Johnny Claes: Part 2 – Top Of His Gaeme
After only two and a half years in the sport, Johnny Claes had established himself on the racing scene. He wasn’t considered a world-class driver, but his yellow Talbot-Lago had become a mainstay in the Grand Prix paddock, and he had scored his maiden victory in Chimay. Johnny was on his way up.
1951: The Peak
Having experienced success in 1950, Johnny decided to compete in largely the same events in 1951, although reducing his commitments in Formula 2 and Formula 3. Using his trusty Talbot-Lago T26C-DA prepared by Roberto Bianchi, Johnny’s goal was simply to finish, possibly in a good position. In this sense, his season started well, competing in the Richmond Trophy at Goodwood in March. His car arrived via Bristol Freighter and the rest of his team rocked up to the Sussex track in a London taxi!
Despite a horrible qualifying result, Johnny finished the 12-lap race in fourth position, having fought for second with Brian Shawe-Taylor and Philip Fotheringham-Parker. That same day, Johnny entered his Talbot in one of the four Formula Libre handicap races held that day, and promptly took a dominant victory over Bira, Shawe-Taylor, Whitehead, Moss and Joe Goodhew, despite failing brakes and issues with his gear lever. Earlier that day, he had finished fifth in the Chichester Cup, another Formula Libre race.
A month later, Johnny took his Talbot to the Italian Riviera to compete in the San Remo Grand Prix for the first time. Coming from his relative success in Goodwood, he expected a good performance, but the weekend would end tragically. During qualifying, the Talbot’s brakes failed at the end of a long straight, and Johnny crashed into the onlooking spectators. One person was killed, three more were seriously injured. Johnny himself was uninjured, but he decided not to compete in the race the next day.
After appearing in the peculiar Luxembourg Grand Prix, held to Formula 3 rules near the airport at Findel, Johnny headed to Silverstone for the International Trophy. After a disastrous heat, Johnny only qualified 24th for the 35-lap race. However, just as the race began, a storm of almost biblical proportions began. Duncan Hamilton described it thus:
“Visibility was practically nil and my cockpit was half full of water. There was a car in front of me but it was some time before I recognised the tail as that of Reg Parnell (…) A lake began to form at Abbey corner (…) I took notice (…) and [missed] the deepest part which must have been four to six inches deep.”
Another eyewitness account reported by Hamilton:
“No driver could see more than his own bonnet. The hail lay on the track, so that on corners brakes merely locked the wheels and the cars went straight on, and if there was another car or a marker tub in the way, the driver could not even see it. Cars went off on to the grass, they spun round, they travelled forwards, backwards and sideways. (…) Out of the wall of water shot Parnell (…) and he rushed past in a smother of spray to thunders of applause. (…) Next through the rods of rain shot Duncan Hamilton’s Talbot: two Englishmen in the lead – rest nowhere.”
The race was stopped after only six laps. Parnell was awarded the victory ahead of Duncan Hamilton, while Johnny, having escaped the thunderstorm relatively unscathed, finished in eighth position. Parnell and Hamilton were so fast that all other drivers were already lapped.
The following weekend, Johnny headed to Chimay to compete in the Grand Prix des Frontières for the fourth time. As the race was once again held to Formula 2 regulations, he would be driving for Gordini, and was odds-on favourite for the race he’d won in 1950. Against a relatively weak field and not willing to disappoint the home crowd, Johnny duly took pole position and the race victory, his second of the 1951 season. Only Bill Aston provided some competition, but retired in the first half of the race. He then took a ferry to England to compete in the Festival of Britain Trophy, a Formula Libre race in Goodwood, the following day. Driving his Talbot-Lago, he would finish his heat in fifth, then take seventh place in the final. He also competed in a supporting Formula 3 race, but retired with an engine failure, or, as described by Bill Boddy: “His engine felt sad.”
On May 27th, the World Championship season finally started in Bremgarten with the Swiss Grand Prix. Entering his trusty Talbot-Lago, Johnny qualified 18th out of 21 drivers, ahead of Louis Chiron, George Abecassis and Guy Mairesse, also driving a Talbot-Lago. In the race, though, he fell backwards and was in last place by the end of the first lap. He would later pass Mairesse to finish the race in thirteenth position. The following week, he finished ninth in the Ulster Trophy, three laps behind Farina.
