Het is vandaag al 65 jaar geleden dat Johnny Claes, een Belgische formule één-piloot, is gestorven. Ik had er nog nooit van gehoord, dus ik wilde wel wat meer vernemen en op de Engelse Wikipedia I found more than I was looking for…
Octave John Claes was born in London to a Scottish mother and Belgian father. He was educated in England, where he began playing trumpet in a jazz band that included Max Jones on reeds, and another with Billy Mason on piano. In the 1930s he moved to the Netherlands, where he worked with Coleman Hawkins. He also worked with Jack Kluger’s band in Belgium. Returning to England, he led his own group, the Claepigeons (ook The Clay Pigeons geschreven), making a recording in 1942. In the late 1940s he abandoned his jazz career and settled in Belgium as a professional racing driver.
Claes was one of several gentlemen drivers who took part in Grand Prix racing of post-World War II. His first contact with racing was at the 1947 French Grand Prix, where he served as interpreter for British drivers. He made his debut in 1948, in his own Talbot-Lago, raced under the Ecurie Belge banner. Although Claes never scored any points in the World Drivers Championship, he was, like many of his contemporaries, very active in non-Championship Grand Prix races and sports car races. His first win was at the 1950 Grand Prix des Frontières, held at the Chimay race track.
In April 1951 Claes crashed into a crowd while practicing at Sanremo, Italy. He was uninjured but an observer was killed and three onlookers were seriously injured. In 1952 he exchanged his outdated Talbot for a Gordini, and later for a Connaught, always with the Ecurie Belge colours, but he also raced occasionally for works team, including Maserati. He also won the 1953 Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. Claes teamed with Pierre Stasse to finish 12th in the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans. They drove a Porsche. Together with compatriot Jacques Swaters, Claes finished third in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Later in 1955 Claes’ health problems worsened, as he had contracted tuberculosis. Claes sold his outfit to Swaters, who merged it with his own Ecurie Francorchamps to form Ecurie Nationale Belge. Claes entered occasional events until the end of the year, but finally succumbed to the disease in Brussels in 1956, aged 39.