TeamsEcurie National Belge: 1959 Formula One Season By Jeremy McMullen
What's in a name? According to the Royal Automobile Club de Belgique, no team name could include the national name as it wouldn't appear right that a couple of individuals would lay claim to be Belgium's national racing team. But all of that would change in 1955 when the R.A.C.B. went looking for a sponsor.
In 1949, Johnny Claes would begin his racing career, after having been taken back by the whole sight and spectacle of racing having served as an interpreter for a couple of English drivers, would enter a yellow-colored car in the Paris Grand Prix. The name he would choose to drive under would be Ecurie Belge.
Around the same time Claes was making his first impressions in grand prix racing, Jacques Swaters would be founding a garage in Brussels and would tune cars on the side. He, and three friends Charles de Tornaco; Andre Pilette and Roger Laurent, would form a team calling it Ecurie Belgique.
This confusion and gall would lead to the R.A.C.B. determining the team names needed to be changed. Swaters' effort would comply calling their team by a new name, Ecurie Francorchamps. Soon afterward, Swaters would become a very important and prominent Ferrari dealer and would get the opportunity to purchase a Ferrari 500 F2 chassis.
Many of the individuals involved would end up driving for both teams at different times or another, one of those being in 1952 at the Aldi Grand Prix in which Andre Pilette went off the road in Claes' Talbot-Lago destroying the car.
Success would come Swaters' way entering his team in endurance sportscar races, including a 9th place overall finish with a Jaguar C Type in the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans. Then there would be a victory at Avus in 1953 when Swaters famously won at the high-speed German circuit in the Ferrari F2.
Unfortunately, Swaters would not enjoy much in the way of success in grand prix racing. He would earn much more respect in sportscar races. But then, in 1955 things would change.
The R.A.C.B. would be looking for sponsorship opportunities in order to foster a greater national presence in international motorsport. The Dutch petroleum company, Shell, would be interested in supporting the effort but there needed to be a team name representative of the intended plans. By this point in time Claes was no longer intent on racing and most of the other Belgian entities were all doing their own things, or, were driving for other teams. Therefore, it would be agreed that Claes' and Swaters' efforts would combine to form Ecurie Nationale Belge. Now, all of a sudden, displaying ties toward being a national Belgian contingent would be alright.
Interestingly, the new amalgamation of the two efforts would take part in just one race in the 1955 Formula One World Championship, but it would not be the Belgian Grand Prix. Instead, fitting of the sponsorship from Shell, the first race for the new effort would be the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.
Johnny Claes, who was already at the end of his racing career, would have the right to the first race. Though never a three to win with a much older 2.5-liter version Ferrari 500, the yellow-livered Ecurie Nationale Belge Ferrari would still come through to finish 11th in its one and only World Championship race of the season. After that, the team would promptly disappear from Formula One for the next few years.
Following that debut performance at Zandvoort in 1955, Ecurie Nationale Belge would be mostly an entrant in sportscar races. In 1956, Swaters and Freddy Rousselle would finish 4th in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Andre Pilette would pilot a D-Type to a 2nd place finish at Montlhery. Another 4th place result would come in the '57 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
By this point in time Swaters' garage would be thriving and he would become a very prominent presence for Ferrari within the region. Jacques would end his racing career to focus on his garage business and Olivier Gendebien was taking over the driving duties in sportscars. All throughout this time the Ecurie Nationale Belge and Ecurie Francorchamps name would be used, which not only continued to cause confusion, but did bother Shell a little bit. Of course, this was bound to bother the sponsor after Gendebien won the Giro di Sicilia, 12 Hours of Reims and Tour de France in 1957 all under the Ecurie Francorchamps team banner.
Considering that Swaters was a dealer for Ferrari and that he had earned that right through much of his own efforts, it was not all that surprising that he would enter his cars, which were usually Ferrari 250TRs, under his own team name.
The team name swapping would continue into 1958. Gendebien would take even more victories throughout the 1958 season driving under both the Ecurie Francorchamps and Ecurie Nationale Belge names. It didn't really seem to matter. It was the only yellow car on just about any grid. Everyone knew who the team was, even if the name changed from race to race.
Sportscar success and Ecurie Francorchamps seemed inseparable, but what about Formula One? Swaters' effort had achieved so much success in sportscars, including another victory in the 12 Hours of Reims and a third victory in the Tour de France for Gendebien, that a return to Formula One seemed natural.
Judging a return to Formula One would be difficult. Though Swaters was a dealer for Ferrari, gaining use of the latest single-seater would be practically difficult. In 1958, Gendebien took part in the Belgian Grand Prix in a yellow Ferrari Dino 246, but it was entered under the Scuderia Ferrari team name. Therefore, it was looking like Swaters' outfit would have to look across the Channel for a car to use in the World Championship.
Throughout the 1958 season, the Cooper had routinely impressed. The small, nimble machine consistently proved a bigger engine wasn't always necessary to compete. In fact, at certain circuits, the Cooper wasn't just competitive, it was the car to have.
Swaters and everyone involved was interested in making a low-key return to Formula One; a time of testing the waters once again, if you will. Therefore, a Cooper would be the ideal compromise. Therefore, the team would purchase a couple of the latest T51s to use for the '59 season and the first round of the championship.
Unlike the previous handful of seasons, the first round of the '59 World Championship would take place on European soil. What's more, the first round of the championship would also be the biggest race of the season as it was the Monaco Grand Prix.
