Carlos Pace - the nearly man

A favourite of Bernie Ecclestone, Pace was on the verge of greatness when tragedy struck. Adam Cooper asks what might have been

A few days after qualifying second for the 1977 South African Grand Prix, Carlos Pace returned to his beloved Brazil. The plan was to fit in a couple of weeks of sun and relaxation with his family before Long Beach, after which the Formula One schedule committed him to the usual busy summer in Europe.

Carlos Pace goes over the crest in his March 711 Ford at the 1972 Austrian Grand Prix

Photo: Motorsport Images

The break from the racing scene also gave him a chance to come to terms with the tragic death of Tom Pryce at Kyalami – tragedies like that always hit him hard, and unlike some of his colleagues, Pace couldn't bury his emotions.

“I remember he was very upset,” recalls Elda Pace, Carlos' wife. “Most drivers were cool, they needed to be cool, but I saw him crying after accidents four or five rimes.”

“He was touched and moved by these things,” says friend Carlo Gancia, “because everybody liked him and he made friends around the pitlane.”

After a pit stop at his apartment in Sao Paulo, Carlos and his family flew out of the city to spend a few days at a farm belonging to close pal and sometime racer Marivaldo Fernandes. Friday March 18 was just another quiet day by the swimming pool until Fernandes revealed that his pilot had another job to do, and thus had to fly back to Sao Paulo. A fresh pilot would take over the twin-engined plane, and fly back to the farm. Fernandes, a pilot himself, would do the round trip to keep an eye on things. Would Carlos also like to come along for the ride?

A larger-than-life character who had recently escaped from a crash in one of his other planes, Fernandes did not have to try very hard to convince Carlos that a quick trip back to the city would be more fun than the pool. Fascinated by flying, and learning himself when he had the time, Pace agreed. Shortly after 2pm he waved goodbye to Elda and his two kids, Rodrigo and Patricia, and headed to the waiting aircraft with Fernandes and the pilot. Elda never saw her husband again.

On the return leg of the journey the plane crashed into trees on a hillside just a few minutes outside Sao Paulo, and Pace, Fernandes and relief pilot Carlos Roberto de Oliveira were killed instantly. It's thought that they'd ignored warnings of a typical localised summer afternoon storm, got into trouble, and come down low to get visual bearings. The 32-year-old Pace, sitting in a rear seat, was an innocent victim.

“He didn't want to fly,” Gancia believes. “He was so nice that he couldn't hurt his friend's feelings by saying I'm not going to fly.”

Carlos Pace sits in his Williams March waiting to leave the pits at 1972 German Grand Prix, Nurburgring

Pace made his F1 debut in 1972 with Frank Williams' under-developed March Photo: Motorsport Images

“It was like, why are you nervous?,” says Elda. “You drive at 300kph, why you don't go in my aeroplane? Fifty minutes and we're there. Come on!”

For a month Elda couldn't bring herself to return to their home in the city, partly because of the obvious emotional turmoil, and partly because of the intense pressure from the local media; Carlos Pace was a huge star. When she did go back, she found an aviation text book on his desk.

“My fights with him were not about racing, they were about aeroplanes. When he didn't have a race he was flying on Saturdays and Sundays!” Elda Pace

“My fights with him were not about racing, they were about aeroplanes. When he didn't have a race he was flying on Saturdays and Sundays!”

Twenty-one years on, Elda still lives in the same fourth floor apartment on Rua Peixoto Gomide, an upmarket residential street in the centre of the city. She shares it with her son Rodrigo, who was just a toddler when his father made that fateful flight (amazingly enough mother, son and daughter all share May 6 as a birthday). He's trying to forge a career in racing, competing in Formula Opel in Brazil. Inevitably his helmet design is derived from the famous yellow arrow once sported by Carlos. If the youngster needs any inspiration, he just has to look at the trophy cabinet in the apartment; pride of place goes to an original Pace Sr helmet, alongside a little copy he had made for the baby Rodrigo. To the bottom right there's a large trophy bearing the legend ‘Io lugar, Grande Premio Brazil.’

That piece of silverware is the family's priceless memento of what was undoubtedly the greatest day in Pace's career. On January 26, 1975 he won the Brazilian GP on his home track of Interlagos, finally taking himself out of the shadow cast by friend and rival Emerson Fittipaldi. There were to be no more victories and just one pole in a career which was so tragically cut short, but despite the dearth of statistics the man made an impression on all who knew him.

“He was beautiful guy,” says Bernie Ecclestone, “a really, really wonderful guy, and really underrated. He was serious as a racing driver, but I don't know whether he was quite serious enough - he wasn't Senna serious. He tried hard and he had a lot of talent, but he was a natural playboy as well. He was a Brazilian, and he loved life...”

