Jean Blaton (1927-2020), a remarkable Belgian presence at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

Jean Blaton (1927-2020), a remarkable Belgian presence at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

Deceased on 17 December, Jean "Beurlys" Blaton was a major figure at the 24 Hours of Le Mans throughout the 1960s, earning five podium finishes all with Ferrari.

"Jean Blaton was the quintessential gentleman-driver," said his fellow countryman Jacques Swaters, the first Ferrari importer on the European continent. Swaters served as Blaton's boss several times in the Equipe Nationale Belge and the Ecurie Francorchamps. The 1960s were a golden era for certain entrepreneurs, some of whom chose to let loose at circuits on the weekends, including Blaton.

He came from a highly reputable family in the field of public works, the second of four children all rather keen on beautiful sporting road cars. Blaton struck up a friendship with Swaters, the Ferrari importer in Belgium, and competed in his first race in 1957 with a 166 MM near Charleroi, adopting the pseudonym "Beurlys."

The following year, Blaton took his rookie start in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite deplorable weather and an incident that cost him 50 minutes, he finished sixth at the wheel of a Ferrari 250 TR shared with Alain de Changy. In 1959, he switched to a 250 GT (long body) and earned his first podium finish along with Léon Dernier (known as "Eldé"). Sadly, in 1960 he was forced to retire after leaving the track at the Dunlop curve in the third hour.

After an almost sabbatical year 1961, Blaton claimed the third step on the podium at the 1962 running of the race with a Ferrari GTO, again joining forces with Dernier. He finished in the top 5 systematically every year through 1967: fifth in 1964 (with Lucien Bianchi), third in 1965 and 1967 (with Willy Mairesse), with the exception of a retirement in 1966. His best result was second place in 1963. Having made the trip to Le Mans from Belgium by road with their racing car, Blaton, his teammate Gérald Langlois van Ophem, and their teammates Léon Dernier and Pierre Dumay (fourth) celebrated the fantastic result together with champagne in Paris, showing off their Ferrari GTOs, "shiny" after 24 hours of competition and parked in the red light district of Pigalle!

In 1967, the year of his last podium, Blaton was a priviledged witness to the great Ford-Ferrari duel. He was also the only gentleman-driver authorised to participate with the new Ferrari P4 prototype, shared with his extremely fast fellow countryman, Mairesse. Thereafter, he took the start in the 24 Hours five more times, finishing sixth in 1975 and returning with Ferrari in 1978 and 1979. That last year, he made it to the chequered flag in 12th place along with Nick Faure, Bernard de Dryver and Steve O’Rourke. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Blaton became a prominent figure at vintage races until his 70s.

In 15 participations, he took the start in the 24 Hours of Le Mans 11 times at the wheel of a Ferrari. He also welcomed a future six-time winner, Jacky Ickx, into his family when Ickx married first wife Catherine (the daugther of Blaton's older brother Ado). An entrepreneur and top-notch gentleman-driver, he was also an emeritus guitarist, rubbing elbows with jazz legends like his compatriot harmonica player Toots Thielemans.

There is no doubt Jean Blaton made his mark on the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as did his fellow countrymen André Pilette, Olivier Gendebien, Lucien Bianchi, Willy Mairesse, Gérald Langlois van Ophem and Gustave Gosselin.

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest extends its warmest condolences to Jean Blaton's family and loved ones.


PHOTO (Copyright - ACO/ARCHIVES): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), 24 HOURS OF LE MANS, SATURDAY & SUNDAY JUNE 1967. Jean Blaton at the wheel of the Ferrari 330 P4 entrusted by Ferrari to importer Jacques Swaters under the coulours of the Equipe Nationale Belge.