Formula One was still reeling from a '58 season in which three top-flight drivers would be killed and the World Champion, Mike Hawthorn, would die in an automobile accident in January. In many cases, teams and drivers just wanted to get on with the new season and put behind them, if possible, the events of the past 12 months.
However, there would be plenty of time to wait for the start of the season. Without the Argentine Grand Prix to lead the way in the middle of January, the World Championship would not begin until the middle of May. This would be welcome for Ecurie Nationale Belge who would take delivery of a couple of Cooper T51s a short time earlier in the season.
Having just taken delivery of the Coopers, the team would be in a tough position heading into the Monaco Grand Prix on the 10th of May. As usual, just sixteen cars would be allowed to start the race. This was not going to be easy for a couple of reasons. Not only had the team just taken delivery of the Coopers, but the entry list would be filled with nearly 30 entries. Now, not all of those entries would even arrive as nearly half a dozen would not materialize as a result of cars not being ready. However, there would still be well more than 20 cars fighting it out for just 16 spots on the grid. There were obviously going to be some going home early and very disappointed.
The ENB outfit had to be encouraged as Stirling Moss would end up taking the pole in a Cooper T51 with a lap time of 1:39.8. This time would beat out Jean Behra's 1:40.0 in a Ferrari 246 Dino and Jack Brabham's 1:40.1 in another Cooper T51. However, as the practice times began to roll in it would become evident the gap between first on the grid and sixteenth was not going to be very large. Bruce Halford would end up in the last place on the grid in a Lotus 16 setting a time of 1:44.8. He would be just five seconds off the pole and ENB drivers, Lucien Bianchi and Alain de Changy, would have practically no time behind the wheel of the Cooper. It was going to be close.
The Monaco Circuit would be the same as it had been in the past. Covering a total of 1.95 miles, the circuit would feature some fast sections, but would be mostly tight and twisty; ideal for the light and nimble Cooper. Therefore, Bianchi and de Changy would be in the ideal car, but could they pull it off?
Lap after lap, the two ENB drivers would push their Coopers to the limit. By the end of the practice sessions both would set identical lap times of 1:45.4. Sadly, both would be a little more than half a second off the pace. Both would fail to make it into the race.
Ecurie Nationale Belge would make a low-key return to the grand prix scene. It would be so low-key they would fail to make it into the only race in which they attempted to enter over the course of the '59 season. However, the team would attempt to take part in one more grand prix over the course of the '59 season. It would come toward the end of the season and would be a non-championship affair.
The Belgian Grand Prix would be absent from the World Championship calendar in 1959, and so, Ecurie Nationale Belge would choose to avoid all the rest of the rounds of the World Championship and, instead, would concentrate on a non-championship event held on the 10th of October. The race was the 4th edition of the Silver City Trophy race and would take place around the 2.70 mile Snetterton circuit located in Norfolk in England.
The Silver City Trophy race would consist of a 25 lap event and would be open to both Formula One and Formula 2 cars. The field would be relatively large with over twenty entries for the race. ENB would arrive at the event with its two Cooper T51s. They would be driven by Andre Pilette and Lucien Bianchi.
Despite having had more time to get acquainted with and comfortable behind the wheel of the Coopers, both Bianchi and Pilette would struggle compared to the competition. Of course, they would take part in the Formula 2 category. The fastest man around the quick circuit would be Ron Flockhart. He would end up two-tenths of a second quicker than Roy Salvadori and would be joined on the front row by Graham Hill, Bruce Halford and Innes Ireland as well.
Flockhart's best time, which would be set in the BRM 25, would be 1:34.8. The quickest of the Formula 2 runners would be Mike McKee. He would start in 10th position. Pilette would prove to be the quickest of the ENB drivers. He would be more than six seconds slower around the circuit than Flockhart and would end up on the fourth row of the grid in the 17th position overall, but this would still be an okay starting spot against the other Formula 2 cars. This would be better than Bianchi, who would end up on the fifth, and final, row of the grid in the 19th position overall.
Bianchi's poor run in practice would seem to suggest a deeper issue. His failure to start the race would confirm this fact. However, Pilette would take the flag and would do his best to try and compete with the rest of the Formula One and Formula 2 cars in the field over the course of the 25 lap race.
Ron Flockhart would not only start the race from the pole. He would go on to set the fastest lap of the race and would storm his way to victory. However, he would need to storm his way throughout as he would be pressed at nearly every moment by Jack Brabham in one of the factory Coopers. Brabham would push Flockhart so hard the Scot would end up lowering the track record by more than four seconds and would push past the 100mph average mark during the race. Still, he would hold on and not make a mistake to take the victory over the soon-to-be World Champion.
Pilette would be impressive during the race. Though he would start down in 17th position, he would use attrition and ability to move up throughout the 25 laps. At the end of the race, the Belgian would be more than a lap behind Flockhart, but he would be very strong in Formula 2. Finishing the race 11th overall, Pilette would show well finishing 4th in Formula 2.
This would prove to be a strong turn-around after the team's non-qualifying effort in Monaco. Sadly, this would be offset by Bianchi's failure to start, but it would still be an encouraging ending to a very abbreviated grand prix schedule.
In spite of the failure to qualify in Monaco, and the one other race the team would take part in over the course of the '58 season, ENB was to make a comeback in grand prix racing. The results would not deter the team, and it would not be another four years before the team would even attempt to take part in a grand prix. In fact, the team's next attempt would end up being its most successful.