Born in Sao Paulo on October 6, 1944, Jose Carlos Pace had a very European background. His father, who ran a textiles business, was Italian, and while his mother was Brazilian, she too had Italian roots. When Carlos was a child the family moved back to the old country for a couple of years, and when they returned to Brazil the chubby kid spoke only Italian, and had picked up the nickname ‘Moco’.

Carlos Pace in his Brabham on his way to his first ad only F1 victory at 1975 Brazilian Grand Prix

The Brazilian Grand Prix in 1975 was the highlight of Pace's career. He out-drove team-mate Reutemann and held off Fittipaldi to score his only win Photo: Motorsport Images

“It's a conjunction of two things,” says Ganda. “It was like one of the seven dwarfs, the quiet one. When he was young he didn't speak, and he had his own world. In Italian dialect ‘moco’ meant that he didn't talk, he was quite aloof, he minded his own business. But ‘moco’ in Portuguese means the stuff you take from your nose! So his friends made fun of him...”

Carlos had older brothers who were happy to help his dad in the family business, so there was less pressure for the younger Pace to follow suit. He dutifully studied accounting, but as a teenager was able to devote most of his time to karting, a passion fostered by childhood friend Wilson Fittipaldi and his kid brother Emerson.

Carlos first raced a kart in 1960, and soon became part of a close-knit Brazilian motor racing 'family' which encompassed the country's current F1 stars. Central to the scene were of course the Fittipaldis, while also in action in the '60s were the father and uncle of Pedro Diniz, and the Giaffone family, who can count Rubens Barrichello as an in-law.

With Wilson's encouragement, Carlos made the move to cars in 1963. Over the next few years Pace raced DKWs, Alpines, BMWs and Alfas, and gained some early single-seater experience when Formula Vee came to Brazil. The fastest car he drove was an ex-works Alfa T33/3 2-litre prototype. Three times a national champion, Carlos had only one way to progress – by going to Europe.

Wilson tasted the water without success in 1966, but the first driver to really make the move overseas was Emerson, in 1969. Pace followed a year later, and soon made his name in the cut-and-thrust of British F3, winning races and eventually taking the Forward Trust title. That year he also married Elda, his girlfriend of 10 years.

“He came back to Brazil and his father was having problems with the business,” says Gancia, “and he wasn't sure he could return to Europe. That's why he had a very late start in 1971. We had some sponsorship from a bank and showed up at Thruxton and talked to Max Mosley, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams. We decided to go for Frank - Carlos liked him. But by the time Crystal Palace came up, Frank still didn't have a car, so we had to con him...”

A friend of Carlos pretended to be an irate representative of the bank, and a ruffled Williams soon found a chassis. Pace duly made quite an impact on his debut, and later he would win at Imola.

Carlos Pace rounds Loews hairpin in his Brabham-Alfa at Monaco 1976

Pace struggled with woeful Alfa-powered Brabham in '76 Photo: Motorsport Images

Frank has always rated Pace as one of his favourite drivers: “He was a very pleasant person, but tough minded. He was physically very strong, with an Alan Jones sort of build. He played a lot of tennis and swam and so on, but I tried to get him to go running in Hyde Park, and he turned up a few times. But a bit like Jonesie, he just wasn't built for it”

In 1972 Carlos moved straight into F1 with Williams, driving a March 711 for what Gancia claims was just £11,200 of sponsorship for the season. Quicker than team-mate Henri Pescarolo, he finished 10th on his debut at Kyalami, and delighted Frank by finishing sixth next time out at Jarama. But there were no celebrations.

“On Friday they called us and said that Carlos' father had committed suicide,” says Gancia. “It was linked to business and a very unfortunate brother that Carlos had. We decided to say nothing to him, and after the race Wilson Fittipaldi Sr, Emerson's father, was the person to convey the news to him. We had already organised a flight for him to go back to Brazil. Carlos was the dearest son of his father, and he loved his father more than anything. They were very close.”

"Carlos did some very good races in mediocre equipment. He was a very smooth driver and very quick in fast corners" Frank WIlliams

Putting the tragedy behind him, Carlos regularly qualified just outside the top 10, and added a fifth place in Belgium, although the 711 was past its best.

“Remember he was driving for a team with no technical knowledge whatsoever,” admits Williams, “and even less money than technical knowledge. We got from one crisis to the next. I wouldn't say his career was well served by us apart from putting him in F1, but he did some very good races in mediocre equipment. He was a very smooth driver and very quick in fast corners.”

