Johnny Claes: Part 3 – A Claes Of His Own

1951 had been Johnny Claes’ most successful season, with three race wins, while 1952’s switch to Formula Two regulations allowed him to be more competitive regularly. After these two years, Johnny’s results would fade away, but he would not go down without a fight.

1953: His Greatest Drive

Finding himself without an open-wheel car for the 1953 season, Johnny turned to England, more specifically Send in Surrey, where Ken McAlpine, Rodney Clarke and Mike Oliver’s Continental Autos had manufactured the Connaught Type A since 1950. The Type A had scored an impressive 4-5 finish at the British Grand Prix in 1952, and the Scots Rob Walker and David Murray both bought a model for their respective teams as well. Testing the car at the factory, Claes’ mechanic Roberto Bianchi, rather than simply drive in the courtyard, blasted out the factory gates and onto the A3 for a drive on open roads. The police were reportedly unfazed by the racket caused by the engine.

The first race of Johnny’s season was in Pau, and managing to notch up a decent amount of practice laps to get used to his new car, he qualified in a promising eighth position out of fourteen entrants. Towards the end of the race, still running in this solid eighth place ahead of Nello Pagani, Roger Laurent and Eugène Martin, one of the Connaught’s brakes locked, sending Johnny into the straw bales. No damage was done, but the engine stalled on an uphill portion of the circuit. As no assistance was allowed from marshals, Johnny’s race was over, but the performance was a sign that the Connaught would be a relatively competitive car.

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Johnny’s Connaught finds the straw bales on its first outing in yellow.

A month later, the hectic season would truly start in Bordeaux, again racing against the top racing drivers of the day. Returning to his usual form, Johnny started in last place before running a trademark consistent (if unspectacular) race, bringing home the Connaught in sixth place, 8 laps down in a 120-lap race, ahead of Prince Bira and Robert Mières. Swiftly moving towards Silverstone and avoiding the dock strike affecting France at the time, Johnny competed in the BRDC International Trophy the following week, one of 36 drivers entered.

Starting seventh in a heat of 20 cars and with 14 cars from each heat making the final, Johnny could race easy, and indeed, he finished the heat in a sufficient twelfth position. Starting the final in 22nd place, he steadily gained ground throughout the 35-lap race to finish 15th of 21 finishers, notably ahead of Jacques Swaters, Ian Stewart and Eric Brandon. The wheel-to-wheel combat would prepare Johnny for a very different race the following week.

On May 17th, Johnny headed back to Belgium for the production car race in Francorchamps, where the local car dealers had hired the likes of Jacques Swaters, Paul Frère, André Pilette, Roger Laurent, André Milhoux, Olivier Gendebien, four-time Liège-Rome-Liège winner Jean Trasenster and, of course, Johnny himself. The cars would receive a handicap based on fuel consumption and list price, before a two-hour handicap race. Johnny would compete for Lincoln, alongside Trasenster and Roger Warnotte, who had won the year before.

Johnny pulled out an early lead in the powerful American car, but he was soon caught by Frère in the Chrysler as well as Warnotte, his own teammate. After an exciting battle, Johnny had to relinquish the outright win to Frère, although Warnotte was close enough to take the class victory on handicap. However, on absolute terms, the handicap victory for the whole event went to the Dyna-Panhard, which was at a significant advantage thanks to its small engine displacement.

Remaining in Belgium, Johnny took the Connaught to Chimay for the Grand Prix des Frontières, this time with opposition coming from the Gordini of Trintignant and the new Maserati of Bira. Despite the advantage of local knowledge, Johnny had no chance to win on pace alone, but when Bira retired on the third lap, Johnny found himself fighting for second place with Roger Laurent, with whom he had collided the previous year. 1953 would be no different, as they tangled on the 18th lap of 20. Laurent continued unscathed, but Johnny retired, losing a certain podium spot to Fred Wacker. He was classified in sixth place nonetheless.

