Thursday, 23 October 2014

Yvette Fontaine


Yvette in a Ford promotional shot, 1969

Yvette was the winner of the 1969 Belgian Saloon Car Championship. She was the first woman to win a Belgian national championship.
She actually began her motorsport career as a rally driver, in 1964. Her first car was an Austin Mini, like many other drivers of her era, both male and female. She did not get a particularly auspicious start to her career, as she went over the time limit for both of the events she entered that year, which were the Tour of Belgium and the 12 Heures d’Ixelles. The Tour of Belgium was her first-ever rally. The 18-year-old Yvette had only a vague idea of how a rally ran, and was not even used to driving at the 60 kph average speed expected.
In 1965, she exchanged the Mini for a Saab 93 Sport. Although her first rally in it, the Routes Blanches, ended in another OTL, she soon worked out what was what, and began posting some decent results. She won three Ladies’ Trophies, in the Circuit des Ardennes, Ostend 12 Hours and 12 Heures d’Ixelles, and was class runner-up in the Picardie Rally, in France. For at least part of the season, she was navigated by Anita Elford, who was Belgian, but married to Porsche driver, Vic.
1966 was the year her career really took off. She drove an Alfa Romeo Super 1600, and not just in rallies. As a teenager, she had often visited the Zolder circuit whilst on holiday with her parents, and now, she was racing there for real. In March, she entered the Grand National race at the circuit, and was 34th in the final race, tenth in class. She was then eleventh in her race at the Belgian Cup meeting, also at Zolder, and seventh in class at the Coupes de Spa. Later in the season, she travelled to Germany for the Marathon de la Route, at the Nürburgring, where she shared her Alfa with Hannelore Werner. They did not finish. In a different Alfa, a 1300, she won her class in the Spa 24 Hours. She and Nicole Sol were 19th overall, supported by Alfa Romeo Benelux.
On the rally side, she had a mixed season, with her fair share of retirements. She crashed out of the Tulip Rally, and missed out in the Circuit des Ardennes, by missing a time control. However, she almost made up for it with her first top-ten finish, a ninth on the Routes du Nord event. She did it again with a tenth place on the Rallye des Nivelles, near Brussels. She was co-driven, at different times, by “Gaby Poison” and “Puce” (“Flea”), who were both occasional racers on the Belgian scene.
Another new thing for Yvette this year was hillclimbs. Still in her works 1600, she tackled several Belgian and French speed events, and was Group One winner in four of them.
She continued as a multi-purpose Alfa driver in 1967. Her rally record continued to be a little hit-and-miss, with more than one incidence of missing time controls, or making mistakes with the route. This was tempered by some very creditable performances, including a seventh place in the Le Touquet rally, in France. Her car was a GTV 1600.
In the Belgian Touring Car Championship, she was picking up speed. In the Grand National races at Zolder, she was eighth in Group 2, driving a 1600 GTA, despite its rear axle being broken. At the Belgian Cup meeting, she scored her first win, in the Class D+E race, as well as finishing third in the C+D race. She was fourth in the Coupes de Spa, just ahead of Lucien Bianchi, and then second in the Chimay 500km (Grand Prix des Frontières), driving for Bianchi’s team with her rival and “fellow” Alfa racer, Nicole Sol. The second Belgian Cup meeting gave her a fourth place, after finishing third in her heat. She was second in the championship.
Across the border, in Germany, she was part of an Alfa Romeo team for the 84-hour Marathon de la Route, driving a 1600 GTA with rally driver, Jean-Marie Jacquemin, and J-M Heilman. They did not finish, due to an accident. Back at Zolder, she was third in the Division 2 race of the Limbourg Grand Prix, driving a 1600 GTA again. Her second ETCC outing came at Spa, for the 24 hour race, where she drove for Lucien Bianchi’s team again, with Jean-Marie Lagae. They did not finish, due to a con-rod failure.
Again, the Alfa team entered her into lots of hillclimbs, in which she was increasingly successful, normally driving a GTA. It was in this car that she was second in the Maquisard climb and third in the D’Houyet event. This was enough for third in the Belgian championship. As well as hillclimbs, she took part in a speed record attempt over a kilometre, in both a GTA and 1600 GTV. She broke a class record in the former, and was the best in class in the latter.
In 1968, her co-operation with Alfa Romeo ended, and she was promptly signed up by Ford of Belgium, who recognised her speed and versatility. They were interested in the promotional value of a female driver, but as previous winners of both the Manufacturers’ and Drivers’ titles, and only supported the most competitive. In the first race of the championship, the Belgian Cup meeting at Zolder, Yvette was second in the 1300cc race, in a Ford Escort GT 1300, run by the British Broadspeed team.
Her next race was at Chimay, over 300km, but she did not finish, due to an engine problem. Her car this time was a Twin Cam Escort, run by the works Ford team, which was still in development, and somewhat unreliable. She was third in the North Sea Trophy, and fifth in her Zolder heat, although she did not finish the main race.
She also raced in the European Touring Car Championship, driving the Broadspeed Escort at the Limbourg Grand Prix and in the Nürburgring round, sharing the car with Brian Robinson. Both ended in non-finishes, due to a water leak and a broken accelerator respectively.
As well as Belgian events, she travelled to Denmark and the UK for Ford-sponsored races, taking the works Escort to seventh at the Jyllandsring, and the Broadspeed car to sixth, at Mallory Park. She was also eighth in the Coupe du Salon, at Montlhéry.