Before the end of the year he switched camps to Surtees, making his debut in the Victory Race at Brands in October, where he finished a fine second. The '73 season began with a series of unfortunate retirements and endless pit stops to replace worn out Firestones, but in August he finished fourth at the Nürburgring and third at the Österreichring — setting fastest lap on both occasions. Carlos excelled on the most challenging circuits, and a sportscar contract with Ferrari enabled him to sample Spa, where he stunned Jacky Ickx with his instant speed.

Taking over as Surtees team leader in '74, he began the year with a fourth place at Interlagos before realising that, as at Williams, he wasn't getting anywhere. In the middle of the season he accepted an offer from Bernie Ecclestone and joined namesake Carlos Reutemann at Brabham. Reutemann held the advantage at first, but Pace nearly won in Austria. At Monza he qualified third and set fastest lap, although a pit stop left him down in fifth. His luck improved at the US GP, where he finished second to Reutemann, again with a fastest lap. That may or may not have had something to do with a redesign of his famous helmet.

Carlos Pace (Brabham Ford) 1st position, celebrates winning his home Grand Prix, taking his maiden and only win. Emerson Fittipaldi, 2nd position and Jochen Mass, 3rd position (both McLaren Ford) also on the podium, 1975 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos

Pace celebrates his only GP win at Brazil '75 Photo: Motorsport Images

“Carlos had the arrow pointing down,” says Gancia, “I'm not superstitious, but a lady told me an arrow pointing down does not indicate good vibes, and when I went to the US GP with him we changed it around...”

In 1975 Pace was on great form with Gordon Murray's Brabham BT44B, immediately scoring that memorable debut win on home ground at Interlagos after Jean-Pierre Jarier's Shadow expired. He followed that with pole (and yet another fastest lap) at Kyalami, but while he often qualified well, decent finishes were rarer.

He then struggled through 1976 with the unwieldy and woefully unreliable Brabham-Alfa, making the points on just three occasions. Reutemann jumped shipped to Ferrari even before the season ended, but Pace had kept the faith.

“The thing I really remember is the Alfa engine, which was a disaster,” says Bernie today. “When the car stopped early – we always had an early flight booked – he used to hop over the wall and say, 'That's it, it's the last race, I'm going back to Brazil, I'm finished with F1, I don't want to have anything to do with it.' By the time we got in the hire car he'd start discussing what he thought the problem was, and then when we got in the plane it was, 'We must go to Alfa and check what's going on'. By the time I dropped him at his house he was looking forward to the next race. Typical. Carlos. He was a very positive person.”

The 1977 car was a far better proposition, and after winter testing Pace even hinted that the title was a possibility. He led the opening race in Argentina, but dropped back to second when intense heat in the cockpit left him dehydrated. He led again at his home race in Brazil, before tangling with James Hunt, and then qualified a promising second in South Africa, although in the race he made a bad start and slipped down the field after a tyre stop. The new car was clearly very competitive, and when Pace headed home to Brazil, he was convinced that a win wasn't far away.

The F1 teams were gathered at Brands Hatch for the Race of Champions when first reports of the plane crash spread round the pits during Saturday practice. Team-mate John Watson gave the shattered Brabham team some comfort by qualifying on the front row.

Carlos Pace pictured in a moment of contemplation

Pace was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1975 Photo: Motorsport Images

“It was unbelievable,” says Ecclestone. “When these things happen the information you get is not always exactly right, and then we found out what really happened... it was stupid, so unnecessary. We were quite close, so it was a big blow.”

“The funeral clashed with the race in Long Beach,” recalls Williams, “but there was a well attended memorial service in London. Bernie got me to make an address, which I wasn't prepared for, but it was OK.”

Elda recalls that Ecclestone was an enormous help, sorting out Carlos' finances, taking care of his London flat, and generally making sure that she and the family were looked after. “Bernie was fantastic for me,” she says. “I le helped me so much. I'll never forget this.” They remain friends to this day.

So what could Pace have achieved had he lived? He was never going to be one of the greats, but at the time there was no Prost, Senna, or Schumacher around, and on his day he was certainly as good as Mario Andretti, Jody Scheckter and Alan Jones, all champions in the next few years. Don't forget, Watson was a consistent frontrunner with the Alfa car through the rest of '77, although he didn't actually win a race, and after Brabham returned to DFV power three years later, Nelson Piquet earned a World Championship. But perhaps by then Carlos might even have found his way back to the reborn Williams team.

“He was as good as Carlos Reutemann,” says Frank. “When Pace wanted to be, he was very, very quick. He was a real racer with it.”