The Albi Grand Prix was principally a chance for manufacturers to test their 1954 machinery ahead of the reintroduction of Formula One regulations, with both a Formula One and a Formula Two heat run, as well as a final combining both of them. Johnny brought his trusty Connaught F2, finishing his heat in seventh place out of nine starters. This was enough to qualify him for the final, against Formula One opposition. With no hope of being competitive, Johnny focused on finishing, which he did, in sixth place and third of the F2 cars, behind Roberto Mières and Peter Whitehead, but ahead of Tom Cole.

On June 7th, the European World Championship season began in Zandvoort. The Argentine Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 had already taken place, but this would be the first opportunity for the vast majority of drivers who had neither the money to travel to Buenos Aires nor the will to attend a race held to a different set of regulations. Three works Connaughts were also present, driven by McAlpine, Stirling Moss and Roy Salvadori. Being better prepared, they outpaced Johnny, who would start the race from 17th out of 19, ahead of Ken Wharton and Roberto Mières. Unfortunately, his race would amount to nothing but a series of endless pit stops to mend recurring rear suspension issues. Johnny had the merit of finishing the race, albeit a massive 38 laps down after 90 laps had been completed by race winner Alberto Ascari.

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The number 6 Maserati driven by Claes, and later Fangio, waits in the pits before the Belgian Grand Prix.

For the Belgian Grand Prix two weeks later, Johnny once again found himself offered a guest drive for a works team. As he had become good friends with Juan Manuel Fangio, he was offered a fourth Maserati, and he was happy to oblige. Of course, as starting money was still vital for his operation, he brought along his Connaught to be raced by André Pilette, who had finally recovered from his Albi crash the previous year. Driving a slightly more obsolete chassis than his teammates, Johnny initially had trouble finding pace, but in the last practice session, he switched to the more updated spare car, and set the tenth-fastest time. Fangio, having already secured pole, decided to take a few laps in the car, and promptly blew Johnny out of the water. When Johnny asked Fangio his secret, the Argentine’s reply was simply: “Less brake, more accelerator.” Pilette, in the only Connaught, qualified 18th.

At the start of the race, the Maseratis of José Froilán González and Fangio took the lead and pulled away, which was a massive surprise considering Ferrari had won all nine championship races held to Formula Two rules. Onofre Marimón, in the third Maserati, was in seventh place, and Johnny was content with tenth place, hoping to gain ground through attrition. When attrition did hit, however, it started with González on lap 12. One lap later, Fangio pulled into the pits with engine trouble. Johnny, as the most expendable driver, was immediately told to pit and hand his car to Fangio. He did so in a heartbeat, exchanging a handshake and a pat on the back as the Argentine returned to the race in eighth position.

Fangio immediately started lapping at a pace equal to the leading Ferraris and quickly gained ground. Farina retired soon after, and on lap 20, he passed the duelling Maurice Trintignant and Toulo de Graffenried, finding himself in fifth place. Hawthorn then pitted when his fuel pipe developed a leak, followed by Marimón, whose engine had developed a misfire. Suddenly, Fangio was in third place, and Johnny was there with him. That is, until the final lap. Exiting Stavelot, the Maserati’s steering column seemingly failed, sending Fangio into a spin that ended with the back of the car sticking out of a ditch. Fangio was only bruised in the accident, but despite being classified in third place by today’s standards, as the car had not crossed the finish line, it was not classified. Johnny would otherwise have received two World Championship points. He did not get any. Pilette did finish the race in the Connaught, albeit in eleventh and last, seven laps behind.

The Grand Prix at Rouen held a week later, much like the one at Albi, was open to Formula 2 cars, old Formula 1 cars and the upcoming 2.5-litre Formula 1 cars that would compete from 1954 onwards. One of six drivers in F2 machinery, Johnny once again started in last position, his performance constantly deteriorating through a chronic lack of maintenance or upgrades. The tired car retired from the race after 27 laps with a broken transmission shaft. After a series of swift repairs, the monotonous journey from circuit to circuit brought the field to Reims for the French Grand Prix.