The Belgian Grand Prix was next on the schedule, and only 13 drivers were entered. Johnny qualified in 11th place ahead of André Pilette and Pierre Levegh. At the start, he jumped Louis Chiron, and while Levegh eventually passed him, the attrition left him in seventh place. On the final lap, he passed Levegh, but Pilette passed the both of them, preventing Johnny from scoring what would be a World Championship point a few years down the line. Nonetheless, that seventh place would remain his best championship result.
A week later, Johnny competed in the 24 Hours of le Mans for the first time. Originally meaning to enter his Talbot-Lago, he then switched to a Ferrari 212. However, the entry never materialised, and Johnny ultimately decided to join American driver William Spear in his Ferrari 340 America. Setting the 13th fastest time in qualifying and competing in the dominant S 5.0 class, their race was cut short after 132 laps with a burnt clutch. The 212 was entered under Claes’ name for Moroccan drivers André Guelfi and Jean Larivière. Tragically, after half an hour of racing, Larivière lost control at Tertre Rouge, jumped an embankment and collided with a barbed wire barricade. He was killed instantly.
The racing community then headed to the French Grand Prix in Reims, where Johnny qualified in a brilliant 12th position out of 23. Unfortunately, he failed to capitalise on this great performance and, once again, was last by the end of the first lap. As the race progressed, he passed Mairesse, Aldo Gordini and Harry Schell and was running in a solid ninth position when, on lap 54, he crashed out, bringing to an end one of his best performances in the World Championship. His weekend at the following British Grand Prix was more subdued, qualifying 14th out of 20 (helped by the failure of both BRMs to set a time), and finishing thirteenth despite recurring spark plug issues, having only consistently outpaced Joe Kelly’s Alta, Philip Fotheringham-Parker and John James, both in Maseratis.
In the non-championship Dutch Grand Prix, Johnny qualified fifth out of twelve, but retired on lap 62, losing the opportunity to score a good result. The next week, the racing community headed to the Nürburgring for the first post-War German Grand Prix. In a field of 23 drivers, Johnny qualified 18th, ahead of four other Talbot-Lago drivers, but still a full minute and 38 seconds behind Alberto Ascari’s pole time. Despite getting a rare good start (he was sixteenth at the end of the first lap), he progressively lost ground as the race progressed on the treacherous circuit, and he finished the race eleventh and last, lapped three times in only 20 laps. He made up for this the following week in Albi, where he qualified fifth and finished a solid fourth, behind Maurice Trintignant, Louis Rosier and Louis Chiron. André Simon had completed more laps, but retired and wasn’t classified, a rule that would later affect Johnny’s results.
Having no intentions to compete in Pescara on August 15th, Johnny had a month without any competition, and decided to enter the Marathon de la Route, a gruelling rally on open roads that took drivers from the Belgian city of Liège to Rome and back. Purchasing a Jaguar XK120 for the occasion, Johnny needed a co-driver. Roberto Bianchi was reluctant to act as a riding mechanic, so Johnny instead enlisted the help of a well-respected Belgian motorsport journalist named Jacques Ickx. Ickx’s son Pascal was, at 13 years old, the world’s youngest aeroplane pilot, and would later go on to win the 24 Hours of Spa. You may also have heard of his youngest son, Jacky.
This was the second post-War running of the race, and with roughly 3 500 kilometres of non-stop racing on the cards, it would be a race of endurance and consistency rather than outright pace. Perfect for Johnny. Virtually nothing is known of the race, including the exact date or the final standings. What is certain is that the Jaguar of Johnny Claes and Jacques Ickx won the race. Along with the Grand Prix des Frontières, the Marathon de la Route would be one of Johnny’s most successful races. For that victory, Claes and Ickx were awarded the once-in-a-lifetime Belgian National Sports Merit Award, the third time the award had gone to racing drivers.
Before the last two races of the World Championship completed the season, Johnny finished eighth in the Bari Grand Prix, the last classified finisher, having started fifteenth. He then headed to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix. Thanks to the failure of Rudi Fischer and Hans Stuck to set a time, he started 21st on the grid, ahead of Jacques Swaters, but nonetheless over 25 seconds slower than Fangio’s time of 1:53.2. Johnny was immediately passed by Swaters, but managed to haul his Talbot-Lago ahead of Franco Rol. His race ended before it could really begin, as his oil pump failed on the fifth lap. Rol eventually finished the race in ninth and last, 13 laps behind.
