead-last in the field on the fifth row.Modena represents the very soul of Italy's supercar manufacturing. Ferrari had started out based in the city before moving to Maranello. Maserati would still call Modena home. However, despite the presence of such giants the Grand Prix of Modena would take place around a temporary circuit based at a local aerodrome. Using the perimeter road and a good portion of the runway, the circuit would measure nearly a mile and a half long and would feature a number of high-speed corners despite being a slow to medium-speed circuit.In spite of the tragedy leading up to the event, the race would go on without delay. The race would be 100 laps of the circuit and would see Fangio lead away at the start. He would be closely followed by Marimon and de Graffenried. The rest of the field would snake their way around the circuit on the first lap. Trouble would come during that first lap for Jean Behra. His Gordini would suffer piston problems and would retire before even getting to a second lap.By the second lap of the race, Fangio and Marimon had begun to gap the rest of the field. Being dead-last, Claes would still be completing his first lap while Fangio would setting out part way through his second. It was obvious he would have Fangio coming up to lap him before too long.It was truly demoralizing. While Fangio and Marimon were already pulling away from the field, within just a few laps the two would be approaching to lap Claes for what would be the first of many times. This had to be truly frustrating and demoralizing after the season the team had been suffering from. It would only get worse.The attrition amongst the field would be surprisingly light. There would only be three cars that would officially retire from the race before the halfway mark. There would be another three that would retire in the second half. But there would be a large number that would be considered 'Not Classified' by the end.Helped along by a fastest lap time of one minute and five seconds, Fangio began to really put some space between himself and Marimon. But the gap to the rest of the field was already at least a lap as the race headed into the second half.Not all was demoralizing for Claes and the team. Despite starting the race dead-last, he was still running and would even manage to get by a struggling Kenneth McAlpine in another Connaught.While Fangio was already putting together a truly dominating performance, with around ten laps remaining, he would put the final touches on his effort. He would manage to get around de Graffenried for the second time in the race. This meant that 3rd on down through the order was at least two laps down. Such a dominating performance it was by Fangio.It would take just an hour, fifty-two minutes and nine seconds for Fangio to complete the 100 lap race and take the victory. He would end up forty-seven seconds in front of Marimon in 2nd place. Marimon would also just clip de Graffenried at the line to put the Swiss Baron two laps behind in 3rd place.Claes would complete his last race of the season, but it wouldn't be the performance of a lifetime. In fact, 'officially' Claes wouldn't finish the last race of the season. Claes would follow Fangio across the line about sixteen seconds behind. However, Claes would end up the sixteen seconds plus thirty-four laps behind Fangio at the finish. Being what amounted to about fifty minutes behind Fangio at the finish, Claes would end up 'Not Classified'. This non-classification would adequately describe the type of season in which Ecurie Belge would suffer through over the course of the 1953 season.After taking part in four World Championship races and having a very very distant 12th place be the best result, the future was quite undecided for Claes and his team. The new Formula One regulations were set to start the following season, which meant the team would likely need a new car. This all cost money.
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