1947-1958 The battle of the pioneers

The First Edition

Chemin de l’étang motocross Citadelle Namur
Chemin de l’étang © Fonds Henri Dave

The first edition of the ‘motocross de la Citadelle’ took place on 13 April 1947. It followed the organisation of a competition launched by the Auto-Moto-Club of Namur, the previous year, on 7 April 1946 in Jambes under the name of “motocross du Casino”. This race was so successful that it was necessary to consider moving it to a larger site. The idea of drawing a circuit on the site of the citadel came from Gino Salvi, a carpenter from Namur, member of the AMC.

The First Belgian Winners

Marcel Meunier is the first winner. He completed the 12 laps of a course that already started from the esplanade of the citadel in just over 45 minutes. He did it again the following year, on 11 April 1948, before a crowd of 40,000 spectators attracted by a very rich programme. Races of all kinds followed each other for more than 7 hours.

porte de secours Motocross Citadelle
Porte de secours

In 1949, two motocross events were held at the citadel. The so-called “spring race” took place on 3 April, but the main event, the “Belgian Grand Prix”, was scheduled for 7 August, the first Sunday of the month. This race, which now counts for the European championship, also awards the titles (junior and senior) of Belgian champions. It sees riders from different nations compete against each other, among which the English, the Swedes, the French, the Dutch and … the Australians. Two qualifying rounds select the best riders who compete in a ten-lap final.

Affiche GP Motocross 1949
Poster GP – 1949
Marcel Meunier Motocross Citadelle
Marcel Meunier © E. Luyten

Victory went once again to Marcel Meunier on a Triumph. His number “34” and especially his pullover with a frieze of gambolling deer became famous. Five Belgians occupied the first five places.

As of 1950, the formula of the “Grand-Prix de motocross de la Citadelle de Namur” was well established. This event was the pride of the Belgian motorcycling world which decided to organise three “Motocross des Nations”.

Plan du tracé  motocross citadelle en 1952
The track map – 1952

The first Belgian edition of this international competition took place in Spa in 1948. The motocross circuit of the citadel was then openly compared to the Francorchamps circuit, reserved for “pure speed” races.

Victor Leloup replaced, then, Marcel Meunier in the hierarchy of European motocross. He won the Grand Prix of 1950 and 1952 on a bike produced by the Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal. He especially won the 1951 “Motocross des Nations” at the head of a Belgian delegation that took the first four places against the English who were considered invincible. His supremacy is logically reflected in the first European championship title created in 1952.

Victor Leloup
Victor Leloup © E. Luyten
Motocross des Nations 1951 - 82 Guilly, 96 Leloup et 84 Nic Jansen
Motocross des Nations – 1951 – 82 Guilly, 96 Leloup et 84 Nic Jansen © Rohain- Bruxelles

The Grand Prix which took place on 2 August 1953 experimented with a new formula. The race no longer included a qualifying round. It brought together 28 international riders who competed over 18 laps of the circuit for 80 minutes. During this memorable event, Victor Leloup crashed twice and watched helplessly as a newcomer, René Baeten, won on a Saroléa motorbike. Baeten repeated his feat the following year on a rain-soaked circuit, overtaking most of his competitors. Because of the weather conditions, the race was reduced to 14 laps.

Leloup et Baeten
Leloup et Baeten © E. Luyten

The Belgian Domination

Auguste Mingels sur sa moto
Auguste Mingels © R. Dessart

In 1953 and 1954, Auguste Mingels confirmed the Belgian domination of motocross by winning the European championship title. However, he never won the Grand-Prix de la Citadelle. With his white overalls and a larger body than his opponents, he was easily recognisable. The public affectionately called him “the fat man” and loved his classy driving.

The Rise of the British and the Swedish

The second half of the 50s saw the rise of the British and, above all, the Swedes. The Belgian teams were no match for the “Motocross des Nations” organised in Namur in 1956 and 1959. The British Jeff Smith and Don Rickman won these two editions respectively. The regional rider, Hubert Scaillet, a native of Spontin, had bad luck at these competitions.

The 1955 Grand Prix introduced a novelty that would gradually become established. To impress the numerous spectators in the stands on the citadel esplanade, a ramp was built at the exit of the woods before the competitors entered the “Stade des jeux” (games stadium). It allowed the pilots to perform impressive jumps in front of the amazed spectators. In this game, the Englishman John Draper was the fastest, completing the 18 laps in 1h28′. His compatriot, Leslie Archer, won the following year.

John Draper Motocross
John Draper © E. Luyten

Motocross World Championship

In 1957, the World Motocross Championship was officially launched. René Baeten coveted the title with Bill Nilsson from Sweden. They competed on the citadel circuit on 4 August 1957. They were first dominated by the regional rider, Hubert Scaillet, who broke the rear suspension of his FN mid-race. He was then overtaken by another Swede, Sten Lundin, René Baeten could only manage a second place. Bill Nilsson, in third place, took the first world motocross crown.

Sten Lundin
Sten Lundin © E. Luyten

The Prince’s visit

Visite du prince Albert Citadelle Namur
Visite du prince Albert with Jules Guillaume (FMB)

On 3 August 1958, Prince Albert (future King Albert II) visited the citadel circuit. He came to encourage René Baeten who was once again competing for the world crown with the Swede Nilsson. The Belgian rider finally won the race, which still comprised 18 laps, in 1h15′. After a tough neck and neck battle with his Swedish opponent, he wins on his FN bike. The Prince offered him the winner’s bouquet in front of his father, who had lost a foot, and surrounded by a hysterical crowd. The emotion is at its peak! The young Roger De Coster was barely fourteen years old. He had come from Brussels by bike to see the victory. A fortnight later, Baeten won again in Ettelbrück and became the first Belgian motocross world champion.