Three former F1 drivers are celebrating their respective birthdays today: Reine Wisell turns 69; Jochen Mass turns 64, and Eric van de Poele turns 49 (pictured left to right)!
Wisell’s arrive on the F1 stage was similarly times to that of fellow Swede Ronnie Peterson, and while Ronnie would manage to carve out a lengthy and successful F1 career until his tragic death in 1978, Wisell’s was comparatively briefer and less successful.
Coincidentally, it was a death of another Lotus driver, Jochen Rindt (who would later be posthumously awarded the World Championship) in 1970 that propelled Wisell from Formula 2 into Formula 1, where Colin Chapman hired the long-haired driver as team-mate to its other new signing, Emerson Fittipaldi.
Not only did Wisell create history for himself in scoring points on debut, he actually managed a podium finish, picking up third at Watkins Glen, which was a race that Fittipaldi actually won. While overshadowed by the Brazilian’s maiden F1 victory, his efforts were still acknowledged and he was retained for the 1971 season.
Despite a pair of fourth-placed finishes to his credit, Fittipaldi proved the better driver in 1971, and Wisell left at season’s end to join BRM for 1972, and he rejoined Lotus for the final races of that season as well.
However, his star had quickly faded, and he only did a few guest outings in 1973 and 1974 before moving on to GT and touring car racing in 1975.
Jochen Mass’ unusual claim to fame is that he remains the only F1 driver whose sole race win earned half-points, after winning the red-flagged Spanish Grand Prix in 1975 when Rolf Stommelen’s Hill crashed and killed four spectators.
Mass started his motorsport career in sprints and hillclimbs, but shot to prominence due to his exploits in touring cars and Formula 2 in the early 1970s.
He F1 debut came at the 1973 British Grand Prix driving for Surtees, and in 1974 he switched to the Yardley-backed McLaren M23 that had previously been piloted by Mike Hailwood and David Hobbs.
Paired with Emerson Fittipaldi in the Marlboro-backed McLaren in 1975, he was joined by James Hunt in 1976 and despite a pair of podiums each in 1976 and 1977, he couldn’t match Hunt’s speed behind the wheel as the Briton took the championship title.
A switch to ATS in 1978 proved wretched, and culminated in a leg-breaking smash at Silverstone during testing. He joined Arrows in 1979, but achieved a total of seven points in two seasons.
Formula 1 left him behind in 1981, but he returned the following year to pilot the awful RAM March, and was wrongly blamed for the practice collision at Zolder with Jacques Villeneuve that took the French-Canadian’s life, and which deeply affected Mass for years afterwards.
Mass went on to enjoy plenty of success in the world of sports car racing, peaking with a much sought after win at the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Sauber Mercedes.
Belgian van de Poele is very much consigned to the annals of the Formula 1 statistics books, and his name will only ring bells for the most die-hard F1 fans. This is a great shame, for he remains one of the true untapped potentials to have graced the F1 grid, never given the equipment to properly showcase his skills.
A talented man in touring cars (he was the 1987 German champion), van de Poele won the last ever Birmingham Super Prix Formula 3000 race in 1990, he made his F1 debut in 1991 with the brand new Modena Lamborghini outfit, qualifying just once all season.
The race in question was none other than the San Marino Grand Prix, where he drove a sensational race to be running fifth at the end until his fuel pump packed up with just four corners to go.
He joined the Brabham team in 1992 – the squad now a total embarrassment and a shadow of its former self – achieving a best result of 13th at the season-opening South African Grand Prix, and struggling to make the grid thereafter.
Its collapse saw him jump ship to the Fondmetal squad, but that only lasted three races before it too closed down.
Since then, van de Poele has carved out a hugely successful career in sports cars and touring cars, winning the Spa 24 Hours a record five times.
[Original images via The Cahier Archive]