For the final race of the season, the drivers arrived at Pedralbes, former venue of the Penya Rhin Grand Prix, for the first post-War Spanish Grand Prix. In a field of twenty drivers, Johnny qualified fifteenth, ahead of the likes of Grignard, Paco Godia, Bira and Rosier. Again finding himself in last place by the end of the first lap, Johnny clawed back some positions, passing Grignard, Yves Griraud-Cabantous, Philippe Etancelin, Godia and even Robert Manzon, and found himself in eleventh place at the halfway mark. Unfortunately just three laps later, he lost control of his car and crashed through the straw bales. He limped back to the pits, where he retired from a promising race, bringing an end to an altogether successful season.
Scoring two major race victories contributed to Johnny’s increasing popularity, and 1951 would be his most successful year in the sport. For his efforts, he was naturally crowned Belgian Drivers’ Champion for the second year running.
1952: The Switch to Formula 2
In 1952, Formula One had a major dilemma. Entry lists were on the downturn. Alfa Romeo and Talbot-Lago had cut their Formula One activities, and Maserati machinery was aging fast. This left only Ferrari and BRM as potential works teams for the upcoming season, with BRM’s own programme looking increasingly uncertain, as the team had built a reputation of failing to even appear at events. French organisers had already announced a French Formula Two championship to guarantee larger grids, including the French Grand Prix. The tension came to a head on April 6th at the Valentino Grand Prix. BRM, given the opportunity to test with Juan Manuel Fangio and José Froilán González, did so rather than appear, leaving only Ferrari to enter a works team. In an attempt to get more participants, the entry list was opened to Formula Two cars. Johnny Claes was one of the few to turn up in F1 machinery, with some backing from the Talbot-Lago factory.
In a field of 13 drivers, Johnny qualified seventh and finished fifth, but the lack of competition overall cemented the FIA’s decision of running the World Championship to Formula Two regulations until the introduction of a new formula in 1954. A handful of events would remain Formula One events, but for the most part, all F1 machinery was suddenly obsolete, only useful for Formula Libre events. Worse still, Ferrari had already introduced a new F2 car, the 500, which had held its own against the F1 machinery in Turin. The best-prepared team besides Ferrari was Gordini, who had just broken away from Simca, gaining more technical freedom, but losing finances.
At this point, Johnny made the acquaintance of the Vicomtesse de Walckiers, a wealthy Belgian noblewoman with a passion for motor racing, although she was rumoured to be more interested in the attractive drivers than in the machinery they were driving. She had already allegedly bankrolled the career of Toni Branca, and with Johnny beginning to suffer from financial troubles, she decided to sponsor him for some races. On top of this, she loaned Johnny the 1.5-litre Gordini Formula 2 car raced by Branca the previous two years, allowing him to enter the Formula Two championship and the World Championship concurrently.
The former started first, with the Grand Prix de Pau. As these races were suddenly on the level of usual non-championship races, the best drivers would be present for all these races, making the competition fierce. In a field of 17 and up against the works Gordini, Ferrari and HWM teams, Johnny qualified thirteenth, but failed to finish, retiring from a transmission failure just a few minutes from the end. Two weeks later, in Marseilles, Johnny only qualified in 17th position, but thanks to a high rate of attrition, he finished third behind the dominant Ascari and the shared works Gordini of Bira and Manzon, scoring four points. In what can only be described as an administrative shambles, Johnny was at first excluded from the results, then placed in fourth. It took the power of the entire journalistic contingent to amend the result and confirm that Johnny had indeed finished third.
The International Trophy followed, held with a massive field of 48 drivers. 34 of them actually started their heats, Johnny starting tenth in his. He retired after 11 laps with transmission failure, but had completed enough laps to qualify for the final. Hastily repairing the car for the final, he eventually finished in a solid eighth place, on the lead lap, out of 17 classified finishers. The race itself was won by former HWM teammate Lance Macklin. That same day, an exhibition “Champions Race” was held with Jaguar XK120s provided by the organisers and Claes was one of six competing drivers, along with Bira, Toulo de Graffenried, Tony Gaze, Stirling Moss and Paul Pietsch. However, despite owning an XK120 himself, Claes only finished fifth, ahead of Gaze.
After an aborted weekend at the Brussels Grand Prix, held to Formula 3 regulations, Johnny decided to skip the Swiss Grand Prix, the first European World Championship race he had missed since the championship’s start. Instead, he decided to compete in the Grand Prix des Voitures de Série was held in Spa-Francorchamps. This peculiar event consisted of local production car dealerships picking stock-condition road cars at random and hiring whichever drivers they could pay for the privilege. As these dealerships were very competitive, they often managed to attract some big names, such as Paul Frère and André Pilette, and of course, Johnny.