Hillclimbing was still very much on the agenda, and she won her first climb this season, the La Roche event. She was driving a Twin Cam, although she also drove a Lotus Cortina and a Mustang during the season. Remarkably, she was also twelfth overall, with a class win, in the same climb, driving a Formula Ford. Ford Belgium experimented with putting Yvette in a single-seater in speed events and circuit races, and she even managed an eighth place in the Limbourg Formula Ford race.
Ford retained her services in 1969, and decided to allow her to concentrate mostly on saloon racing. Rallying, never her strongest discipline, was restricted to a single co-driver outing with Gilbert Stapelaere, on the Routes du Nord. She did a few hillclimbs, but achieved no more wins.
This year, she made a bigger assault on the ETCC, in the revitalised Escort Twin Cam. It began haltingly, with DNFs at Monza and Vienna, but picked up when she returned later in the season, with a sixth in the Brands Hatch 6 Hours, with Freddy Semoulin (Alain Dex). She was then eleventh in the Spa 24 Hours, with John Fitzpatrick, and won the Division 2 race at Zandvoort.
The Belgian championship also began slowly. During the Belgian Cup meeting, Yvette was moved into a Welcker Cortina, to make way for Jacky Ickx, and could only finish twelfth. Back in her usual car, she won the 1300cc race at the Zolder Grand Prix, and was fourth at Spa and third at Chimay. The Zolder Grand National and the North Sea Trophy gave her fourth, and the Coupes Benelux at Zandvoort, another win. She was second in the second Belgian Cup meeting. This, combined with her results in the ETCC, was enough to give her the Belgian Saloon Car Championship, her first championship and a first for a female driver. She had defeated Jean-Pierre Gaban, in his Porsche 911, in the last race.
Still with Ford, she returned to the Belgian series to defend her championship in 1970. She started where she left off, with a win in the Zolder Grand National race. After a DNF at the Belgian Cup races, she won again at the Zolder Grand Prix. A broken accelerator put her out at Spa, but she was sixth at Chimay, and third in the Coupes Benelux. A practice accident stopped her from competing in the final round, at Zolder. She retained her class championship, quite narrowly.
The ETCC was more problematic. Ford of Belgium, despite Chevron sponsorship, did not have the resources to run her in the full series. They entered her into the Silverstone and Zandvoort rounds, in a Twin Cam, but she did not finish the main race in either. Ford of Germany picked her up for some races, usually partnering Hannelore Werner, but she did not always make the start, due to car problems and insufficient preparation. Driving the fierce, 2300cc Capri, she did not finish at Monza, Salzburg or the Nürburgring, and was pulled out of the Spa 24 Hours line-up.
She also did one Formula Three race, at Chimay, but went out early on following a crash. Among her opponents were James Hunt and David Purley. This was her last single-seater outing. 
Ford continued to employ Yvette in 1971. Her schedule was exclusively saloon races, driving an Escort BDA. Her Belgian season began well, with a win in the Group 2 Final of the North Sea Trophy. She was then second in the Zolder Grand Prix, but only 29th in the Coupes de Spa, after not finishing a heat. Her car’s engine failed at Chimay, but she was second in the Belgian Cup. The Benelux Cup gave her a third place. She was fifth at Nivelles, and could not retain her championship, although she was awarded the ladies’ championship as a consolation.
In the European championship, she got some support again from Ford of Germany, although in an Escort, rather than one of the now-dominant Capris. She was fourth at the Nürburgring, with Gerry Birrell. Driving for the BP-sponsored British Vita team, she did not finish the Spa 24 Hours. A works drive in the Zandvoort Trophy did not help either, as she lost fuel pressure. The Paul Ricard double six-hour race also ended in retirement.
A late high point of 1971 was Yvette’s part in some Ford speed records, set over a kilometre on a Belgian motorway. As part of a team including Jackie Stewart, she set new records in an Escort, Capri, and, most famously, a Transit Van with a Formula One engine.
Her 1972 season was mostly based around the Belgian championship. She drove for the Ford BP team once more, and started the season in a 3-litre Capri, in which she was fourth and second at Zolder, but did not finish at Nivelles, after the throttle linkage failed. For the Coupes de Spa, she drove an Escort, but was only seventh. She was fourth at Chimay and Nivelles. A win in the last round, at Zolder, pushed her up to fourth in the championship.
The Spa 24 Hours was disappointing again: Yvette shared an Escort RS 1600 with Gillian Fortescue-Thomas, but the head gasket blew. Her only other outing was a trip to England, where she was fifth in a Ford Consul race at Brands Hatch.
The Ford team was struggling a little by 1973, and Yvette drove a private car this year in some rounds of the Belgian championship. She was fifth in the EEG Trophy, at Zolder, and a battling third at the Nivelles 24 Hours meeting. She was also eighth in the Zolder Grand Prix race. Her Spa 24 Hours ended in another blown engine.
For the first part of 1974, Yvette continued in the Belgian championship, with a 1300cc Escort. She did two races at Zolder, finishing the second in third place. Later, after missing one round, she got a last Ford works drive, in a Capri. She was seventh in one Zolder race, and fourth in the EEG Trophy. They also backed her for the Spa 24 Hours, driving a Capri with Claude Borgoignie, but the car’s head gasket went.