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Johnny (left, in the Connaught) avoids the spinning Gordini of Maurice Trintignant, while Pierre Levegh does so on the outside.

A 12-hour sportscar race was taking place the same weekend, severely restricting potential practice time. Some drivers were caught out by this, as Behra, Trintignant, Mières, Chiron and Claes hadn’t been able to practice extensively, resulting in the five of them setting lap times over a minute slower than Ascari’s pole. Nonetheless, they were all allowed to start, Johnny in 21st place out of 25. The race itself is best remembered for the titanic battle for victory between Juan Manuel Fangio and Mike Hawthorn, but Johnny drove a trademark safe race. The Gordinis quickly escaped the back of the pack, but Johnny was able to immediately pass Yves Giraud-Cabantous, later passing Ken Wharton, Peter Collins and Stirling Moss to finish in twelfth place, seven laps down.

After competing in the unfamiliar AVUS Rennen, where he finished in an anonymous sixth position, Johnny planned on entering the 24 Hours of Spa, the first time the race had been run since 1949, in conjunction with the very first World Sports Car Championship. However, as he had no car to enter, he sought out a local driver who did. The resulting association led to a partnership with a mysterious figure known only under the pseudonym “Thillios”, with the pair slated to drive a Fiat 1100. The car did arrive at the circuit, but was wrecked during one of the practice sessions. It isn’t known which of the two drivers was driving at the time, but the entry had to be abandoned. “Thillios” had never made a previous appearance at a racing event, and never would again.

Under increasingly heavy financial pressure, Johnny couldn’t afford to make the cross-Channel trip to the British Grand Prix, instead taking time to repair his Connaught and heading to the Nürburgring. Unlike the previous year, Johnny would drive his own car and be able to complete some practice, lining up 25th on F1’s largest-ever grid, featuring a full 34 cars. Johnny would struggle during the race, barely keeping the slowest local privateers behind. He managed to compete with Ernst Klodwig, Oswald Karch and Wolfgang Seidel for some laps, but his race ended on lap 13 when his Lea-Francis engine expired.

A quick rebuild later, Johnny was present in Sables d’Olonne a week later for the two-heat race on the Atlantic French coast against an opposition consisting mainly of privateers, with Gordini and HWM sending factory teams. With a shoddily-repaired car, Johnny couldn’t hope for much, and after only scraping to the finish in heat 1, he failed to start the second heat, his magneto having completely given up the ghost. After this string of bad results, Johnny needed a great performance to boost his season. This he achieved thanks to Jean Trasenster.

Trasenster was one of Claes’ teammates at the production car race at Spa earlier in the year, and had already won the Liège-Rome-Liège rally in 1934, 1935, 1938 and 1939. In 1953, the rally was part of the inaugural European Rally Championship, and both Trasenster and Claes decided that they’d give the event another crack. Using Trasenster’s Lancia Aurelia, they started the race as clear favourites. They set about dominating the event, held without any official stoppage time, but before they reached Rome, Trasenster fell ill and became unable to drive. Undeterred and refusing to abandon the race, Johnny decided to finish the race on his own.

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Johnny, wearing a suit and tie, poses in front of the Lancia Aurelia inside the Prince-Bishops’ Palace in Liège.

Pressing on to Rome, then returning to Liège through the Alps, Johnny drove the Aurelia non-stop for a simply staggering 52 hours, taking an unholy amount of risk simply to earn victory. After covering 2700 kilometres solo, Claes arrived in Spa (the actual end of the rally) with a total of only 16 minutes and 47 seconds of penalties. He had secured the victory in a stunning feat of human endurance that would remain tragically underrated and increasingly forgotten throughout the history of the sport. Finishing in second and third place as co-drivers were two young Belgians who would go on to become Belgium’s leading drivers. One was Olivier Gendebien, the other was the son of Johnny’s own mechanic, Lucien Bianchi, only 18 years old.