The cars would receive a handicap based on fuel consumption and list price, before a two-hour handicap race. It was reported that Johnny, as well and Frère and Pilette, drove “in a distinguished manner”, although the overall victory went to local driver Roger Warnotte. Driving an Oldsmobile, Johnny retired when one of the strictly stock wheels buckled under the load of constant high-speed driving. Following on from this race, Johnny pressed on to Montlhéry for the third round of the French F2 championship, the Paris Grand Prix. He qualified in tenth position, but retired after only twenty laps with a stub axle failure.
In May of 1952, Jacques Ickx announced that the promising André Pilette, previously driving for Jacques Swaters, would now be driving under the Ecurie Belge colours (which, of course, were the same as those of Ecurie Belgique, renamed Ecurie Francorchamps). Pilette had just recovered from serious injuries suffered in the Dutch Grand Prix the previous year. His first race for Claes was in Albi, one of the few races still open to Formula One cars. Driving the Talbot-Lago, Pilette left the track soon after the start, totalled the car and was ejected from it, suffering yet more injuries.
At that point, Johnny Claes was in Chimay competing in the Grand Prix des Frontières. Unlike in previous years, the race was held as a single 240 kilometre event, to prevent the trademark over-exuberance of British privateers in heat races. Roger Laurent and Johnny started on the front row, but the organisers’ reasoning proved sound. Indeed, it wasn’t the British privateers who were over-exuberant, but the Belgian privateers, as Laurent and Claes tangled at the start and finished the race in a ditch, ending Johnny’s winning streak in Chimay. Pilette later noted that Johnny “never mentioned the Talbot-Lago accident”. This Chimay accident may explain that particular lack of anger towards Pilette.
With the Gordini under repair and the Talbot-Lago destroyed, Johnny found himself without a car. Using his previous ties with George Abecassis, he brokered a deal with HWM to drive for them in the upcoming Monza Grand Prix. That particular race is remembered for Juan Manuel Fangio travelling non-stop from Northern Ireland to Monza in an attempt to make the race, resulting in a severe accident caused by fatigue. After an altogether anonymous race weekend, Johnny was classified eighth on aggregate.
For the Belgian Grand Prix, the Gordini was repaired, but Johnny found himself offered a one-off drive by the works Gordini team. Johnny took up the offer and would race a sportscar that nonetheless was legal (open wheels weren’t yet mandatory), the 2-litre Gordini T16S. Having already brought along his 1.5-litre T15, he loaned it to an American débutant, Robert O’Brien. In a field of 22, Johnny would start 19th, while the inexperienced O’Brien would start not only start in dead last, but would stall on the grid, eventually finishing the race unclassified.
Johnny, meanwhile, would drive one of his best races. Faced with wet weather, he immediately gained ground at the start and finished the first lap in 13th position, having passed Tony Gaze, Louis Rosier, Prince Bira, Eric Brandon and Charles de Tornaco. He then proceeded to drive a steady, measured race, passing Lance Macklin on lap 9 and benefiting from the retirements of Ken Wharton, Piero Taruffi, Jean Behra and Robin Montgomerie-Charrington to find himself in a brilliant seventh place. Nearing the end of the race, however, he began to develop brake issues, although with Spa not being particularly tough on brakes, he only lost seventh place to de Tornaco and brought the car home in eighth place out of 14 finishers. Ultimately, though, the other works drivers had fought for the podium, and Claes was not asked to continue driving for Gordini.
The following week, Johnny was back in his own Gordini for the next round of the French F2 championship in Reims, the Grand Prix de la Marne, also given the rather confusing name “Grand Prix de France”, as opposed to “Grand Prix de l’A.C.F.”, the official title of the French Grand Prix, which was happening a week later in Rouen! The difference with Spa was great. With 500cc of engine displacement less than the works Gordinis and Ferraris, Johnny could only qualify 19th, and would finish sixth of eight classified finishers on a day where Jean Behra’s works Gordini took home a rare race victory against the all-conquering Ferrari 500.