Yvette's Capri at Zolder, 1974

Through Ford’s links with Chevron, Yvette’s career received a welcome new challenge, in the shape of sportscar racing. She raced a Ford-engine Chevron B21 in the Spa 1000km, with her erstwhile rival, and replacement at Alfa Romeo, Christine Beckers. They did not finish, but this proved valuable practice for Le Mans, the following month. Driving as the “Ecurie Seiko Sato”, Yvette and Christine, with Marie Laurent, were 17th overall, and won the 2000cc class.
Despite her continuing good performances in the face of decreasing support, Ford dispensed with Yvette’s services at the end of the 1974 season. The fuel crisis had hit them hard, and sponsorship was getting harder to come by. Her modest Le Mans success was recognised, and she was invited to be part of Anny-Charlotte Verney’s Porsche 911 Carrera RS team. They were eleventh overall and second in class. The third driver was Corinne Tarnaud.
The Belgian touring car championship itself had gone into decline, and now only had three rounds. The European series was plagued by problems. Yvette had been in talks with BMW about a drive, but it did not materialise. She was picked up by Atlas Racing for a couple of rounds of the Trophée l’Avenir, driving a BMW 3.0 CSi. Her team-mate was Noel van Assche, known as “Pedro”. They were eleventh in the EEG Trophy, but second in the Spa 24 Hours. This was Yvette’s best-ever finish in that race.
After this, Yvette called time on her professional racing career, at the age of 29. Although she had won many races and achieved considerable success, there was now less money in motorsport than ever, and she had never been paid anything near the amounts her male team-mates had. In 1976, she accepted a couple of drives in a Chevrolet Camaro in the ETCC, but these were her last big races. She shared Reine Wisell’s car with him and Stuart Graham for the Spa 24 Hours, but did not finish. In a different Camaro, for “Team Zip-Up”, she was 20th, but not classified, in the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone. Her team-mates were Rune Tobiasson and Rudy Host.
The end of her professional career was not the end of her involvement with motorsport. Yvette continued, and continues, to compete, on and off, in club rallies, hillclimbs and races, and historic events. She has also organised track days for female drivers. 
(Images from www.forum-auto.com and www.touringcarrracing.net (Paul Kooyman).


1 comment:

  1. We are building replicas of the famous Mercedes-Benzes 300 SEL 6.3 model AMG who first raced at Spa Francorchanps in 1971. Yvette was there, with a Ford car. Our path, somehow, cross now.
    www.300-sel-amg.com


    ReplyDelete