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Johnny Claes

Full Name:
Octave Jonathan Claes
11th August 1916
Fulham, London (GB)
3rd February 1956 (Aged 39)
Brussels, tuberculosis
Most recent race (in database):

Trumpet player and leader of the jazz band Johnny Claes and the Clay Pigeons during the 1940s, this Belgian was one of only four men to start every Grand Prix in the first two seasons of the new world championship. Born in London and with a Scottish mother, Claes was educated in England and worked as a translator at the 1947 French Grand Prix.

Grand Prix racing career

He was soon racing himself and Claes entered a Lago-Talbot T26C under the Ecurie Belge banner in 1949 – finishing fifth in the Belgian GP. The old fashioned, normally-aspirated car was no match for the supercharged Alfa Romeos when the inaugural world championship began in 1950.

Claes was always on the grid and he finished seventh at Monaco in 1950 and Belgium 1951. But success was restricted to Formula 2 and a pair of victories in the GP des Frontières on the dangerous Chimay road course. His HWM-Alta dominated the 1950 event and he won by seven minutes a year later in a works Simca-Gordini.

However, he was involved in a nasty incident while practising for the 1951 non-championship Formula 1 race at San Remo. The brakes failed at the first corner and Claes’ Lago-Talbot crashed off the road and hit four spectators – one of whom (Antonino Cavestri) died in the morning. Claes then won that year’s Liège-Rome-Liège Rally when sharing a Jaguar XK120 with Jacques Ickx.

When the world championship switched to F2 rules in 1952 and 1953, Claes drove a Simca-Gordini and then HWM, Connaught and Maserati without success. But his Lancia Aurelia won the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally again that latter year despite Claes having to drive almost all the way after co-driver Jean Trasenster fell ill.

The Belgian’s Porsche 550 Spyder was 12th overall in the 1954 Le Mans 24 Hours to win the 1500cc class. He also had a new career in journalism – Claes joining Autosport magazine as its continental correspondent.

Third in the fateful 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours with Jacques Swaters’ Ecurie Francorchamps Jaguar D-type, he started his 25th and final world championship GP at Zandvoort. Claes also finished third in that year’s Liège-Rome-Liège with Lucien Bianchi but that was his last competitive outing. By now, Claes was seriously ill with tuberculosis and the 39 year old jazzman died on February 3 1956.

His best known recording, the 1941 I Heard, was recently released on iTunes but it was in motor racing that he was best known. Radio commentator, journalist, team owner and driver – above all, Johnny Claes was a sportsman.