10 February 2018

Fascinating F1 Fact: 75

John Octave Claes (not Octave John Claes as a lot of sources say) was the son of a Belgian civil engineer Jean Octave Claes. His mother, Ellen Knoth, the daughter of a stained glass window designer. The couple were married in Fulham in 1908, but young John did not come along until 1916. He had a colourful childhood, by all accounts, living in different countries but then settled at Lord Williams’s Grammar School in Thame, Oxfordshire, where he was an accomplished sportsman, and where he learned to play the trumpet.

He left school in 1934 and moved to London, to study economics at the Regent Street Polytechnic – and to play jazz…

Very quickly, he found himself as a part of the busy London scene, playing in a band with Max Jones then with Billy Mason at the Tufnell Park Palais before moving on to play with the resident band at the Nest, a basement club in Kingly Street in the West End. At 20 he signed a contract to be a session musician with Decca Records. Then in 1937 he set off to tour Europe with Johnny Pillitz’s Orchestra, playing with Valaida Snow, before returning to London and recording with Gerry Moore. He was back in Europe later in the year, to play with Coleman Hawkins in Holland and then joined Eddie Meenk’s Bank in the Hague before drifting on to play with Johnny Fresco in Holland in the winter of 1938-1939. But music was not an easy business and so he also found work as a crane operator, working with his father.

After a period playing with Jack Kluger’s Band in Belgium he went back to Britain, just weeks before the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1940. He joined the house band at the Boogie Woogie Club and then went on a UK tour with Teddy Joyce. The following year he started his own band. Johnny Claes and the Clae Pigeons was a popular dance band during the war years, resident in a number of London clubs, depending where the bombs had fallen, it’s membership changing as the musicians were called up, or sent off to play with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). Among those involved were a young Ronnie Scott and a drummer called Alfred Fingleston, better known in motor racing circles as Les Leston. Claes was signed to EMI and to promote the band also appeared in several movies, including George Formby’s immediate post-war flop George in Civvy Street.

Johnny returned to Belgium in 1946 and opened his own club at Blankenberge, a seaside resort near Zeebrugge. He gave up playing, hoping to make money from jazz as an entrepreneur, he started writing articles for jazz magazines and set up an import- export business. He was 30 when he discovered motor racing in 1947, after agreeing to travel with a small group of British drivers going to the French GP in Lyons – to act as their translator.

He was enthralled and in May 1948 made his debut in a Talbot-Lago sports car, owned by Louis Rosier, in the Grand Prix des Frontières in Chimay. He finished third behind Guy Mairesse in a Delahaye and Henri Louveau in a Delage. He then met the veteran Belgian racing driver Emile Cornet, and the two men agreed to race Cornet’s Veritas Meteor sports car in the Paris 12 Hours. This led to the establishment of Ecurie Belge, which soon acquired a Talbot-Lago T26C Grand Prix car and a Veritas F2, plus a second Meteor sports car. To look after the cars Claes hired a racing mechanic from Milan. Roberto Bianchi moved to Belgium with his family. Claes was a regular in F1 by 1950 with his Talbot, but never scored a point, although he did well in non-championship races and in sports car racing. His first win came in the 1950 Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay, at the wheel of an HWM. He won again the following year in a Gordini but that year he suffered a nasty accident at San Remo, in which a marshal was killed. He did occasional races for factory teams and won the 1953 Liège-Rome-Liège Rally and his class at Le Mans in 1954.

He was third at the dreadful Le Mans 24 Hours in 1955 in an Ecurie Belge Jaguar, but by then he was ill, having somehow contracted tuberculosis. He was also struggling for money and this led to the decision to sell Écurie Belge to rival Jacques Swaters, who merged the team with his Écurie Francorchamps to form Écurie Nationale Belge (ENB).

The following year, at 39, Claes died but that was not the end of the story. Roberto Bianchi’s two sons Luciano (known as Lucien) and Mauro both raced for ENB in F1 events and Lucien went on to win Sebring in 1962 in a Ferrari, which he shared with Jo Bonnier. He eventually landed a regular F1 ride with Cooper-BRM in 1968. He finished third at Monaco and that same year shared a GT40 with Pedro Rodriguez to win Le Mans. That same weekend Mauro crashed an Alpine at the event and suffered serious burns, which ended his racing career and left him badly scarred. Less than a year later Lucien died at Le Mans, testing an Alfa Romeo T33.

Mauro would settle in Provence and in time became a naturalised Frenchman. His son Philippe was barred from motor racing as a result of the family’s misfortunes with racing cars. Instead he opened a kart track. But as soon as his feet could touch the pedals of a kart, his son Jules began racing…

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