With victory secured and his season saved, Johnny still had to finish the open wheel season with the obligatory short tour of Italy. The Italian Grand Prix, having removed the grid restrictions from 1952, at least had the merit of seeing Johnny on the grid, albeit in last place. To put an end to his already miserable weekend, Johnny retired before the tenth lap with a fuel delivery issue. After the race, the spare works Maserati was left behind for a private owner to purchase, with test drives allowed on a first-come-first-served basis. This resulted in the rather surrealistic sight of some of the world’s top drivers, Johnny included, queuing for the privilege of driving a car.

Pressing on to the Modena Grand Prix, the race weekend was overshadowed by shoddy track conditions and sketchy organisation, culminating in the death of Charles de Tornaco during practice. No safety crew or marshals were present to help him, and the young Belgian aristocrat died on the way to the hospital in a private car. Thankfully, no such accident happened during the race, but Johnny’s own weekend was a damp squib from the very beginning. Starting in last position in his by-now rough-sounding and barely running Connaught, he finished the race a full 34 laps down in a 100-lap race.

The 1953 season had come to a close much like 1952 had, with a slowly deteriorating Formula 2 car resulting in decreasingly impressive performances. Despite this, Johnny had impressed when the Connaught was new, had come close to scoring two points in the Belgian Grand Prix (albeit through no fault of his own), and had recorded one of the single greatest victories in the history of motorsport. This combined to grant him the title of Belgian Drivers’ Champion for the fourth and final time. Indeed, over the off season, Johnny began to develop ill health. He was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis, which, combined with decreasing finances, would force him to abandon single-seater racing in 1954.

1954: Difficulties

The issue of obsolete machinery and rising costs that had forced Formula 1 regulations to be abandoned in 1952 was solved during the two odd years in which the World Championship was dominated by Alberto Ascari’s Formula 2 Ferrari. The solution was a brand-new set of engine rules, setting a maximum engine displacement of 2.5 litres and banning supercharged engines altogether. These regulations ushered in a new generation of cars, such as the Maserati 250F, the Ferrari 625, the Lancia D50 and the Mercedes W196.

While Formula 2 cars remained allowed, they wouldn’t stand a chance, and Johnny knew this. Left without any money to by a brand new single-seater, he simply sold off the Connaught and set about finding a drive. He found solace in the help of friendly rival and fellow Brussels native Jacques Swaters, whose Ecurie Francorchamps operation was in similar dire straits. To make some more money on the side, Johnny turned to writing, becoming the continental correspondent for Autosport Magazine.

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Jacques Herzet (behind the wheel) and Lucien Bianchi pose with the Ferrari 166MM before the 1954 Tour de France automobile. Johnny Claes would drive this car for most of that year.

Joining forces and using the financial resources of Francorchamps driver Jacques Herzet, the team was able to start the season with two races in Brazil, using the 1953 Ferrari 166 that Herzet had bought from Swaters, the owner of the only official Ferrari dealership in Belgium. Herzet had already co-driven the car to third place in the Liège-Rome-Liège rally the previous year with Lucien Bianchi, making the whole operation easier for everyone. However, the 166 was heavily modified, although not very well, resulting in a car that was an awkward mix between a Ferrari 166 and a Jaguar C-Type which looked “very bulky”, to quote Motorsport Magazine.

The first of the two races was on the long and tortuous Gávea circuit on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Opposition from Europe was limited to Toulo de Graffenried and Hans Stuck, although local Formula 1 drivers Chico Landi and Gino Bianco were also present. Stuck retired from the race, while de Graffenried won, but struggling on an unfamiliar circuit, Claes and Herzet could only finish in a lowly sixth position. The following week in São Paolo, Johnny discovered the Interlagos circuit on his own, Herzet sitting out the meeting. Struggling with the new car and track, he finished tenth, lapped eight times in 40 laps by de Graffenried.

As his illness worsened, Johnny was forced to sit out most of the season and focus on a handful of major races, at which he would have a hard time competing. In May, he competed in the famous Mille Miglia for the first and only time, driving a Fiat Marino Coupe with local specialist Marino Brandoli in the category for sportscars under 750cc of displacement. With an underpowered and slowly aging car, the pair finished 159th of 182 finishers, 378 cars having started the event. They were only 13th in their class, ahead of only a Dyna Panhard.

