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SEPTEMBER 19, 2000

Famous Belgian racing drivers


It is now a quarter of a century since Jacky Ickx became the first Belgian to win a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix. Ickx was 22 years old, younger even than Michael Schumacher was when he won his debut victory at Spa last year, and it was only his ninth GP. A new star was born.

But today the 1968 French Grand Prix in the wet at the daunting Rouen-les-Essarts circuit is not remembered for Ickx's win, but rather for the death in a fiery accident of French veteran Jo Schlesser. It is ironic that 11 years after that first win, Ickx drove his last GP in a Ligier-Ford JS11 - the cars bearing the 'JS' tag in memory of Guy Ligier's old friend Schlesser.

In those 11 years Jacky had scored eight wins for Ferrari and Brabham and had finished runner-up in the World Championships of 1969 and 1970 and he remains Belgium's most successful Formula 1 driver.

Ickx's mantle of top Belgian driver was undisputed until his retirement, the only other Belgian racing in Grands Prix in the period being Patrick Neve who drove for RAM and Ensign in 1976 and has the honour of being the first man to drive for Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977.

Any successful F1 driver will create interest in his home country and just as Finns JJ Lehto and Mika Hakkinen are the result of Keke Rosberg's 1982 World Championship and Johnny Herbert, Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell owe a great deal to James Hunt's championship success in 1976, so Ickx's successes in the 1960s and 1970s inspired a new generation of Belgians led by Thierry Boutsen, who debuted with the Arrows team at the Belgian Grand Prix in May 1983. His talent brought reward and, after two years at Benetton, he landed a drive with the by then legendary Williams team - very different from the team for which Neve had once driven. At the start of 1989 Thierry and his team mate Riccardo Patrese were called upon to develop the new Bernard Dudot-designed Renault V10 engine and it was not always easy. Despite the occasional setbacks, Thierry won his first F1 victory in the wet at Montreal and later that year won again in Australia. It earned him another year with Williams.

The following year he added a third victory on the tight and twisty Hungaroring track, holding off the mighty Ayrton Senna by just 0.3secs at the finish of a splendid race. But at the end of the year Thierry was replaced by Nigel Mansell, just as the Williams-Renault team was becoming the competitive package it is today. Thierry spent two unsuccessful years at Ligier and today drives for Jordan.

Ickx and Boutsen remain the only Belgians to have won Grands Prix, but there is never a shortage of youngsters hoping to take up the challenge.

Although Boutsen stole much of the limelight the post-Ickx generation included Thierry Tassin (who's single seater career was cut short by a nasty arm injury), Didier Theys and Eric Bachelart (who could not find the money to race in Europe and headed west to the United States) and the Belgian F1 pretenders, talented duo Bertrand Gachot and Eric Van de Poele.

They are the latest in a long line of great Belgian racing drivers which stretches back to the turn of the century when 'The Red Devil' Camille Jenatzy, Baron de Caters and Rene de Knyff were all top names in Europe.

When the Formula 1 World Championship was instituted in 1950 early Belgian participartion was resticted to a band of privateers like Paul Frere, Charles de Tornaco, Andre Pilette and the leader of the pack extrovert Johnny Claes, who when he wasn't racing played saxaphone with his own band Johnny Claes and his Clay Pigeons.

Claes died of cancer in 1956 just as a new generation of professional Belgian was beginning to emerge led by Olivier Gendebien, Willy Mairesse (a protege of former GP driver and Belgian Ferrari importer Jacques Swaters) and Lucien Bianchi (son of one of Claes's mechanics). All had their moments of glory in the early 1960s: Gendebien finishing second at the French GP at Reims in July 1960 and a few months later Mairesse coming third at Monza in only his third GP.

But, while all three were highly successful sportscar racers, they had little F1 success and it was left to Ickx to put Belgium on the map.

And now with Boutsen's F1 career drawing to a close after 10 years, Belgians are waiting to see who will lead the new generation. Will it be those who remember Ickx or will it be a totally new generation - inspired by Boutsen?