After the triumphs of Trintignant and the tigerish driving of Behra, French stars of the 1960s were harder to come by. One emerged towards the end of the decade though, one inspired by his 1950s hero, and whose career started in much the same way.
Like Jean Behra before him, Jean-Pierre Beltoise was a star on two wheels, winning 11 motorcycle championships between 1961 and 1964. His first forays on four wheels were not in single seaters but rather in sports cars, debuting at Le Mans in 1963, but an accident the following year almost finished his career, and left him with a left arm so severely broken that the movement in it was always restricted thereafter.
Beltoise was not daunted, however; he took to single-seaters, and by 1966 was taking victory in the prestigious Monaco F3 race for the developing French Matra team, and, perhaps more impressively, winning the F2 class at that year’s German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
Beltoise and Matra dabbled in F1 with a modified F2 car in 1967, but it was in 1968 that the first true Matra V12 F1 car emerged onto the scene, with Beltoise at the wheel. As with any car, there were teething troubles, as well as bad luck - a puncture robbing Beltoise of a likely win at the French Grand Prix - but this and a second at Zandvoort underlined the potential of driver and car.
1969 brought three further podium finishes, but Beltoise was overshadowed by his team-mate, the great Jackie Stewart. 1970 found him appearing on the podium twice more, but by 1971 Matra was in decline and even Chris Amon, brought in to lead the team, had little success.
1971 was an unhappy year for Beltoise for more than just this reason. In the Buenos Aires 1000km Beltoise ran out of fuel, and he was pushing his car along the track to the pits under yellow flags when it was struck from behind by Ignazio Giunti’s Ferrari, which burst into flames. Beltoise escaped almost unscathed. Giunti did not.
Beltoise was strongly criticised for the accident, in Argentina and in Europe. The Italian racing authorities clamored for the withdrawal of his racing licence. Their French counterparts dithered, unwilling to support or condemn the stance of the Italians. Worse, the Argentinian authorities wanted Beltoise to stand trial for culpable homicide.
It was Louis Stanley of BRM, a long-standing campaigner for safety in motor racing and never a man to back down in adversity, who came to Beltoise’s rescue, not just defending him staunchly in the racing press but also offering him a lifeline in the form of a BRM drive for 1972.
Beltoise repaid Stanley for his support in the best possible way. BRM was in terminal decline by this stage, and the car would fail to score points in 10 of the 11 races it contested that season. Monaco, however, was different.
The race was run in atrocious conditions, rain soaking the circuit, but at the start Beltoise shot forward from the second row to lead up the hill from Ste Devote. Yes, he had the advantage of a view not marred from spray, but it was so difficult a race that only two drivers completed the full distance. One of those, Jacky Ickx, was an unquestioned master in the rain, and he underlined this by finishing second. The winner, however, by over 30 seconds, was Beltoise.
It was to be almost his last hurrah. He carried on for two more seasons with BRM, but the only other highlight was a remarkable 2nd place in the 1974 South African Grand Prix. Along the way he lost his brother-in-law, François Cevert, and although a come-back in 1976 with the fledgling Ligier team was suggested, in the end it was not to be.
Beltoise was not lost to motor racing, however, continuing for many years in French Touring Cars, and he is still a regular visitor to historic events such as Classic Days. He recorded only the one Grand Prix win, but as the leading French driver of the 1960s he had served as an inspiration to many of his young countrymen; Cevert, of course, and one more in particular whom we shall come to soon.