Willing to repeat his experience from 1951, Johnny then tried to find himself a drive for the 24 Hours of le Mans. He succeeded, striking up a partnership with powerful newspaper editor and occasional racing driver Pierre Stasse. Stasse had already competed in high-profile sportscar races, and using his connections from his newspaper “Les Sports”, he struck a deal with the works Porsche team to enter a fourth Porsche 550 for the race, alongside the partnerships of Richard von Frankenberg/Helm Glöckler, Hans Herrmann/Helmut Polensky and Zora Arkus-Duntov/Gustave Olivier. Arkus-Duntov would later go on to play a key role in the development of the Chevrolet Corvette, earning the nickname “Father of the Corvette”.

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The class-winning Porsche 550, Claes driving and Pierre Stasse on the left, pushing.

Best remembered for a thrilling chase by defending winners Duncan Hamilton an Tony Rolt to attempt to catch the eventual winning Ferrari of José Froilán González and Maurice Trintignant, the race was mostly a disappointment for Porsche. Von Frankenberg and Glöckler retired after just five laps, while Herrmann and Polensky would pull out halfway through the race with an engine failure. Arkus-Duntov and Olivier were in a lowly position, but Claes and Stasse were running consistently in the high-attrition race.

They started losing a lot of time in the later stages of the race, constantly making interminable pit stops to tinker with failing brakes. Going into the final hour of the race, they were in fourteenth place, third in their class behind two works O.S.C.A. entries. Suddenly, in the space of minutes, the number 42 O.S.C.A. crashed out of the race, and the number 43 was disqualified for receiving outside assistance following a spin. The positions would not change, and Johnny Claes and Pierre Stasse finished the race in 12th position, first and only finishers in their class.

One week later, the Belgian Grand Prix was run with only 14 drivers, and for the first time since 1948, Johnny Claes was not one of them. Still unable to purchase a car of his own, he couldn’t talk his way into a guest drive with a works team either, and would have to be content with attending the race as a spectator. He would nonetheless play a role that weekend, driving his friend Juan Manuel Fangio and his long-time partner back to Spa itself following the Argentine’s dominant victory, doing so in the same Lancia Aurelia with which he had himself driven so brilliantly in the Liège-Rome-Liège rally.

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Johnny Claes talks to his unlikely friend Juan Manuel Fangio at Spa in 1954.

Strong from his Le Mans performance, Johnny entered the 12 Hours of Reims in early July, co-driving the Ferrari 166 with Jacques Herzet. Unfortunately, this time, the fickle gods of attrition would not flatter their performance, and they finished in an underwhelming 17th position, all the more disappointing considering that their teammates Swaters and Laurent co-drove a Jaguar C-Type to third place in the same race, behind only the brand new works D-Types. After this lacklustre performance, Johnny’s only other race of 1954 was a half-hearted attempt at the Penya Rhin Grand Prix held as a support race to the Spanish Grand Prix at Pedralbes. Again suffering from an aging and all-around ill-performing car as well as from his own illness, he finished in dead last.

His involvement in motorsport slipping along with his failing health, Johnny could in no way look back at his season with pride. His decision to pair up with Swaters may have allowed him to continue racing, but being stuck with the awkward and slow Ferrari of Jacques Herzet while Swaters and Laurent drove up front with a competitive Jaguar would leave a bad taste in Johnny’s mouth. For the first time since 1949, Johnny was not crowned Belgian Drivers’ Champion, a title which went to André Pilette, who had finished fifth in the Belgian Grand Prix driving for Gordini that year. This situation would not remain the same the following year.

1955: Rebirth and Death

At the end of the 1954 season, Jacques Swaters had also reached a point where he no longer had enough money to go racing, leaving the whole Belgian privateer scene in a lurch. However, while Claes and Swaters no longer had cash, they still had a very important asset: connections. Playing every card they had, the two slowly roped more and more potential partners into their venture, and in January 1955, the Ecurie Nationale Belge was born.