The official French Grand Prix, also considered part of the French F2 championship, was even worse for Johnny. Despite the circuit being less demanding for engines, he qualified in a sound last position, and despite a promising start in which he passed Piero Carini and Franco Comotti, his race ended after 15 laps when a connecting rod snapped, bringing an end to an all-around unpleasant weekend. He made up for this the following week at Sables d’Olonne, where through sheer reliability and consistency, he converted a spot on the last row to a solid third place behind Luigi Villoresi and Peter Collins and ahead of a works T15 shared by Bira and Manzon. Many drivers had crashed out on the short circuit’s shoddy track surface.
The British Grand Prix was next, and with 32 drivers present, it would take some doing for Johnny to be the slowest, and indeed he ran respectably well against the local privateers. He qualified his Gordini in 23rd position, only 12 seconds behind Farina’s pole time of 1’50. On race day itself, Johnny drove another level-headed race, outpacing such luminaries as David Murray, Gino Bianco, Tony Crook, Peter Hirt or Kenneth McAlpine, but also Harry Schell, Alan Brown and Toulo de Graffenried. The race proved to have low attrition, providing a then-record 22 finishers, of which Johnny was the fourteenth.
For the German Grand Prix, Johnny once again found himself in a works HWM, but as the team had arrived late to the circuit, they were unable to practice. Paul Frère managed to set a time and would start thirteenth, Collins’ car broke down, and he would not start. Johnny did not set a time either, but as he had previous experience at the Nürburgring, he was allowed to take part in the race proper, albeit starting from last position. Working his way through the field, mostly comprising German and Swiss privateers in modified AFM and Veritas cars, he soon found himself in a solid tenth position, but a third of the way through the race, he was forced to make a lengthy pitstop to fix a faulty magneto. Rejoining in second-last ahead of Ernst Klodwig, he managed to pass Hans Klenk, but had already been lapped three times, and had to settle for tenth. At the time of his stop, he was ahead of Roger Laurent, who went on to finish sixth.
The Grand Prix du Comminges in Saint-Gaudens was next, the penultimate round of the French championship, but it would be another lacklustre race for Claes, who qualified in last place and retired a few laps from the end with a sticking gear shifter. The next week, he took his T15 to Zandvoort for the first Dutch Grand Prix to be part of the World Championship. Accompanying him was Paul Frère, the Belgian motoring journalist who had already driven with Claes at the Nürburgring. Both drivers practiced in the T15, but as Frère proved himself the quicker of the two, it was he who took the start from eleventh place, reaching the heights of ninth place before suffering from a clutch failure. Several F1 sites record Claes’ participation as “Fired”. How he could fire himself from his own team and be back the following week is a different story altogether.
Indeed, for the final round of the French championship in La Baule, Johnny was back in the Ecurie Belge Gordini T15. Johnny qualified in a solid eleventh place, but although he made the finish, he couldn’t quite find the pace to threaten for points, finishing eighth out of ten finishers. Nevertheless, his podiums in Marseille and Sables d’Olonne had netted him eight points, enough to seal ninth place in the only running of the French Formula 2 championship.
Finding himself short on cash once more, Johnny enlisted the financial help of the Vicomtesse de Walckiers one more time in order to finance a short tour of Italy in September. The first of them was the Italian Grand Prix, the traditional end of the World Championship season. In 1952, 34 cars were present, but a change to the rules from the organisers meant that only the 24 fastest cars in practice could start the race. Johnny would be at a natural disadvantage, qualifying not being his strong suit. As luck would have it, he wouldn’t even set a representative lap time and subsequently failed to qualify.
Shortly after the race, Johnny attended a jazz concert with famed motor racing journalist Denis Jenkinson, but soon walked out in disgust at the style played by the saxophonist, reportedly shouting “That’s not saxophone playing, that’s just honk, boop. I’m off.” The Italian public seemed to adore the music nonetheless.
Johnny pressed on to Modena, the final race of his continental season. The Gordini, at this point, was on its last legs, and in yet another disappointing showing, Johnny both qualified and finish in last position. The season itself was capped by a brief appearance in the Newcastle Journal Trophy in Charterhall, from which he retired. Having had enough of the gutless 1.5-litre Gordini, he broke off his ties with the Vicomtesse, who would thereafter sponsor another Belgian, Georges Berger. Johnny himself had had a difficult season, but his capacity to keep the car on the road and encouraging performances for Gordini and HWM earned him the title of Belgian Drivers’ Champion for the third year running.
Coming soon in part 3: Johnny produces one of the best drives of all time and cements his pivotal role in the glory days of Belgian motor racing.