Swaters and Claes were the brains behind the operations, with André Pilette, Roger Laurent and Paul Frère joining as drivers, soon to be added to by Olivier Gendebien. Pierre Stasse, Claes’ Le Mans teammate and newspaper executive, would officially be running the team’s finances. Through the support of “Les Sports”, the new team would garner attention from both the French- and Dutch-speaking press, as well as privileged technical partnerships from Englebert for tyres and Belgian Shell for fuel, amongst others.

As the operation began to gain traction, Johnny gained a new lease of life. His health improved, and while the team itself focused on sportscars, acquiring two Ferrari 750s, Johnny felt well enough to start attending more race meetings, including Formula 1. However, the first race of Johnny’s season would be the production car race at Spa, his third attempt at it. Driving for Ford this year, the weekend was split into three races. The first was a sportscar race won by Frère in a works Aston Martin, ahead of the two Ferraris of Swaters and Laurent. Jacques Herzet, in his old Ferrari, finished ninth. The second was a production car race, also won by Frère, this time in an Alfa Romeo. The final race was reserved for American cars and was dominated by the Fords. Virtually nothing is known of the race itself aside from the result: Johnny Claes and André Milhoux finished the race side by side, unable to be separated even through a frame-by-frame photo review.

The season proper started the following week for Johnny at the Bari Grand Prix, where he’d be driving the Ferrari 750. Up against the likes of Behra, Luigi Musso and Masten Gregory, Johnny wanted to make an impression. Unfortunately, he would be able to, retiring from the race while teammate Swaters finished the race in sixth place. Two weeks later, at the Grand Prix des Frontières, Johnny finally regained his pace of old, dominating the race from the start and creating an unassailable lead over Benoît Musy. Unfortunately, on the very last lap, Johnny lost control of the still-unfamiliar 750 and crashed out of what would be his final race at Chimay.

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Claes (left) and Swaters (right) (pictured at Le Mans in 1955) were rivals for most of their driving careers, before joining forces in 1955.

For the Belgian Grand Prix, Johnny finally managed to find himself a drive, getting Stirling Moss to agree to bring over his own Maserati 250F for Claes to drive. Moss himself was driving for Mercedes and wouldn’t really need the Maserati. However, as he was working on the engine to prepare for the final practice session, Johnny made a mistake while changing some bearings and damaged the engine. Unfortunately, the damage was grave enough that he would not be able to start his home race at all.

For the following sportscar race, Swaters and Claes finally decided to come together and drive in tandem, behind the wheel of a brand new D-Type Jaguar. Up against stiff works opposition from Mercedes, Aston Martin and Jaguar, this would be their best chance at victory. The race in question was the 24 Hours of le Mans.

Many articles have been written about the events that occurred on lap 35. Many a video has been posted to YouTube, many a documentary has been produced. The details of the tragic accident that took the lives of 85 people, including driver Pierre Levegh, and injured over 120 more, need not be explained. It remains a controversial decision to this day for the organisers not to have cancelled the race. The remainder of the Mercedes team pulled out of the race shortly after 2am. Amongst the chaos and confusion that followed the accident, the race remained subdued, and at the end of the 24 hours, the Jaguar of Claes and Swaters emerged in third position. This was the first major success for ENB, but it was not a time for celebration.

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An increasingly ill Johnny Claes (right) with a young Lucien Bianchi (left) during the former’s final attempt at the Liège-Rome-Liège rally.

The Dutch Grand Prix was next on the schedule, and it was not cancelled by virtue of being held so soon after Le Mans that it did not have the time to be called off. Driving a Formula 2 Ferrari 500 on the Zandvoort circuit would be a disadvantage for anyone, and that is exactly what happened to Johnny, who found himself driving Louis Rosier’s old car, albeit painted yellow. As ENB did not own any other single seaters, Claes was never going to set the world alight, but desperately wanting to start one final F1 race, he pressed on. He qualified in last place, 13 seconds behind Fangio’s pole time of 1 minute 40 seconds, and aside from a brief episode where Jacques Pollet’s Gordini wound up behind him, Johnny spent the entire race mired in last place, eventually finishing eleventh and last, twelve laps down.

Aside from an aborted attempt to compete in the sportscar Portuguese Grand Prix, Johnny would almost completely stop racing at this point, his ill health catching up to him once more. Nonetheless, he persevered and entered the Liège-Rome-Liège rally for one final attempt at success. Teaming up with Lucien Bianchi, the boy who had come over from Milan with his father to work as a mechanic for Johnny in 1950, Johnny wheeled out the rally-winning Lancia Aurelia from 1953 once again. As the race progressed, Johnny’s suffering only increased, and while he still drove, main duties fell to his 20-year-old co-driver, who was finally taking his first steps as a lead driver. In what would be Johnny’s final success, he and Lucien finished the rally in third place.

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The Claes and Bianchi Lancia Aurelia tackles a tricky mountain pass.

Johnny could have called his career a day after this, but instead, he decided to enter the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod with Swaters on September 18th 1955. Starting towards the middle of the field, in 26th place, the pair drove steadily to place the Ferrari 750 in a creditable if not particularly impressive thirteenth position. This would prove to be Johnny Claes’ last race. He was offered a works Vanguard drive for the Monte Carlo Rally in 1956, but turned it down.

Always on the sickly side throughout his life, Johnny’s health had begun to suffer from late 1953, but beginning in the Summer of 1955, it started to rapidly deteriorate, leaving him unable to drive. At the end of 1955, Johnny relinquished his control over Ecurie Nationale Belge to Jacques Swaters and retired to his home in Brussels. Octave John Claes finally succumbed to tuberculosis on February 2nd 1956. He was only 39 years old.

Legacy

Soon after Johnny’s death, ENB would begin to thrive. With the addition of the likes of Freddy Rousselle, Georges Harris, Léon Dernier, Alain de Changy and Georges Hacquin, but also Lucien Bianchi (by now a professional racing driver in his own right) and later Willy Mairesse, the team became a constant presence at high-level sportscar events around Europe. In the late 1950s, the team turned to open-wheel racing, and would be very successful in Formula 2. Making the leap to Formula 1 in 1959, they had success in minor non-championship races, including a victory at the 1960 South African Grand Prix by Paul Frère in one of his last races.

Unfortunately, the Formula 1 adventure would turn to disaster with a series of bad decisions in terms of cars, and after 1962, the team ceased open-wheel operations, with only a single World Championship point to their credit, scored by Lucien Bianchi. They continued to enter sportscar races, focusing on Le Mans and scoring podiums and class victories. In 1964, Jacques Swaters left the team, concentrating on his own Ecurie Francorchamps, which he had kept running on the side as a competitor to ENB. Shortly after a third place finish in the 1967 24 Hours of le Mans, Ecurie Nationale Belge ceased to exist. Ecurie Francorchamps limped on until 1982 before itself closing down.

Johnny Claes’ involvement with Ecurie Nationale Belge was a brief one, but a pivotal one. The team directly launched the careers of Olivier Gendebien and Willy Mairesse, two of Belgium’s finest drivers, while a lesser-known driver, Georges Harris, would go on to give a promising young driver named Jacky Ickx his first steps in touring car racing in 1963. Of course, his greatest claim to an influence is the hiring of Roberto Bianchi as a mechanic, whose sons Lucien and Mauro would both become racers themselves. Lucien was one of the finest sportscar drivers of the 1960s, while Mauro, mostly living in his brother’s shadow, settled in France and would go on to support his grandson.

When Jules Bianchi died on July 17th 2015, the motor racing world mourned the passing of one of its most talented members. Few realised that Jules would likely never have been a racing driver were it not for his great-grandfather’s chance meet with Johnny Claes.